Birkat Hamazon: the blessing of the food, A. Millgram

The most hallowed of the domestic prayer experiences were those that accompanied every meal, especially the Sabbath and festival meals, when the whole family participated in the recital of the prayers. The opening benediction before the meal is the brief blessing in which God is praised and thanked for "bringing forth bread from the earth."Bread, in this blessing, is the symbol of all food and includes the whole meal irrespective of the variety of dishes served. The recitation of this blessing, known as the Hamotzi (Who brings forth [bread from the earth]), was already widespread in rabbinic times. Thus, an innkeeper is quoted in the Midrash as saying to a fellow Jew: "When I saw that you ate without washing your hands and without a blessing, I thought you were an idolater."[1]

The devotions after the meal made up for the brevity of the Hamotzi. They constitute a well-constructed and deeply moving prayer unit of four bulky benedictions. In these benedictions the Jew thanks God in accordance with the biblical injunction: "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you."[2] Accordingly, the first benediction thanks God for the blessing of food, and the second benediction for "the good land" that He gave to Israel as an inheritance. The third benediction thanks God for His merciful restoration of Jerusalem. To be sure, Jerusalem was in ruins; nonetheless, the benediction is in the present tense — "who rebuilds Jerusalem." The redemption of Israel will materialize at any moment, perhaps at the very moment when the benediction is being recited....

Hebrew verse

The three initial benedictions of Birkat ha-Mazon (the Blessing for the Food, often translated Grace after Meals) are among the most ancient prayers in the Jewish liturgy. The rabbis emphasize their antiquity by ascribing them to Moses, Joshua and King Solomon, respectively. The Talmud teaches:

Moses instituted for Israel the [first] benediction [of the grace] — "Who feeds" — at the time when the manna descended for them. Joshua instituted for them the [second] benediction of the land when they entered the land. David and Solomon instituted the [third] benediction which closes "Who builds Jerusalem."[3]

A fourth benediction, called "Ha-tov veha-meitiv" (Who is good and does good) is a later addition, attributed by the rabbis to the period immediately after the Bar Kokhba rebellion in the second century. At that time the remnants of the Jewish people were threatened with extinction through a pestilence caused by the many corpses strewn everywhere; when the Romans granted permission to bury the dead, this benediction was instituted, thanking God for not permitting Israel to perish.
enjoying a meal
With the passage of time the Birkat ha-Mazon expanded considerably beyond the initial core. Thanksgiving prayers for a number of additional blessings were incorporated in the first three benedictions. Among the divine blessings for which thanks are expressed are the gifts of the Torah, the covenant of Abraham, and the dynasty of David, one of whose descendants will be the Messiah, according to tradition.

But it was the fourth benediction that grew largest in size. People took more liberties with it because it was the latest of the benedictions to be officially incorporated into the Birkat ha-Mazon. A number of general supplications were added to this benediction, each of which starts with the words "Ha-rahaman" (May the all-merciful). The number of these Ha-rahaman verses vary in different communities: Maimonides (Spain & Egypt, 12th cent.) lists three; Yemenite Jews, four; Mahzor Vitry (France, 12th cent.), twelve; the Sephardim, eighteen; the Roman rite, twenty-two; and modern Ashkenazi custom, nine.

For the Sabbath a special prayer was added, and for the festivals and New Moon days prayers were borrowed from the liturgy. At circumcisions and wedding feasts, poetic interpolations are customary. There is also a special form or recitation in the house of mourning. When three or more adults[4] participate in a meal, the Birkat ha-Mazon becomes a formal group service and the leader opens with an invocation, "Rabbotai nevarekh" (Gentlemen, let us say grace), a sort of official call to worship to which the participants respond. The custom and formula are ancient and according to the Talmud, as old as Shimeon ben Shetah.[5]

By the end of the geonic period (mid-sixth to mid-eleventh century), this service had not only been formulated but also fully accepted. Only minor accretions were added in the subsequent centuries. To this day the Birkat ha-Mazon services those Jews who choose to express their gratitude to God for the sustenance He has provided, for the world and its bounty.

[1] Numbers Rabbah 20:21 [back]
[2] Deut. 8:10 [back]
[3] Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 48b [back]
[4] The invitatory formula is known as Zimmun, while three or more adults who have eaten together represent a mezuman. Traditionally, those counted are male, although according to the Talmud three or more women who have eaten together should also recite Zimmun (Berakhot 45b). Later rabbinic authorities were divided as to whether a woman could be counted together with the men. The great majority of non-Orthodox count participants of either sex (of Bar/Bat Mizvah age), while Sephardim permit a boy over six who understands what he is saying to be counted. [back]
[5] Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 7:2 [back]

buy the bookFrom: Abraham Millgram's Jewish Worship (JPS, 1971, 1975). This article, based on Millgram's presentation of the development of Jewish liturgy, has been expanded for the purposes of this webzine edition.



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