Graced With Food
By blessing after we eat, we elevate the act of eating by connecting with God, the source of our sustenance, and with our cultural history.
The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
In this week's parashah, Moses continues his review of the exodus experience, reminding the Israelites of how God has cared for them in the wilderness. He reiterates the covenant and continues to review the general rewards that will benefit the Israelites if they are faithful to God and follow God's commandments. It is simple: If the Israelites follow the Torah, God will bless them in the land, and drive out their enemies. If they do not obey God, then....
Moses warns them not to follow other gods or engage in idolatrous worship practices. Moses also reminds the Israelites of some of their earlier rebellious incidents, including the events around the building of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the first set of tablets. The parashah concludes with the passage that is used liturgically as the second paragraph of the Shema. These words reiterate the connection between Israel's piety and God's blessing.
"You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Eternal your God for the rich land that God has given you" (Deuteronomy 8:10).
In the Torah, this verse comes after a passage in which Moses reminds Israel how God cared for them while they wandered in the wilderness. God gave Israel "manna to eat... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone" (normally I would use the more gender sensitive and more literally accurate "human" for the Hebrew adam, but the quote is so much more familiar with "man"). It goes on to note that God did not let the Israelites' clothes wear out nor let their feet swell over the 40 years of their wandering.
Moses then goes on to tell Israel what to expect in the Land of Israel, which they are about to enter. It is a "good land, with streams and springs and fountains." It is a land of "wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey." Moses continues this discourse by telling Israel that the land they are about to enter is, "a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing...."
Keep in mind that, despite the miraculous manna that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, their biggest complaints were about hunger and the lack of variety in their food. This promise, then, must have been an incredibly attractive temptation for the people. However, Moses reminds them, they must never forget the source of their sustenance. Therefore, they must always remember, after they have eaten their fill, they must offer thanks to God.
This verse is the basis for the recitation of the grace after eating, called Birkat HaMazon (literally "Blessing of the Food"). The Talmud emphasizes this point by noting that, "It is forbidden to enjoy the fruits of this world without pronouncing a blessing, and whosoever derives such enjoyment without uttering a blessing has committed a trespass" (Berachot 35a). This passage is deemed to be a clear and unequivocal mitzvah, so much so that Rashi and most other Biblical commentators do not even bother to comment on it.
However, that does not mean that this was not a matter of concern to our rabbinic sages. On the contrary, a great amount of discussion is devoted to exactly what constitutes eating and being satisfied and precisely how we are to bless afterwards.
Bread is considered to be the prototypical food. Therefore, the obligation to recite Birkat HaMazon takes affect whenever one eats a k'zayit (an olive-size portion) of bread. If bread is not eaten, the obligation to bless still exists, but alternative blessings are recited.
Birkat HaMazon consists of four different blessings. The first blessing, called Birkat HaZan, praises God for providing food for all creatures. The second blessing, called Birkat HaAretz, expresses gratitude for the "good land" that God has given Israel, for the redemption from Egypt, for the covenant of circumcision, and for the revelation of Torah. The third benediction, called Boneh Yerushalayim, asks God to have mercy on Israel and restore the Temple and the sovereignty of the House of David.
The fourth benediction, called Ha-tov Ve-ha-metiv, expresses thanks to God and includes petitions to God to fulfill specific desires, such as blessing for the house in which one ate and sending Elijah the Prophet (the herald of the messianic time). This fourth blessing also provides us with the opportunity to petition for personal needs and reflect contemporary concerns in our prayers.
The first three blessings are considered to be some of the oldest extant Jewish prayers. The Talmud (Berachot 48b) attributes the first to Moses, after receiving the gift of manna. The second blessing is attributed to Joshua, after the Israelites entered the land of Israel. The third blessing was a combined effort of David and Solomon. David added the words, "For Israel Your people and Jerusalem Your city" after establishing the city of Jerusalem, and Solomon added the words, "For the great and holy House" after the completion of the Temple. The fourth benediction was added later, after the Bar Kochba rebellion (2nd century C.E.), with reference to those who were slain at Betar.
We see then that saying Birkat HaMazon helps to expand our consciousness in two ways: it makes us aware of the source of our sustenance and the chain of transmission that brings our food to our mouths, and it connects us with our history and the spiritual concerns of our ancestors.
The Yiddish term for Birkat HaMazon is to bensch, which means simply, "blessing." In a sense, this reflects the attitude that blessing after meals is "the blessing" par excellence. Just as food is the sustenance of life, this recognition of God providing for all our needs becomes the substance of our spiritual lives.
For many of us, eating can be such a routine, almost unconscious, act. For all of God's creatures eating is one thing we do each and every day. It is an essential, automatic, act. And yet by remembering to give thanks and blessing to God each and every time we consume more then a crumb of food, we elevate the most routine, ordinary act to a chance to connect with God. That, I believe, is really what this commandment is all about: connecting with God.
It is interesting to me that this text does not say "When you eat and are satisfied, bless God..." but "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless God...". It is not conditional. Unless, God forbid, we are in a situation where we have absolutely nothing to eat and are threatened with starvation, eating is a regular part of our lives. For us as Jews, food is central to our consciousness (for better or worse). But rather then let it become mundane, we elevate eating to an act of worship. By bringing blessing to our food, we bring God into our daily lives. And that, ultimately, is the supreme spiritual act.
Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless.... This accounts for the grace after meals. How can we prove that there should be a blessing before food? You have an argument a fortiori: if when one is full, one is to say grace, how much more so should one do so when one is hungry! (Talmud Berachot 48b).
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