HaMotzi: The Deeper Significance of the Blessing over Bread

These simple words mask a subtle theological statement about the primordial past and the perfected "world to come."

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Reprinted with permission from The Way Into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights).

Technically, a meal is considered any repast in which bread is consumed, so Jewish meals begin with the blessing over bread and then the sharing of bread together. The accompanying blessing is widely known to most Jews, who have heard it since childhood and who may even have memorized it just by having said it so often.

Many Jews follow traditional Jewish precedent by beginning every meal this way; others reserve it for festive occasions like wedding banquets or holiday dinners. In any case, saying it accomplishes two things. First, it draws attention to the privilege of having food to eat. Second, the blessing’s words connect an ordinary meal with a symbolic lesson about the end of time.

The words of the blessings are succinct and to the point: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

challah bread

Giving Thanks for the "Delivery System"

It is normal for blessings over food to refer to the means, or "delivery system," by which food comes to us. Apples, for instance, call forth the blessing “Blessed are You ... who creates the fruit of the tree.” Potatoes get “Blessed are You ... who creates the fruit of the earth.” So referring to God as the One who "brings forth bread from the earth" is not altogether unexpected.

But bread does not actually come from the earth, except in its raw form as grain—so the blessing ought to have referred to the grain, not to the finished product, bread. That, at least, is what the Rabbis imply in two laconic but insightful comments.

Bread in the Garden of Eden

The first comes from a midrash called B’reishit Rabbah, part of a many-volume compilation of rabbinic comments covering several books of the Bible. In this one, a fifth-century collection of midrash to Genesis, we find a discussion of the various kinds of trees that must have existed in the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from a particular tree, "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:18), otherwise identified as "the tree in the middle of the garden" (Genesis 3:3). But all the other trees were available for their pleasure, and the Rabbis musingly wonder what they were. This was Eden, after all-pure paradise. Surely Eden had trees that far excelled the ones we now know.

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Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is Professor of Liturgy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the author of The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Alone, Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, and The Way Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition.