Some time back we looked at the blessings that comprise the Birkat HaMazon, the blessings after meals. Those four blessings are in response to the commandment from Deuteronomy that speaks of offering thanks to God after eating and being satisfied, praising the Almighty for the food we eat and for the land from which the food is produced, “al ha-aretz v’al hamazon.” While many of us know these prayers primarily from special occasions after a holiday meal or at a wedding reception, or maybe from singing them at Jewish summer camps, ideally they are to be a part of our daily routine.Whenever we have a meal which begins formally with ritual handwashing and the hamotzi over bread, we should conclude with birkat hamazon. Bread represents food and, as we’ve seen, reciting the hamotzi blessing covers all the food at a given meal.Likewise, the blessing over wine, borei p’ri hagafen, can exempt all other beverages from requiring an additional blessing.
Not every meal, however, is that formal. Sometimes, we have a light meal or just a snack. Even so, we are expected by tradition to acknowledge the gifts of various types of food with a short blessing over that food. We saw in an earlier essay that there are separate blessings prescribed for different kinds of food other than bread and wine. When we eat fruit or nuts from a tree, we praise God who creates the fruit of the tree, borei p’ri ha-etz. For fruit that grows from the ground or on bushes or vines and for all kinds of vegetables that grow from the ground, as well as in cases where we are uncertain if a kind of fruit grows on a tree or a bush or what – like a kiwi fruit, do you know if grows on a tree or a bush? – for those fruits and vegetables we praise God who creates the fruit of the earth, borei p’ri ha-adamah. (By the way, I looked it up – kiwis grow on vines, definitely borei p’ri ha-adamah.) There are some fruits that we might think of as growing on trees like pineapples and bananas, but in both cases,though we call them tree, they are actually plants whose fruits take borei p’ri ha-adamah, as their initial blessing.. Berries and melons also are fruit of the earth and not of trees.
Now while bread is made from flour produced from various kinds of grain, our sages limited the hamotzi blessing to loaves made from five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. These same grains if made into some other product, say, pasta, cookies, pretzels, or cakes, take a different blessing, borei minei m’zonot, who creates all kinds of food. If you eat enough of these m’zonot, it becomes a meal and then you do need to say hamotzi. How much pizza must one eat to make a meal rather than a snack? It can get complicated. By the way, those same five grains can be used to make matzah or if they rise, they become chametz, leavened products, forbidden on Pesach.
So, we have five blessings so far, but what if the food we’re eating doesn’t fall into any of those categories? What blessing do we say over fish, eggs, meat, cheese, or beverages other than wine? There is in fact a catchall blessing: shehakol nihyeh bidvaro, praising God who created it all by His word. While not everything is covered by hamotzi, we still are supposed to thank God for the food we eat after we have been satiated by it, v’achalta v’savata uveirachta, you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord your God. (In fact, even if we’re not satisfied; if we have eaten less than the volume of one egg, we still say the prayers if we’ve had at least the volume of an olive.) There are two blessings that we can utilize after eating in place of birkat hamazon when we have not made a formal meal over bread. The first is a kind of mini-birkat hamazon. If you are not familiar with it, think of the blessing toward the end of the Passover Haggadah that we say, after having already said birkat hamazon after the seder meal, but still having drunk two more cups of wine after that. It is known as bracha achat mei-ein shalosh, a three-fold blessing in one, and is supposed to be said after three different types of food or drink with a text which varies depending on which of the three we have ingested. I find at the seder, that the same tune we sing for birkat hamazon works for this prayer as well.
The first type of food is that which I mentioned already, wine. We thank God for the vine and the wine, the fruit of the vine. This blessing is also to be said over those foods we call m’zonot, things made from the five types of grain products into something other than bread that I mentioned earlier. In this prayer, it is referred to as michyah, that which sustains or nourishes us. The root is the same as for “Chayim,” thus life-giving food. The third type of food requiring this blessing is a special category of fruit from fruit-trees mentioned in Deuteronomy, for which the land of Israel is praised, namely grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Even though grapes grow on vines, for some reason, the sages have us say, “borei p’ri ha-etz over grapes” and this blessing afterwards, “for trees and their fruit.”
After the opening blessing formula, we specify which of thethree categories we are thanking God for: 1. Al hagefen v’al p’ri hagen, for the vine and for the fruit of the vine, or 2. Al ha-etz v’al p’ri ha-etz, for the tree and the fruit of the tree, or 3. Al hamichyah v’al hakalkalah, for nourishment and for sustenance, after m’zonot food. If you have had a combination of these items, you can include all that are relevant in the blessing. Wecontinue by praising God “al t’nuvat ha-sadeh, “for the earth’s bounty.” The next phrase is familiar from the second blessing of birkat hamazon, the blessing of the land, “v’al eretz chemdah tovah ur’chavah” for the desirable, good, and spacious land, “shehinchalta la’voteinu le’echol mipiryah v’lisboa mituvah” that you gave our ancestors so they might eat of its fruits and be satisfied from its goodness. The next phrases draw upon the third blessing of birkat hamazon, that prays for the restoration of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. We read, “Rachem na Adonay Eloheinu al Yisrael amecha v’al Yerushalayim irecha, v’al Tziyon mishkan k’vodecha, v’al mizbechecha v’alheichalecha, Have mercy, Lord our God upon Israel, Your people, upon Jerusalem, Your city, and upon Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory, upon your altar, and upon Your Temple. We continue quoting the end of that third blessing of Birkat Hamazon, “Uv’nei Yerushalayim ir hakodesh bimheirah v’yameinu,“ And rebuild Jerusalem, Your holy city speedily in our day.
Why in particular,should we mention the Temple in this prayer? I would say that we mention it because we want to recall that it was to that place that our ancestors brought offerings from these special products of the land. So, we continue, “V’ha’aleinu l’tocha v’samcheinu b’vinyanah, v’nochal mi-piryah, v’nisba mituvah, unvarech’cha aleha bikdusha uv’taharah.” Bring us up to it and we shall rejoice in its restoration and eat of its fruit and be satisfied from its goodness and bless You for it in holiness and purity. Thus even when we eat these foods, we remind ourselves of our hope for redemption, for a better world, and for the restoration of what we think of as the ideal image of the future, the Messianic era.
At this point, if it is a special day, like Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, or a festival, there are appropriate inserts mentioning the day, such as “accept our rest on this Sabbath day,” ”remember us for good on this day of the new moon,” “Make us joyful on this festival day,” etc. We then conclude the blessing with these words taken from the fourth blessing of birkat hamazon, “Ki ata Adonay tov umeitiv lakol, v’nodeh l’cha al ha-aretz” “For you Lord are good and do good for all and we offer thanks to You for the land” and, depending on what we have eaten, for the fruit of the vine or for the fruits (of the trees) or for nourishment(michyah, m’zonot). Baruch ata Adonay, Praised are You, Lord, for the land and for (again choose the appropriate item) for the fruit of the vine or for the fruits or for the nourishment, al hagefen, al haperot, or al hamichyah.
Now should we eat something that does not include bread nor is covered by this three-fold blessing, there is yet another prayer which is recited for all other types of food, a rather short blessing. Though it is relatively brief, I have in my library an entire volume devoted just to this prayer, by a Rabbi Yosef Shaul Eisenstein. I won’t even attempt to convey all of the details he musters in his work, but it is interesting to note that this prayer has a bit of a history and was at first proposed by one of our sages in place of the shehakol before the meal. Eventually it was moved to its current position, but not everyone, at first, accepted it. Eisenstein also notes a variety of versions of the prayer, or at least variant readings of some of the words, but I’ll stick to the standard text that we use today.
It begins with the usual opening words, Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam,.and goes on to say, “Borei nefashot rabbot v’chesronan,” who creates many living creatures and their needs, v’al kol mah shebarata (or shebara), and for all that You have created (or that He has created, alternate version)l’hachayot bahem nefesh kol chay, to sustain every living creature. Baruch chey haolamim. Blessed is the One who is the life of all the worlds. Again and again, in so many prayers, we are reminded that we are all part of nature and that not only are we dependent on God’s merciful gifts, but all creatures are sustained by the grace of God. If that is not universal enough, the ending of the prayer, reminds us that we are only one tiny part of that universe, of all creation, under Divine guidance for God is chey haolamim, the life of all the worlds.
Aside from the variant readings of second or third person regarding creation, bara or barata, there are those who hold that one should conclude the prayer with God’s name, Baruch ata Adonay, chey ha-olamim. However, the prevailing view is as stated before, just Baruch chey haolamim.
All of these multitude of details and distinctions regarding which blessings to say before and after we eat and for which foods and how much and so forth, may seem rather petty and nitpicking. We might simply shrug and say that is just the way Jewish law always works, our sages loved to investigate the fine points of the law. However, it does seem that in making these distinctions, the sages ask us to take a moment to reflect not only on God’s gracious gifts that support all life, but further to recognize the vast variety of creation and to take a moment before rushing in to eat, to acknowledge God and afterward not to rush away back to our other activities, but to take the time to think about the gift of life, of all that is needed to sustain our life functions, and how dependent we are on the grace of God who has gifted us with the vast array of food from which we partake and not only keep ourselves alive, but enjoy the experience of eating as well. For all of those gifts and for God’s loving care we give thanks. Blessed be the One from whose bounty we have partaken and from whose goodness we eat.