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THE GREAT MUSHROOM MYSTERY – BIOLOGISTS HAVE ONLY RECENTLY DISCOVERED WHAT THE TALMUD ANTICIPATED WELL OVER A MILLENNIUM AGO.

By: Jon Greenberg, Ph.d.

Remarkably, the Talmud anticipated these developments well over a millennium ago.

The Reishi Mushroom

Hailed in ancient Eastern medicine as the “mushroom of immortality” and the “medicine of kings,” the reishi mushroom offers some pretty astounding health benefits. This prized fungus may be able to boost your immune system, fight cancer, ward off heart disease, calm your nerves, and relieve both allergies and inflammation.

This season, when shady and wooded areas are wet and warm, is an ideal time to search for mushrooms. Some interesting and important lessons can be learned by observing how mushrooms grow and how they are understood in halachah (Jewish law) and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).

Are Mushrooms Plants?

Halachah requires Jews to acknowledge Gd by reciting the appropriate blessing before using, or obtaining material benefit from, any object. The Talmud (Berachot 40b) considers several possible wordings for blessings to be recited before consuming plant products such as fruits and vegetables. The conclusion reached is that two alternative forms should be used: Before consuming tree fruits (including nuts) one should acknowledge Gd “Who creates the fruit of the tree” (“boreh peri ha’etz”), whereas before eating vegetables, one recites the text, “Who creates the fruit of the earth” (“boreh peri ha’adamah”).

What kind of “fruit” is a mushroom?

Until the early 20th century, Western civilization viewed the world as comprised of three types of objects – animals, vegetables, and minerals (non-living things). And thus the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Von Linne classified all living creatures into two “kingdoms” – animal and plant. Initially, fungi were included in the plant kingdom. However, as biologists learned more about mushrooms and other fungi, increasing amounts of evidence surfaced showing that fungi are quite different from plants, and should be classified as a separate “kingdom.” Around 1950, a five-kingdom system was developed, with separate kingdoms for animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and protists (organisms such as amoebas and algae that are more complex than bacteria but have no organs). Some biologists have since proposed dividing living things into even more kingdoms.

Remarkably, the Talmud anticipated these developments well over a millennium ago. The aforementioned Talmudic discussion of blessings over fruits and vegetables concludes that mushrooms are not part of either category. Instead, the blessing said over mushrooms concludes, “according to Whose word all things are created” (“shehakol nih’yeh bidvaro”). This is the text of the berachah recited over a food that is not recognizable as derived from part of a plant, such as water, meat, or candy. The Talmud accepts this conclusion, while the practical details are described in later works, such as in the famous 16th-century halachic code Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 204:1).

What is the reasoning behind this decision? Why did the Talmudic sages view mushrooms as distinct from other products that grow from the ground?

The Talmud notes that fungi do not obtain nutrients from the soil as plants do, and may also grow without soil (e.g., on live or dead trees), and therefore are not “fruits of the earth.” Several later authorities, including the Mishnah Berurah, expand on this explanation. Published in six volumes, from 1894 to 1907, some 50 years before the five-kingdom classification system was established, the Mishnah Berurah distinguishes between the ability of fungi to extract nutrients from decomposing materials (dead trees and soil organic matter) and the functions of plant roots, which anchor plants in place and absorb only minerals from soil. This insight of the Mishnah Berurah is, in fact, one of the important differences between plants and fungi that led biologists to conclude that these organisms belong in separate kingdoms.

Mushrooms and “Exemptions”

Rabbi Herschel Grossman of Yeshivat Ohr Yosef was kind enough to point out to me that the kabbalah provides a symbolic, moral interpretation of the blessing over mushrooms.  The Hebrew word for mushroom or fungus is pitriyah, which closely resembles the Hebrew word for “exempt” – “patur.” The kabbalah explains that just as a fungus (pitriyah) has no roots that must be anchored in soil, an irresponsible person tries to avoid attachment and commitment, and claims to be exempt (patur) from the demands of life in a society. The impulse to behave in this way is universal – we have all, at least occasionally, wanted to respond to a request or demand with the excuse, “It’s not my fault!” or, “That’s not in my job description.”

From a biological point of view, the connection between the terms pitriyah and patur runs quite deep. Plants form the basis of their ecological communities. The solar energy that plants collect through photosynthesis is the source of all the energy used by the animals and other organisms in the area, which depend on them for their survival. Hence the expression, “All flesh is grass.” Fungi, by contrast, are decomposers – organisms that obtain their energy by breaking down dead organisms or animal waste, or by living as parasites on living plants or animals. This is perhaps the closest natural analogy to the “patur” attitude.

A similar idea was expressed by the nature poet Wendell Berry in his book of essays A Continuous Harmony. Berry proposed that one can judge the stability of a rural economy by comparing the land areas it devotes to annual crops (plants that live for no more than one year, such as wheat, corn, rice, and beans) and perennial crops (long-living plants such as fruit trees). He suggested that planting trees is an expression of a long-term commitment to the future, while planting annuals is an attempt to realize a short-term gain, rather than an investment in the future of the land and community. This idea can also be seen in the story of Honi Hame’agel (“Honi the Circle-Maker”), found in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a). Honi asked an elderly man why he was planting a tree that would not yield fruit until long after his own death, and the man replied that he was planting for his children, just as his own father had planted for him.

Mushrooms, however, contribute even less than annual plants. They do not perform photosynthesis that would bring solar energy into the community, and they are raised in the dark, on the waste produced by other farm operations. Berry might well regard the mushroom farmer as the least valuable member of a farming community. However, one can certainly take issue with this view – annual grain and legume crops have provided the staples that nourished every great civilization, and decomposers also perform important ecological functions, such as releasing nutrients from dead material, thereby making them available to plants, and preventing huge accumulations of dead material. Edible decomposers, such as mushrooms, also produce a useful crop from otherwise useless dead material.

If the kabbalah regards fungi as a symbol of selfish irresponsibility, mushroom lovers will be pleased to learn about a more positive contribution that a mushroom may soon make to human welfare. A number of fungi have been found to produce substances with antibiotic or anti-cancer activity. In December of 2007, Dr. Ben-Zion Zaidman of the University of Haifa and his collaborators reported the results of their research on anti-prostate cancer activity in mushroom extracts. The group screened over 100 fungi for the ability to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells and to interfere with the stimulation of the cancer cells by male hormones. The most effective agent was an alcoholic extract of the reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), a fungus found naturally on rotting oak or plum logs in mountain forests. The process by which the extract works is not yet known. However, methods of growing this wild species that were developed by Japanese mycologists (fungus scientists) in the 1970s may eventually enable scientists to produce a treatment for prostate cancer, a disease that affects over 500,000 men each year.

Jon Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Talmudic botanist and a frequent lecturer and scholar-in-residence on this topic. Some of his writings on plants, nature, and Torah can be seen at his website, Torahflora.org. Dr. Greenberg can be contacted at jon@torahflora.org.

This piece was adapted from an article that appeared in ‘The Jewish World of Wonders.’