Examining ‘Grace after Meals’

Efrat, Israel — The biblical source for thanking the Almighty for our worldly gifts is to be found in this week’s portion, Ekev. And if preparation of our meals takes a great deal of time and effort, if our tradition mandates so many laws about permitted and prohibited foods, and if the Talmud devotes a complete chapter to the Grace after Meals, we should study this blessing in depth.
Let us begin with the Talmudic rule that we only recite the full Grace after Meals — three biblical and one rabbinic blessing — after eating a meal with bread (other foods mandate an abridged blessing of thanksgiving after their consumption).
What is special about bread? In many societies, bread is the major component of every meal, the basic mainstay and “filler” of diet, the very “staff of life.” Nevertheless, the sacred Zohar provides a deeper reason: Bread symbolizes the partnership between human being and God. There are 11 difficult physical processes in the production of bread, an important advance in civilization developed in ancient Egypt. Despite this human input, be mindful, exhort our Sages, to be grateful to the Source of Nature who is the ultimate provider of bread — and then share your bounty with others less fortunate, using the energy you derive from the food to act altruistically and not only egoistically. Moreover, on Shabbat there is a custom that the head of the family places both hands on the challah before making the “motzi” blessing in order to emphasize the God-human partnership in bread manufacture!
When three or more eat together, we begin Grace after Meals with a special invitation blessing, zimun in Hebrew; when 10 or more eat together, the name of God is added to this introductory blessing, teaching us that the purpose of a meal ought not only be nutritional or pleasurable — it must also be social, fraternal and even communal. Indeed, the English words “companion” and “company” literally mean “with bread,” indicating that a friend is someone with whom you share a meal, and it is likely that the person with whom you share a meal becomes your companion. In effect, therefore, food serves as a means to fellowship and sharing. And why should we share with others? Because God shares with us! The “invitation” leads into the first of the biblical blessings thanking God: “who nourishes the entire world in His goodness, with graciousness, with loving-kindness and with sensitive compassion.” God gives whether the recipient deserves it or not, whether he/she has earned it or not — and so must we share with others. And God provides for the world — not just for the Jews!
The second of the biblical blessings thanks God, “for having bequeathed to our ancestors a desirable, good and spacious land, as it is written in Your Bible, ‘you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.’” But the food I am eating comes from New York, from Miami, from London, from Krakow… for close to 2,000 years we lived in exile from Israel — and we still recited this blessing: Why? We bless God for our ancestral land because exile expresses a precarious existence endangering Jewish survival. A stranger to the land and the bread on his table are soon parted. The earth upon which we stand can be pulled out from under us if we are living on it only by the largesse of the Gentile owner. When your food grows on your own land, by contrast, then the food is truly yours.
The third blessing of our Grace after Meals directs us toward Jerusalem, the earthly meeting point of God’s transcendence, the City from which God’s message of peace and tranquility will spread to the entire world.
Jerusalem is the home of Divine Presence, the vision of our national mission, the place where, according to our holy Prophets, all of humanity will gather and be redeemed. Moreover, does anyone believe that during our 2000-year exile we would still have longed for Israel and Jerusalem were it not for our realization at every meal that homeland and bread express the normal situation for a nation state, and that our situation in exile was truly precarious!
There is also a fourth blessing established in Yavne at the end of the aborted Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE. When the last stronghold of Betar was destroyed, hope for the restoration of a Jewish national home was dashed. In the wake of this defeat came the terrible Hadrianic persecutions during which the greatest of our pious sages were tortured to death. At this time, the Romans forbade us from burying Jewish corpses; but miraculously, the bodies did not putrefy. Thus the fourth blessing praises God “who is good, and who does good.” “Good because the bodies didn’t rot, and who does good because they could eventually bury their dead.” (BT Brachot 48b)
Why does this historical miracle about burial and decomposition find its way into the Grace after Meals? In tying the tragedy of Betar to the Grace after Meals, the rabbis are teaching a critical lesson. It’s proper to thank God for great miracles, but it’s important not to forget to thank Him for simple necessities. We must, even in the face of political and national defeat, appreciate whatever we have, and give thanks even if only to be able to give our dead a proper burial.
The necessity of sharing God’s bounty, the yearning for Israel, the spiritual goal of Jerusalem and the need to appreciate whatever we have are all expressed in our majestic Grace after Meals. Fortunate is our generation which can add to the last blessing: “May the All-Merciful-One bless our reborn State of Israel, the beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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