Parashat Ekev

Graced With Food

By blessing after we eat, we elevate the act of eating by connecting with God, the source of our sustenance, and with our cultural history.

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This verse is the basis for the recitation of the grace after eating, called Birkat HaMazon (literally "Blessing of the Food"). The Talmud emphasizes this point by noting that, "It is forbidden to enjoy the fruits of this world without pronouncing a blessing, and whosoever derives such enjoyment without uttering a blessing has committed a trespass" (Berachot 35a). This passage is deemed to be a clear and unequivocal mitzvah, so much so that Rashi and most other Biblical commentators do not even bother to comment on it.

However, that does not mean that this was not a matter of concern to our rabbinic sages. On the contrary, a great amount of discussion is devoted to exactly what constitutes eating and being satisfied and precisely how we are to bless afterwards.

Bread is considered to be the prototypical food. Therefore, the obligation to recite Birkat HaMazon takes affect whenever one eats a k'zayit (an olive-size portion) of bread. If bread is not eaten, the obligation to bless still exists, but alternative blessings are recited.

Birkat HaMazon consists of four different blessings. The first blessing, called Birkat HaZan, praises God for providing food for all creatures. The second blessing, called Birkat HaAretz, expresses gratitude for the "good land" that God has given Israel, for the redemption from Egypt, for the covenant of circumcision, and for the revelation of Torah. The third benediction, called Boneh Yerushalayim, asks God to have mercy on Israel and restore the Temple and the sovereignty of the House of David.

The fourth benediction, called Ha-tov Ve-ha-metiv, expresses thanks to God and includes petitions to God to fulfill specific desires, such as blessing for the house in which one ate and sending Elijah the Prophet (the herald of the messianic time). This fourth blessing also provides us with the opportunity to petition for personal needs and reflect contemporary concerns in our prayers.

The first three blessings are considered to be some of the oldest extant Jewish prayers. The Talmud (Berachot 48b) attributes the first to Moses, after receiving the gift of manna. The second blessing is attributed to Joshua, after the Israelites entered the land of Israel. The third blessing was a combined effort of David and Solomon. David added the words, "For Israel Your people and Jerusalem Your city" after establishing the city of Jerusalem, and Solomon added the words, "For the great and holy House" after the completion of the Temple. The fourth benediction was added later, after the Bar Kochba rebellion (2nd century C.E.), with reference to those who were slain at Betar.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.