Eat, Be Full, Bless
Rabbi Barry Kenter on Monday, August 15, 2011 at 12:00:00 am
In my public school kindergarten class, before we had snack we learned to recite “For the food we are about to receive we are most truly grateful.” Most of us know that before eating bread, symbolic of all the food we are about to eat, we thank God for "bringing forth bread from the earth. This blessing, known as Hamotzi (Who brings forth [bread from the earth]), was already widespread in rabbinic times, some 1800 years ago.
This week’s Torah reading tells us “You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you" [Deuteronomy 8:10]. While it is easy to offer thanks as we sit down to a table hungry, it is more challenging to give thanks when we are full. The Birkat ha-Mazon, Grace after Meals, consists of a block of four benedictions. The first thanks God for the blessing of food, the second benediction thanks God for "the good land" given to Israel as an inheritance. The third benediction thanks God for the merciful restoration of Jerusalem. Even though at the time of the rabbis Jerusalem was in ruins, the blessing is in the present tense: "who rebuilds Jerusalem." The redemption of Israel will materialize at any moment, perhaps at the very moment when the benediction is being recited.
The three initial benedictions of Birkat ha-Mazon (the Blessing for the Food, often translated Grace after Meals) are among the most ancient prayers in the Jewish liturgy. The rabbis emphasize their antiquity by ascribing them to Moses, Joshua and King Solomon, respectively. The Talmud teaches:
Moses instituted for Israel the [first] benediction [of the grace] — "Who feeds" — at the time when the manna descended for them. Joshua instituted for them the [second] benediction of the land when they entered the land. David and Solomon instituted the [third] benediction which closes "Who builds Jerusalem" [Berakhot 48b].
A fourth benediction, called "Ha-tov veha-meitiv" (Who is good and does good) is a later addition, attributed by the rabbis to the period immediately after the Bar Kokhba rebellion in the second century. This blessing thanked God for not permitting Israel to perish.
For Shabbat a special prayer was added, and for the festivals and New Moon prayers were borrowed from the liturgy. At circumcisions and wedding feasts, poetic interpolations are customary. There is also a special form or recitation in the house of mourning. When three or more adults participate in a meal, Birkat ha-Mazon becomes a formal group service and the leader opens with a call to join in the Grace after Meals, a kind of call to worship to which the participants respond. The custom and formula are ancient quite old.
At the end of the geonic period (mid-sixth to mid-eleventh century), this service had not only been formulated but also fully accepted. Only minor accretions were added in the subsequent centuries. Additional sections were added in the middle ages and after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Birkat ha-Mazon continues as a way to express gratitude to God for the sustenance, for the world and its bounty.
Please click here to hear and practice Birkat Hamazon. You can find the text of the Grace after Meals in the B’Kol Ehad ( beginning on page 42), in the Siddur Sim Shalom (beginning on page 755) or download from the pdf from Jewish Virtual Library here.