Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
20 Av 5776
The Bible's Bir'kat Hamazon
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
If you have spent any significant time in a Southern Restaurant, whether a place as upscale as Ruth's Chris Steakhouse or a place as homey as Cracker Barrel, you've undoubtedly witnessed some public prayer. A group of family or friends sits down to eat, jovially socializing over sweet tea and lemonade. However, though the party may be raucous, as soon as the server delivers their food, the patrons bow their heads and begin to pray. Following their biblical command to bless before they break bread, it can feel a little weird for us as bystanders... it may even feel like proselytizing to put prayer on display in a restaurant.
However, prayer around a meal should not feel foreign to us as Jews, especially when we glance atParashat Eikev. In the final book of Deuteronomy, Moses continues to enumerate various laws and injunctions, instructions and commands. One particular verse should sound familiar if you've ever been to summer camp (or the ISJL Education Conference, for that matter). V'alchal'tah v'sava'tah, uveirach'tah et adonai elohechah, al ha-aretz hatovah asher natan lach. This line, "And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Adonai for the good land which has been given to you," comes directly from the Torah! (Deuteronomy 8:10)
The Sages of the Talmud talk at great lengths in reference to this piece of text, concerned with when, why, and how we should make blessings over our food-not only after we've eaten and been satisfied, but beforehand as well. They make the argument that if we bless when we're satisfied, how much more so should we also bless when hungry, when we're less liable to think about acknowledging God because our appetite consumes us. It's important to note that we bless over the food, not the food itself, thanking the source of our nourishment. But, is it necessary to do so in a public space, out loud, perhaps drawing attention to ourselves?
The answer is complicated and, per most Jewish inquiries, not universal. While our tradition prefers that we speak the words of bir'kat hamazon out loud, the purpose is to make sure we, as pray-ers, do not mess up our articulation of the blessing. Therefore, it's acceptable to pray silently, as long as our lips enunciate and we do not just think it or read it. Like many Jewish prayers, saying it in the "original" Hebrew gets you bonus points, but the requirement for the prayer to be effective is that the blessor uses the language best understood by the person doing the praying. Unlike many other prayers, for instance, Bar'chu or Amidah, the prayer is not affected by how many people are present. Yes, we sing it at camp together for communal and educative purposes, but the command is fulfilled when we individually bless after enjoying our scattered, smothered, covered, and capped hashbrowns.
The reasoning behind the need to discuss all this blessing of food, from a biblical and rabbinic perspective, comes from the belief that everything comes from the Creator, that we should acknowledge God before we partake in any piece of creation. To paraphrase the Talmud, a person is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction; whoever does savor such fruits of the earth without a proper blessing is considered to have committed sacrilege or robbery. But, we may not relate the same way to a Creator God whom we're instructed to fear. The command to bless both before and after a meal allows us to take a pause in our life and reflect on our meal. No matter how busy we are, we still have to eat. And, eating provides us with an opportunity to see our food not just as simple fuel for the body, but something we can enjoy and appreciate. It takes work to get most of the things we consume onto our plate, and every time we eat can be an opportunity to not only acknowledge the Divine Presence, but also the work of the farmer, trucker, and server who worked tirelessly to make sure we can enjoy the tasty morsels before us.
This week, instead of being perturbed or uncomfortable about our neighbor's expression of belief at the restaurant table, let us embrace our own tradition. Bir'kat hamazon is a beautiful and fun biblically based blessing which allows us to truly focus on what we eat. Let's learn a lesson from Deuteronomy and see the opportunity for us to double our enjoyment of the food-before, during, and after-by doing a little bit of our own blessing. Shabbat Shalom, and enjoy your breakfast!
 The Christian custom of saying grace probably comes from the Christian Testament where in Matthew 26:26 it says, "And, as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples..."
 In the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 35a, the Rabbis use Leviticus 19:24 as justification for blessing both before and after eating, "And in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto Adonai."
 In other religions the food itself is sometimes blessed, even transformed into a holy object.
 Mishnah B'rurah 185:1
 Judah Halevi in The Kuzari.
Taste of Torah: The Book!
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May you have a Sabbath of peace!
Rabbi Matt Dreffin
Associate Director of Education Department
Please share this message with family and friends, especially those who do not have access to email, and when your congregation gathers for services I invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. I'd particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, moments of joy, [i.e. births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations] or illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.
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