Thoughts on Birkat HaMazon
The blessings which we say after meals, though their texts were created by the rabbis, are in fulfillment of a specific commandment found in the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 8). There we read: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.”
The rabbis derive from this verse the mitzvah of birkat hamazon, the requirement not only to thank God after we have eaten, but also to recite a blessing before we eat anything as well. They claim that anyone who partakes of food without a blessing has stolen from God, so to speak. Comparing two verses from Psalms, “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof” and “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth has He given to humankind,” they see no conflict. The first verse, they say, is before one says a blessing, while the second is true after we have acknowledged God.
We have six specific blessings to choose from before eating and, as in every other areas of Jewish life, there are detailed laws regarding them. However, in general, they are simply as follows: Before breaking bread, we say a short blessing (they all begin with Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Praised are You, Lord our God Sovereign of the Universe) Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, who brings forth bread from the earth. Bread symbolizes food in general, thus when we say this blessing over bread at the beginning of a meal, we include all the other food of that meal without need to recite the particular blessing for each item. Likewise, over wine, we say Borei p'ri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine, and that covers any other drinks we might have during our meal. Both bread and wine are singled out in Psalm 104 for special mention and thus fulfill this unique function.
If we are eating other products made from grain (wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt) we say Borei minei m'zonot, who creates various kinds of food and that covers things like pasta, cookies, cake and so forth. For fruit, if it grows from a tree, we say Borei p'ri ha-etz, who creates the fruit of the tree including, surprisingly grapes, even though they grow on vines. This blessing is said even if fruits are brought to the table before the end of the meal, even though we've said hamotzi, but not if they are incorporated into a dish that is part of the meal, like applesauce on latkes. If the fruit grows from the ground or on a bush or vine and for vegetables as well, we say, Borei p'ri ha-adamah, who creates the fruit of the ground. If you're not sure what kind of plant a fruit grows on you can use Borei p'ri ha-adamah, for they all ultimately grow from the earth. Finally, if the food is not included in any of these categories, things like eggs, fish, meat, cheese, and beverages other than wine or grape juice, or if one is uncertain which blessing applies, we say Shehakol nihyeh bidvaro, who made everything by His word.
If we begin a meal with hamotzi, then it should be completed with the full birkat hamazon. Those who have been to Jewish summer camps know that there are short versions that include the basic requirements of the prayer and there are printed cards that are often used at synagogue functions which have a shortened rendition on them as well. For a formal meal, particularly on Shabbat,the Passover seder, or at a wedding or some other function, it is appropriate, however, to take the time to chant the full version and many of us, also thanks to summer camps and youth groups, know all the lively melodies that are part of it.
Birkat hamazon is basically built around four blessings, but has customary additions both before and after those blessings. The first three blessings are considered by the rabbis to be Torah ordained while the fourth is a later addition. You'll note that we add an “amen” after the third blessing to mark the transition from one category to the other.
Before we start, particularly on Shabbat or Yom Tov, we chant a Psalm in keeping with the idea that one should have words of Torah at one's meal. On weekdays, some recite Psalm 137 which has the famous line “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,” This lament seemed appropriate for weekdays at least in earlier times, but on Shabbat and holidays, a livelier and.more hopeful Psalm is chanted. We sing Psalm 126, “Shir HaMaalot, b'shuv Adonay et Tziyon” which has a wide range of tunes that people use. This Psalm includes the verse, “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” It begins with the line, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion – we see it as if in a dream – our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” Some add a couple of additional verses from the Psalms to its conclusion including the original version of Mi y'malel, which praises God rather than the Maccabees.
If there are at least three people eating together, we begin the grace with the zimun, an invitation from one to the others to praise God, Rabotai n'varech, and we answer formally, “May God be blessed forever and ever.” The leader then says, “Let us bless the one from whose food we have eaten and by whose goodness we live.” At a meal with ten or more, we add the word, eloheinu, “let us bless our God,” to the invitation. The others respond “Blessed be the one from whose food we have eaten and by whose goodness we live. Blessed be He and blessed be His name.” At a wedding there is a more elaborate invitation in keeping with the festive nature of the occasion. There are also special versions for a briss or in the house of mourning.
Following the invitation, we chant the opening blessing which the rabbis attribute to none other than Moses himself who supposedly composed this blessing in thankfulness for the gift of manna in the wilderness. We generally chant it to a joyful tune as we acknowledge God's lovingkindness, demonstrated by His providing nourishment for all His creatures. We cite a verse from Psalm 136 (the Hallel HaGadol), “He gives bread to all flesh, for His lovingkindness endures forever.” If one eats as little as the volume of an egg, one is required to say Birkat HaMazon. The rabbis note that in gratitude for whatever they have, Jews have often said it for as little as the volume of an olive because of our love for God. We note in this blessing that “we have never lacked for food and we pray we shall never lack nourishment for God provides for all His creatures. Praised are You, Lord, who nourishes all.” Some may protest that, unfortunately, this is not true for all people on earth. To which we reply, the food has been provided, but as we sing this blessing, we remind ourselves of our responsibility to see that all people receive this blessing as well.
The second blessing is attributed to Joshua who supposedly composed it upon entering the land of Israel. It is known as birkat ha-aretz, the blessing of the land. We not only thank God for the land, but also for liberating us from Egypt and redeeming us, establishing the covenant symbolized by brit milah, for the gift of Torah and its commandments, and for the gift of life, grace and lovingkindness. Once again, we thank God for the food we are given at all times. On Chanukah and Purim, we insert the Al HaNisim prayers, thanking God for the unique miracles of those times. For all of these things we thank God as we cite the verse from Deuteronomy, previously mentioned, “you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord for the good land which He has given you.” We end with the blessing, “Praised are You, Lord, for the land and for its nourishment.”
The third blessing required by the Torah is for Jerusalem and the rabbis attribute it to King David when he conquered the city and made it his capital and to King Solomon, when he built the Temple. Originally, the rabbis assume that this prayer was for the tranquility and peace of the land of Israel. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, it was revised to become a prayer for the return to Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. We call on God to sustain us and provide for us so that we may never be dependent on others to provide our needs. Before concluding the blessing, on Shabbat we add a paragraph, R'tzei v'hachlitzeinu, asking God to sustain us through His commandments and, in particular, through His gift of Shabbat, which we see as a day of rest now, but ultimately a foreshadowing of the future Shabbat when the messianic vision, already mentioned in this blessing will be fulfilled. When a festival or new moon occurs, we add the Ya'aleh v'yavo passage that is said in the Avodah blessing of the Amidah on those days. This prayer too expresses a hope to return to Jerusalem and the Temple worship. This third blessing concludes with the prayer, “Rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our day, Praised are You, Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem in His compassion.” As we end the three blessings prescribed in the Torah, we say, “Amen,” which we generally do not say after our own blessings.
The last blessing is known as Hatov v'Hameitiv, God is good and does good. The Talmud says it was ordained by the court of Rabban Gamliel the Elder in Yavneh, in gratitude to God for preserving the bodies of the victims of the Roman massacre at Betar in spite of the summer heat, allowing them to receive a proper burial. This seems to be a strange association for a blessing which is really a generalized expression of thanks for God's benevolence in all things. By linking it to the tragedy at Betar, the end of the Bar Kochba revolt, we are perhaps urged to seek out the good in all of life and find blessing even in times of darkness and sorrow. The blessing itself does not mention death and tragedy but focuses entirely on God's goodness which we experience every single day. This prayer does not have a closing blessing, the b'racha formula is only at the beginning, but it ends with a prayer, “Of mercy, life, peace, and all good, and of all good things may He never deprive us.” This is the end of this rabbinic blessing and calls for an “amen” from those listening.
As we've come to see in other services, here too there are additions beyond the required four blessings. There are a series of prayers addressing God as “HaRachaman” “The Compassionate One”: ”May He rule over us forever,” “May He be blessed in heaven and on earth,” “May He be praised throughout all generations...”, “May He grant us an honorable livelihood,” “May He break the yoke of oppression from our necks and lead us upright to our land,” “May He send us abundant blessing to this house and to this table upon which we have eaten.” (Some have a custom of tapping the table at this point.)
The next HaRachaman prayer has a rousing melody from the Israeli Hasidic Song Festival that has caught on, “HaRachaman hu yishlach lanu et Eliyahu hanavi...” “May the Compassionate One send us Elijah the prophet (may he be remembered for good) and may he proclaim to us good tidings, salvation, and consolation.” This is followed by a personalized HaRachaman for our hosts and for the guests assembled at the table. There is one version if one is dining with one's own family, another when eating at one's parents' table, still another for a public gathering. We ask that they all be blessed as were our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, bakol, mikol, kol, with everything, from everything, and everything, referring to three references in Genesis associated with each patriarch.
As we near the conclusion of the prayer, we offer HaRachaman prayers to mark Shabbat, the new moon, and various festivals. Some add additional prayers for the State of Israel, for the Israel Defense Forces, and other prayers for peace and harmony. There is some room for creativity in this liturgy. The last HaRachaman is that we merit the Days of the Messiah and the life of the world to come. This is followed by a verse that appears at the end of a Psalm that we find twice in the Bible, once in the book of Psalms itself and once in the second book of Samuel. This final verse has a slight variation in its opening word. In Psalms 18:51), it is Magdil yeshuot malko...” He who makes great the salvation of His king. While in II Samuel (22:51), we read Migdol yeshuot malko, He who is a tower of salvation to His king.” The verse concludes in both places, “and shows lovingkindness to David and his offspring forever.” The custom is to use Magdil on weekdays and Migdol on Shabbat, New Moons, and Festivals. The line which follows is the familiar, “Oseh shalom bimromav, May He who makes peace on high, grant peace to us and all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”
Finally, this service of thanksgiving ends with the chanting of six verses from scripture, five from Psalms and a single line from Jeremiah. The basic message is that God takes care of the righteous and sees that all our needs are provided. It concludes with the lines, “I was young and now I am old, but I have never seen a righteous man forsaken and his children seeking bread.” This verse has troubled many people and they have either omitted it, sung it in an undertone, or reinterpreted it. Those in the last category see it as aspirational, a call for us to make this verse a reality for all people, that none should be forsaken and begging for food to eat, anywhere in the world. Thus the final verse, “Adonay oz l'amo yitein,” God will give strength to His people, Adonay y'varech et amo bashalom, God will bless His people with peace, or shalom in the sense of fulfillment. It becomes a prayer for us to take our God given strength and work for a world where no one suffers hunger and all are provided with that which they need to survive and to thrive.