Food Blessings

I have to eat in holiness and purity, because I am doing God's will by eating.

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Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books). 

The rabbis created the basic liturgical formula of the berakhah, the "blessing," from the Great Assembly [the sages of post-biblical antiquity, before the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud]. Its standard wording is: Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam…, "Praised are You, Eternal our God, source of the universe…," followed by a specific attribute, "who created the fruit of trees" or "who brought forth bread from the earth."

kosher food mealThere are many specific berakhot, but they all begin with this formula. A berakhah is to be said before partaking of food. There are berakhot for fruit, vegetables, bread, cake, wine, and a catch-all formulation for everything else. Saying a berakhah is meant to bring us to awareness. For the rabbis, the first level is an awareness of God.

"Our rabbis have taught: It is forbidden for a person to enjoy anything of this world without a berakhah…. Rabbi Levi contrasted two texts. It is written, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1), and it is also written, 'The heavens are the heavens of God, but the earth God has given to human beings!" (Psalm 115:16). There is no contradiction: In the one case it is before a blessing has been said, in the other case after" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 35a).

The rabbis begin with a notion that God as creator has made this world and all that it contains. Whoever eats without saying a blessing is like someone who robs from the Holy One. This notion conveys an important statement about God and humans. Despite all our strivings, our sustenance is only partly the result of our own endeavor. Ultimately everything comes from God. We are little more than tenant farmers on this planet. Our spiritual awareness begins when we sense that we have received this gift from the Creator or all life.

Enjoyment & Sustenance as Divine Gifts

The berakhah before eating brings us another awareness, too. The act of eating is meant to be one of pleasure and enjoyment. We should savor our food rather than just devour it.

The Baal Shem Tov (the 18th-century founder of Hasidism) taught: "When you eat and take pleasure in the taste and sweetness of the food, bear in mind that it is God who has placed into the food its taste and sweetness. You will, then, truly serve God by your eating." On this level, we should make ourselves aware of the pleasurable nature of eating.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.