Deut. 7:12 – 11:25
Rabbi Gary Pokras
There is an old joke that Jews will rarely miss an opportunity to take something simple, and then make it complicated and counterintuitive. Take for example, the mealtime blessings. In the Christian world, it is common for one person at the table to compose a detailed prayer of gratitude before the meal. These prayers often mention the people sitting around the table, the people in their lives, the food they are about to eat, and anything else of interest or import. In the Jewish tradition, the blessing before most meals requires only a single-line formula in Hebrew, which thanks God for creating everything necessary for the bread on our table. However, that is only the beginning of the meal. After the meal, we then chant birkat hamazon, the blessing after the meal. Unlike the blessing before the meal, birkat hamazon is pages and pages long (it requires a small book to contain the full set of blessings in the long form).
Why do we say a blessing before and after the meal? And why is the blessing before the meal so short, and the blessing after the meal so long?
The first question has a simple answer: it is better to offer thanks twice than once. Gratitude is worth cultivating, and unlike so many other things in life, I do not think it is possible to have too much. The second question is more complicated. Why would we offer such a long blessing after we have (hopefully) eaten our fill? The answer is that when we are looking forward to our meal, and hungry, it is natural to anticipate our food with gratitude. Indeed, in tractate Berachot of the Talmud, the rabbis develop the idea that a blessing is necessary before we enjoy anything in the world. Without acknowledging God’s role as Creator and Owner of Creation, to take anything for ourselves would be the equivalent of theft from God. Who wants to be a defendant in a case like that? In this framework, we are not able to eat anything without first offering a blessing. In a sense, it is a requirement rather than a voluntary act. However, once we are fully satiated, then our motivation to offer thanks may decline – after all, we already have what we wanted. It is exactly at this point that our gratitude is more impactful and even necessary for our spiritual health. So, the ancient rabbis turned to Torah, to this week’s parasha for guidance:
“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal for the good land given you.” [Deut. 8:10]
From this, they developed a set of blessings specifically designed to help us cultivate gratitude to God after we have eaten. To my mind, birkat hamazon, is a powerful reminder of God’s generosity. For it goes far beyond the meal itself – connecting us to the land – the source of our food, to the building of Jerusalem (and Judaism), to God’s majesty, to the sanctification of time. It moves from the very act of Creation to the table and the people who placed food upon it. It reminds us that all of this, and everything in the world has its origin in the Creator. And it reminds us that just as God is deeply generous each and every day, so too, should we be generous – especially to those whose needs are greater than our own.
Yes, from the outside, birkat hamazon is indeed complicated and counterintuitive. Yet, like so many other Jewish practices, from the inside it is nothing less than inspirational.