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Torah Commentary
Eikev (July 27, 2013)
 

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION includes the text that is the biblical source for Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals. The commandment to bless after eating appears in Deuteronomy 8:10, where God instructs Moses to tell the people, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” This phrase, later included as part of the second paragraph of Birkat HaMazon, here in context appears to be no more than a general injunction to appreciate God's generosity in times of prosperity. Nevertheless, the Talmud (Ber. 48b) cites this passage not only as the scriptural basis for the institution of Birkat HaMazon but also for its wording and for the sequence of its paragraphs.

In its initial form, more than two millennia ago, Birkat HaMazon probably consisted of a single sentence: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who nourishes the whole world in goodness, mercy and compassion.” Over the course of time, the prayer grew in length, incorporating additional blessings, excerpts from psalms and prophetic writings, and general prayers of petition. In fact, the prayer became so lengthy that even by the time of the Talmud, and perhaps earlier, abbreviated forms of the blessing were in use. As Birkat HaMazon is said only at the conclusion of meals that contain bread — one is obligated to say this prayer even if one has eaten as little as a kazayit, an amount equal in size to an olive — some individuals will avoid eating bread at a meal so as to exempt themselves from saying this long blessing.

Yet, the blessing said before the meal, HaMotzi, is one of our shortest prayers: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” To me, this seems counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t the longer blessing come first? One would think that at the beginning of a meal, one would be inspired to offer lengthy words of gratitude to God (not to mention the chef), especially if one’s source of food was uncertain! Yet, it is after the meal, when one’s hunger has been satisfied, that we are expected to praise God.

The Torah teaches us that it is precisely because we are less likely to be grateful during moments of satisfaction and fulfillment that we are instructed to say these words after the meal rather than before. While we typically may turn to prayer to petition for future favor, this blessing is an expression of appreciation. The length of the prayer demands that we pause to reflect on our good fortune and our responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than immediately turning our attention to the next thing on our “to-do” lists once our hunger has been satisfied. By taking the time to say this lengthy prayer, we express our awareness of, and thankfulness for, God’s infinite power and generosity.


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