Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Towards the beginning of Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the land of Canaan’s physical bounty and warns the nation against taking God’s role in that bounty for granted:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper. And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today…and your hearts will become haughty, and you will forget the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery… And you will say in your heart: “My strength and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth!”
The Talmudic authorities identify one sentence from this passage as the source of a fundamental biblical commandment: “From where do we learn a Torah obligation to bless God? As it is said: ‘And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God, concerning the good land that He has given you.’” Aside from the Priestly Blessing, this blessing, known as Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), is the only blessing of uncontested biblical origin in Jewish tradition. Some authorities maintain that the recitation of Birkat HaTorah, the blessing recited before Torah study, is also commanded in the Torah text; while others consider the Bracha me’ein Shalosh, the blessing recited after foods containing at least one of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, to be of Torah origin, as well. A myriad of other brachot are mandated by the rabbis, regularly punctuating the daily life of the Jew.
At first glance, the phrase “and you will bless” seems descriptive in nature, part and parcel of Moshe’s prediction concerning the nation’s eventual reaction to the bounty of the land. What, then, compels the Talmudic authorities to interpret the phrase “and you will bless” as an imperative, mandating a biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon?
What is the nature of this commandment? Why would man be commanded to bless God? Clearly, man requires God’s blessing; God does
not require man’s. As Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher emphatically declares, “Given that God is the source of all blessing…were [man] to bless Him all day and all night, how would God benefit at all?”
How did the multi-paragraph Grace after Meals regularly recited by Jews today emerge from the vague commandment “and you will bless…”?
Immediately sensing the objections that might be raised to the derivation of a mitzva from this text, the Ramban refers the reader to other commandments derived from parallel phrases in the book of Devarim: “and you will make a fence for your roof,” “and you will perform the Pesach offering for your God,” “and you will take of the first of every fruit of the ground.”
At the same time, this scholar notes that the Torah is not consistent in its application of the formula “and you will…” While the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” constitutes a mitzva, the preceding phrases, “and you will eat, and you will become satisfied,” are clearly not meant to be seen as distinct imperatives themselves, but as helping to define the obligation to bless.
In spite of the Ramban’s observations, the question of context in our case still remains. Given the descriptive nature of the preceding text, why are the rabbis insistent upon interpreting the phrase “and you will bless…” not simply as part of Moshe’s narrative, but as a separate, distinct biblical imperative?
A rereading of the passage before us may provide an answer. This is a carefully structured presentation in which Moshe describes both the benefits and dangers presented by the natural resources of the land of Canaan. The very bounty meant to sustain you , Moshe warns the Israelites, could well prove to be your undoing.
The paragraph pivots on an apparent “cause-and-effect” structure established by the transition between three sentences:
A land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.
And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you.
Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today.
Sated and satisfied by the wondrous natural wealth of the land, and filled with pride over your own accomplishments, Moshe warns, you could easily forget your dependence upon God for the countless gifts that you have received.
A problem, however, emerges from the text. One phrase does not fit the otherwise seamless “cause-and-effect” structure presented by Moshe. The insertion of the words “and you will bless the Lord your God” in the second sentence strikes an incongruous note. Blessing God can hardly be seen as a step along the path towards abandonment of our dependence upon Him. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. If upon reaching a point of comfort and satiation, we bless God for the bounty that we have received, we will be less likely to forget His role in our good fortune.
Perhaps that is exactly the point recognized by the rabbis. In their eyes, “and you shall bless the Lord your God” cannot be understood as part of Moshe’s description of the potential problem facing the nation, but instead must be seen as a corrective for that problem. In the words of the Meshech Chochma, “When one eats and is satisfied, one is likely to rebel. God, therefore, commands the nation to recall His name and to bless Him, specifically at the point of satiation, and to remember that He is the One Who gives man power to succeed.” Precisely because of the context in which it is found, the rabbis interpret the phrase “and you shall bless the Lord your God” as a commandment.
The above interpretation suggests an answer to another of our questions. Why does the Torah command man to “bless” God? What possible purpose could there be in such an act?
According to the approach of the Meshech Chochma and others, man blesses God for man’s sake, in order to enable man to achieve and maintain proper life perspective. The recitation of Birkat Hamazon, specifically at a point of contentment and satiation, serves as a critical reminder of man’s dependence upon God for sustenance and success. Similarly, all brachot, recited at various points during the daily life of the Jew, are designed to help an individual maintain proper spiritual balance.
Other authorities take this approach one step further. Brachot, these authorities maintain, do not only serve man’s spiritual needs, but his physical requirements, as well. When an individual, through the act of blessing God, testifies to God’s personal care for all life forms, God responds by increasing the bounty provided.14 This phenomenon, Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher maintains, explains the Talmudic assertion that if an individual eats without a prior blessing, “it is as if he steals from God and from the assembly of Israel.” He steals from God by denying the Almighty’s Providence over all living things, and he steals from the Assembly of Israel by denying them the physical benefit that would have accrued as a result of his blessing.
Swimming against the tide, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that man actually possesses the power to bless God. As the only creature granted free will by his Creator, man is capable of furthering God’s purposes and wishes in this world or of retarding and thwarting them. Man blesses God when, through his actions, he increases God’s sanctified presence in the world around him. The bracha recited after eating, Hirsch continues, is to be understood as a verbal commitment, or even a vow, to bless God through action. “As often as you strengthen yourself with that which God has granted you…,” this scholar asserts, “you are to dedicate the whole of your being to His service, to [the fulfillment of] His purposes and to the realization of His Will on earth. And this promise of dedication you are to pronounce in the words of bracha, of blessing Him.”
Having established that the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” serves as the source of the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon, the rabbis proceed to derive basic details of this mitzva from the surrounding text.
1. Two positions emerge in the Mishna, for example, as to how much food must be consumed to obligate the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. These opinions, the Talmud explains, reflect a fundamental disagreement as to where the emphasis should be placed in the sentence “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God.”
The opinion of Rabbi Meir, recorded anonymously in the Mishna,18 emphasizes the word v’achalta (and you will eat). As the Torah clearly bases the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon on food consumption, Rabbi Meir maintains, the obligation should be gauged by the normative minimum food measurement throughout Jewish law: the amount equivalent to the bulk of an olive.
Rabbi Yehuda, however, disagrees. Focusing on the word v’savata (and you will be satisfied), this scholar maintains that the key condition governing the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon is not food consumption, but, instead, satiation. The minimum standard for this mitzva must therefore be higher than the normative halachic minimum. An individual must eat food equivalent to the bulk of an egg, Rabbi Yehuda insists, in order to incur the obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon.
Later halachic authorities disagree as to the parameters of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.
According to some, these Mishnaic scholars are not debating the Torah law at all. Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda agree that, on a biblical level, no objective minimum standard for the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon exists. The Torah obligation of Birkat Hamazon is literally delineated by the term v’savata (and you will be satisfied). Biblically, an individual is only obligated to recite the blessing after a meal that leads to his own personal satiation. The amount that must be consumed to trigger this obligation varies, dependent upon the person and the situation. Uncomfortable with this lack of practical definition, the rabbis later issue an edict designed to create a uniform minimum standard. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda argue about the scope of this edict. Rabbi Meir maintains that the rabbinic obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon takes effect once an individual consumes food equivalent to the bulk of an olive. Rabbi Yehuda, in contrast, argues that the rabbinic obligation only “kicks in” upon the consumption of an egg-sized portion. The textual proofs from the Torah derived by these scholars in support of their respective positions fall into the category of asmachtot, biblical hints used by the rabbis to support later mandated rabbinic laws.
Other scholars adamantly disagree and insist that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disagree about biblical, not rabbinic, law. Their debate is straightforward, focusing on the minimum standard required for the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon.
2. The question of which foods give rise to the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon generates three opinions recorded in the Mishna and Gemara. Basing his position on the word v’achalta (and you will eat), Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah requires the recitation of Birkat Hamazon after the consumption of any food that an individual considers a meal. Rabbi Gamliel chooses a different path by noting that the biblical passage containing this mitzva specifically mentions the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, “a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” The blessing is obligatory, Rabbi Gamliel therefore argues, only after the consumption of a meal containing at least one of these seven species.
Finally, the majority rabbinic opinion insists that the obligation to recite the full Grace after Meals is limited to a meal containing bread. This opinion is based on the fact that bread is the foodstuff listed in closest proximity to the commandment itself: “a land where you will eat bread without scarceness…”
3. On a practical level, the law concerning these issues is codified according to the majority rabbinic opinion, that Birkat Hamazon must be recited after consumption of an olive-sized portion of bread or after a meal containing that amount of bread.
Moving into the area of the mitzva’s structure, the Talmudic scholars also discern references in the text to the number and content of the individual blessings meant to be incorporated into Birkat Hamazon.
The word u’veirachta (and you will bless), the Talmudists maintain, indicates that Birkat Hamazon must include a blessing referring to the physical sustenance provided by God to all living creatures; the phrase al ha’aretz (upon the land) mandates the inclusion of a blessing concerning the Land of Israel; and the reference to ha’aretz hatova (the good land) indicates that a blessing should be recited concerning Jerusalem.
According to some scholars, these biblical references indicate that the thematic structure and content of Birkat Hamazon are actually of biblical origin. Other scholars, however, maintain that the quoted textual allusions fall into the category of asmachtot (see above) and that the thematic structure of Birkat Hamazon is rabbinically rather than biblically mandated.
Even those scholars who view the structure and general content of Birkat Hamazon to be of biblical origin acknowledge that the actual texts of the blessings recited today are of later prophetic derivation.
Originally, each individual fulfilled the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon through his own blessings, in his own words. As time went on, however, the paragraphs of Birkat Hamazon were standardized by pivotal Jewish leaders at critical moments in Jewish history:
Moshe established the blessing concerning sustenance when the manna began to descend [for the Israelites in the wilderness]; Yehoshua established the blessing concerning the land upon the [Israelites’] entry into the land; David and Shlomo established the blessing concerning the building of Jerusalem, with David authoring the words “upon Israel Your nation and Jerusalem, Your city” [reflecting the conquest of Jerusalem during David’s reign] and Shlomo authoring the words “upon the great and sanctified House” [reflecting the construction of the Holy Temple during Shlomo’s rule].
The Talmud explains that a fourth blessing, over and above those alluded to in the Torah, was added to Birkat Hamazon in response to a series of dramatic events roughly fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Shimon Bar Kosiba, renamed Shimon Bar Kochba by Rabbi Akiva, led an ultimately unsuccessful and costly revolt against continuing Roman rule. So devastating were the results of this failed rebellion that many authorities mark Bar Kochba’s final defeat, the fall of the city of Beitar, as the true onset of the Jewish nation’s exile from their land. For a period of time following the fall of Beitar, the Roman authorities prohibited the Judeans from burying those killed in the city’s siege. When this ban was finally lifted, the sages of Yavneh (see Vayikra: Emor 5, Approaches E–H) established the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, Hatov v’Hameitiv, “He Who is good and bestows goodness.” This blessing was instituted in gratitude to God for the lifting of the Roman ban and for the miraculous preservation of the bodies of the victims, allowing for their proper burial.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that the events surrounding the fall of Beitar delivered a profound message to a shattered people: God’s providence will extend to the nation even during tragedy and exile. This message, Rabbi Meir Simcha explains, warranted the addition of a fourth blessing to Birkat Hamazon, a prayer built entirely upon the concept of God’s providence towards man.
The mitzva of Birkat Hamazon emerges from Moshe’s farewell messages to his people, only to accrue a myriad of halachic, philosophical and historical subtexts as it travels across the generations. The richness of Jewish experience is thus mirrored in the blessing that a Jew offers to his God.