“Understanding Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, we are told of the mitzvah of reciting Birkat Hamazon–the so-called “Grace after Meals.”

In Deuteronomy 8:10, the Torah instructs the Jewish people, “V’ah’chal’tah v’sah’vah’tah ooh’vay’rach’tah et Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah, ahl ha’ah’retz ha’tovah ah’sher nah’tan lach.” And you will eat, and be satisfied and bless the Lord, your G-d, for the good land that He gave you.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) in his commentary to his siddur (prayer book), Tefillat Yisrael, suggests that the reason for reciting Birkat Hamazon even after partaking of a rather ordinary meal is

to preserve and nurture in our hearts the conviction which the miracle of the gift of the heavenly Manna has instilled into us in the wilderness; namely, that each and every home and soul on earth is favored by G-d’s direct, immediate care and concern. Hence we are to look upon every piece of plain bread as no less a direct gift of G-d than the Manna which was sent down from heaven to our fathers long ago when they journeyed through the wilderness. (pp. 696-697)

The Birkat Hamazon–Grace after Meals–consists of three ancient blessings. The authorship of the first blessing of G-d who provides food to all is attributed to Moses. The second blessing for the land (specifically the land of Israel) and the food is ascribed to Joshua. The third blessing for G-d to have compassion and build Jerusalem is attributed to King David and King Solomon. Rabbi Joseph Hertz (1872-1946, former Chief Rabbi of England) states in his commentary on the siddur that these blessings go back “to the beginnings of Israel’s life as a nation, and that the Grace reflects the national and spiritual growth of Israel.” The fourth blessing of G-d who continuously does good is generally presumed to have been added by the rabbis of Yavneh in the second century, after the Roman authorities allowed the Jews to bury the bodies of the Jewish victims of the Bar Kochba rebellion.

Although the language of the Torah “v’sah’vah’tah” (Deuteronomy 8:10) indicates that the Grace after meals is to be recited only after one has eaten a full meal that leaves one with a feeling of satisfaction, the rabbis instructed the people to recite the blessing even after eating only a small amount of food, such as a piece of bread the size of an olive.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) explains that blessing G-d for the food that He has given is not a particularly difficult mitzvah to fulfill, especially if we remember the lean and hungry years that we might have experienced in the past.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Jacob ben Asher, c.1275-c.1340, bible commentator, author of the Arbah Turim, an early Code of Jewish Law) suggests that the idea expressed in the verse (Deuteronomy 8:10) with the word “ooh’vay’rach’tah” (“and you shall bless”) should be felt even before beginning to eat, so that every human being acknowledges that the food really belongs to G-d. The verse, in effect, implies that a person should not only pronounce a blessing after the meal, but even before eating. When a person offers a prayer before eating, that person is actually thanking G-d for transferring the food from G-d’s possession to the consumer’s legitimate possession.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (The classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in thirteenth-century Spain) questions whether a person has a right to offer benedictions to G-d, who is Himself the source of all blessings. After all, what does G-d gain from our saying “Grace”? The Chinuch suggests that G-d’s very nature is to be the bestower of loving-kindness and goodness, and He is therefore anxious to shower His blessings upon humankind. When we recite the “Grace after meal” we don’t really bless G-d, but rather acknowledge that all blessings come from G-d, and it is to Him that we turn for the gifts of life. It is hoped that every human being as well would desire to be G-d-like, and anxious to help uplift the welfare of other human beings. That, says the Chinuch, is the true purpose of these blessings.

Jews have a unique way of expressing their appreciation to G-d, especially for food. It is quite natural for human beings to call out to G-d in thanks before eating, and recite a blessing in which they acknowledge appreciation for receiving nourishment from above. But blessing G-d after eating a meal, especially a meal that leaves one entirely satiated, is a far more profound way of expressing appreciation for G-d’s goodness.

Rabbi Yonah Weinrib, in the commentary to his illustrated The Shabbos Shiron, expresses the idea very beautifully:

Upon entry into the world, man, in contradistinction to animals, is totally dependent. His food, his personal care, shelter and clothing must always be provided by others. A life which is predicated on dependence of others should simultaneously focus on appreciation for those who always meet his needs. Parents, as the primary care-givers, and Hashem, as the Ultimate Provider, are deserving of constant thanks for their incessant provisions.

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

May you be blessed.