Birkat Hamazon

How to thank God for food.

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The third blessing, birkat Yerushalayim, begs God to be merciful and continue to support the Jewish people. Whereas the first two blessings praise God, this blessing changes tone, adding a plea to God to quickly rebuild Jerusalem.

The fourth and final blessing, birkat hatov v'hameitiv, stresses the various positive manifestations of the relationship between the Jewish people and God, This blessing ends by voicing the hope that "God will never deny us anything good."

After the fourth blessing, a series of short liturgical statements, all beginning with the word harahaman, "may the compassionate One," follows. Each of these asks for a particular gift from God.

One beseeches God to eternally stay the ruler of the Jewish people. Another requests that God grant the speaker an honorable livelihood, send the messiah, and bestow special blessings for others at the table. In communal settings, this litany of blessings will sometimes be read aloud by the leader, after which the others answer "Amen" to each one.  Different communities such as Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Italian, and Yemenite, have variations to the birkat hamazon. Words are added to the four main blessings, and some phrases are reordered, added, or omitted. The greatest range of variation appears after the four main blessings, in the harahaman section. Spanish and Portugese Jews may also recite a Ladino song entitled "Bendigamos," or "We will bless," after birkat hamazon is finished.

History of the Birkat Hamazon

The four main blessings were written down in the Talmud tractate Berakhot. Traditionally the first blessing is attributed to Moses, the second to Joshua, the third to David and Solomon, and the fourth to the rabbis from Yavneh.

Yet the exact wording of the blessings is simply hinted at, not explicitly stated. The Talmud only mentions the blessings by their titles and final lines. These brief, talmudic versions have, in recent times, served as a precedent for shortened texts of birkat hamazon.

When bread has not been eaten at a meal, a different blessing, the brakha aharona or the "end blessing," is said. It has similar text to a shortened version of birkat hamazon, touching on all the themes, but with fewer blessings. This can be found in most bentchers, small booklets containing the blessing after the meal and other festive songs.

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Kate Palley

Kate Palley is the former Director of Jewish Campus Life at Oberlin College Hillel. She is a student at the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.