In this week’s portion we come to the only ברכה – blessing mandated by the Torah according to all opinions. This blessing is the ברכת המזון – Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after meals. It is derived from the verse: (Deuteronomy 8:10)
ספר דברים פרק ח
י) וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ
10) And you shall eat, and you shall be satiated, and you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land which He has given you.
Although the Torah requires a blessing only after eating to satiety, as it says “and you shall be satiated”, if a person eats even one ounce of bread, he is obligated by the Sages to recite Birkat Hamazon.
To fulfill the obligation of the Torah, there is no specific text for the blessing. As long as one has expressed thanks to the Almighty for his bread, he has accomplished the goal, and essentially, he can do it in his own words. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot (40b) tells of Binyamin the shepherd who, in order to get to work quicker, said a very short version of the Birkat Hamazon, and he still satisfied his obligation. This is what he said.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף מ/ב
בנימין רעיא כרך ריפתא ואמר בריך רחמנא מריה דהאי פיתא
“Blessed is Hashem the master of my bread.”
It’s sounds a little like what we used to say in Yeshiva for a joke. “Rubbadubdub, thanks for the grub, yeah God!” Indeed, Binyamin the shepherd’s blessing after meals is the first Birkat Hamazon that we teach our children once they have learned to speak. It is short and sweet, and an invaluable lesson to the child that we need to thank Hashem for the meal He has given us.
So where did the wording of the Birkat Hamazon that we say today come from? The Talmud in Tractate Brachot (48b) informs us that it was a joint effort of some of the greatest Jews in our history.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף מח/ב
אמר רב נחמן משה תקן לישראל ברכת הזן בשעה שירד להם מן יהושע תקן להם ברכת הארץ כיון שנכנסו לארץ דוד ושלמה תקנו בונה ירושלים דוד תקן על ישראל עמך ועל ירושלים עירך ושלמה תקן על הבית הגדול והקדוש
Rav Nachman said. Moshe composed the first blessing הזן , – Hashem gives food to all living creatures – the first time manna fell from heaven. Yehoshua composed the second blessing about the Land of Israel after he brought the Jewish people into the land. King David and King Solomon composed the third blessing over Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. King David composed the part about Jerusalem, and King Solomon about the Holy Temple.
These three topics underlined above necessary in Birkat Hamazon are all derived from the original verse quoted above. They comprised the essence of the commandment of Birkat Hamazon from the time it was given. However, there had been no formal text until each blessing was composed by its respective author. (The first blessing “הזן” is derived from וברכת the second blessing “על הארץ” is derived from the words על הארץ and the third blessing on Jerusalem and the Holy Temple is derived from the wordהטובה .)
The first blessing deals with how Hashem provides sustenance for every single living creature on the face of the earth. This is expressed in the very first words of the blessing,
הַזָּן אֶת הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ- the One who provides food for the entire world. Moshe composed this blessing after the first time the manna fell from heaven. That manna sustained the Jewish people during the forty years they travelled through the desert. When we say this blessing now, we should think about how Hashem gives us our sustenance. For, although we don’t see it as an open miracle the way the Jewish people in the desert did, the way that we make a living to afford our food is a hidden miracle. Hashem is working for us behind the scenes and we need to acknowledge Him as the source of our food.
Let’s think about what this means for a minute. Scientists tell us there up to 30 million species of creatures in the world. This includes humans, animals, birds, fish, and insects. An educated guess as to how many individual creatures there are on our planet is 20,000,121,091,000,000,000. This is read as 20 quintillion, or 20 billion billion. That’s quite a number! And Hashem provides food for every single one of them. What a feat! And, Hashem does this in such brilliant and out-of-the-box ways. How each different creature get its food is an amazing study. Think for a second about the common spider, and the inherent wisdom it has to craft its web perfectly so as to catch its prey and keep it from escaping. Then there’s the bat which uses echolocation, and the velvet worm that uses glue to immobilize its prey. The list goes on and on, but each specie is endowed with the necessary skill and physical attributes it needs to capture its food in order to stay alive. Another example is the eagle which flies so high but has an “eagle eye” to see its prey up to a mile away. The vulture can smell a rotting piece of meat from 50 miles away. The sea-gull can see the fish below the surface of the water, dive in and get a fish every time, adjusting for the refraction of the light through the water.
And, there is enough to go around! The balance is perfect, all the way up and down the food chain for the 20 quintillion creatures on the planet!!!! This is the most impressive display of Hashem’s goodness to every creature on the planet.
Let’s look at the next few words. בְּחֵן בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים – With kindness, goodness and mercy. Not only does Hashem provide food for every creature, He also makes it desirable and enjoyable to the creature who eats it. Whatever type of food they eat, they seek out that food and eat it every day of their lives. Some eat plants, fruits or vegetables. Some eat seeds and/or nuts, and some eat insects, or the flesh of other creatures. Whatever they eat, they eat with relish and enjoyment. The panda bear, for example, eats only bamboo its whole life. But, it loves bamboo, so it will eat it for breakfast, lunch and supper, every day of its life! What a kindness!
While most creatures on the planet eat only one type of food, when it comes to the human being, the picture is to the opposite extreme. There are so many different types of foods for us to eat and enjoy. Of the categories of foods that we eat (vegetables, fruit, meats and poultry, fish, eggs, grains and dairy products) there are literally thousands of flavors that we can enjoy as we fuel our bodies with the sustenance it needs to function. And boy do we enjoy! There are over 7500 different types of fruit alone, not to mention vegetables nuts and seeds.
Making food taste good is an entire industry. Not only are there so many different types of food, there is a myriad of ways to prepare each one of them! There are 100 different ways just to cook an egg! So many different cakes, pastries, cookies, breads and rolls can be made just from the flour of a grain of wheat. Has anybody ever counted the number of different cookbooks there are on the market? And how many different types of cuisine are there, each with a different style and flavor? Mentally walk down the aisles of your supermarket looking at the shelves, and notice the plethora of colors, flavors, and textures beckoning to your taste buds! Do you have a favorite fruit? Doesn’t your mouth water just thinking about biting into that most delicious sweet package of flavor that Hashem has created just for your pleasure? Can you describe the delight of biting into a crisp piece of sweet watermelon on a hot summer day? Hashem didn’t have to give us so many delicious fruits to eat, but He is so kind and He wants us to delight us. What a kindness to have such a broad variety of yummy food to eat!
Another special kindness from Hashem is that He makes the food appetizing and taste good to those who eat it. There are people in different parts of the world who eat what to us would be the most disgusting, foul tasting thing in the world, but to them, it is a delicacy and they eat it with relish.
These are some of the things we should be thanking Hashem for when we say the the first blessing of the Birkat Hamazon.
The second and third blessings of the Birkat Hamazon thank Hashem for the Land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple.
When Yehoshua conquered the Land of Israel, and Jewish people began living there according to the laws of the Torah, the land of Israel reached its purpose and it was the appropriate time for Yehoshua who had accomplished all of this, to create the formal text of the blessing for the Land of Israel.
King David sanctified the city of Jerusalem so he composed the words about Jerusalem and King Solomon who built the Holy Temple composed the words about the Holy Temple.
Now that we no longer have the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, the Sages have changed the blessing to a request for the speedy rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
Why are these topics integral to thanking Hashem for our food?
The Zohar written by the Tana, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai answers this question.
שפתי כהן על דברים פרק ח פסוק י
ארעא קדישא אמצעיתא דעלמא, ובאמצעיתא דארעא קדישא איהי ירושלם ובאמצעיתא דירושלם איהו בית קודש הקדשים וכל טיבו וכל מזונא דכל ישובא תמן נחית מלעילא ולית לך אתר בכל ישובא דלא אתזן מתמן
The Holy land is in the center of the world, and Jerusalem is in the center of the Holy Land, and the Holy Temple is the center of Jerusalem. All the goodness and sustenance that comes forth into the world comes from heaven goes there and from there to the rest of the world. You don’t have any place in the world that doesn’t get its sustenance from there.
An accurate metaphor for this is that Jerusalem and the Holy Temple are the umbilical cord to the world. All blessing to the world is funneled into the world through Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
So real is this concept, that King Solomon was able to grow exotic plants and fruits which grew only in Hawaii for example, in Jerusalem, because he knew exactly where in Jerusalem the spiritual source of blessing for that fruit was. This is why Jerusalem and the Holy Temple are essential for our food.
The fourth blessing was composed by the Sages of Yavneh who were exiled from Jerusalem after its destruction. 52 years after the destruction of the second Holy Temple, the city of Betar (the biggest stronghold of Jews that remained is Israel after the destruction) was decimated by the Romans. So numerous were the dead from Betar that the Romans fertilized their fields from their blood for 7 years. They also used the corpses to make fences around their vineyards. Hashem made a miracle that the corpses did not decay or decompose. Many years later, they were finally brought to proper burial. There were two things to be thankful for.הטוב Hashem was good in the way that they did not decompose, והמטיב Hashem did a further kindness that they were brought to burial.
Why were these miracles so significant that the Sages of Yavneh felt it necessary to compose a fourth blessing for the Birkat Hamazon?
The משך חכמה by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk gives a beautiful answer. Betar was the city in which Bar Kuziva ruled for 12 years. He was such a great leader, that Rabbi Akiva actually thought he was the Mashiach. Betar, the last standing stronghold of the Jewish nation, gave hope to the Jewish people that they would return to Jerusalem and restore the kingdom of David to its former glory. When Betar was destroyed by the Romans the kingdom of David was permanently severed and would not be restored until the real Mashiach would come. With this hope dashed, the people were wondering if the Jewish nation would continue to exist altogether. With no Holy Temple and no connection to the Land of Israel, how could they possibly survive as a people in the hostile world they were suddenly cast into?
When the bodies miraculously didn’t decompose, and were finally brought to a respectful burial, the Sages of Yavneh realized that this was a sign from Hashem that the Jewish nation would miraculously survive in the exile. This prompted them to compose a special blessing of thanks to Hashem and to add it to the Birkat Hamazon which is designed to thank Hashem. In this blessing we mention how Hashem is our Shepherd and the Shepherd of the Jewish people. This may refer to the idea that the Jewish nation is compared to one little lamb among 70 hungry, salivating wolves each dying to devour the helpless lamb. Does this poor lamb stand a chance? Only with a powerful shepherd who protects it. Hashem is that Shepherd. He is our personal Shepherd guiding us in life and providing our sustenance. He is the Shepherd of the Jewish Nation always protecting us from the hungry wolves vying to put an end to us.
So far, we have discussed the four blessings of the Birkat Hamazon. What is all the rest of the stuff added on after that? What is it all about?
When a person performs a mitzvah from the Torah, he has elevated himself to a very high level and he is very close to Hashem. Therefore, since he is very close to Hashem for fulfilling the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon from the Torah, it is a very opportune time to ask for other things that he wants. Therefore, these basic requests which we all want, are placed after the blessings of Birkat Hamazon.
If we take the time think about these things when saying the Birkat Hamazon, we would see it as an incredible opportunity to thank Hashem for all the good that He has given us and request our needs rather than seeing it as a chore.