Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Here is this week’s Torah commentary: Bon appetit!
August 5, 2023 | 18 Av 5783
Torah: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 Triennial:
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
What Berakhah Do I Say After Eating This?
Rabbi Joshua Kulp
The Halakhah in the Parashah
For the past few weeks I’ve been at Camp Ramah in New England, my beloved summer home. I want to paint for you a picture of what a typical meal looks like for me. I sit down at the staff tables, begin to eat my food (the food is quite good here!) and I look up and I see someone approaching me. The age is usually somewhere between 20-24, old enough to be staff but not senior staff (here I’m considered ancient). I’m sort of hoping they’re coming over just to be nice, to say hi Josh, or now, hi Rabbi Kulp. How are you? How was your day? But that will not be the case. The question is inevitably, “what berachah do we say over ….” and a little less often, “what berachah do we say after?” Sometimes, they’re just curious, sometimes I think they really want to ask me something else, but this is a good icebreaker, but most of the time the system of berakhot before and after eating is just really confusing.
Parashat Ekev contains the well-known verses that are the source of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing recited after eating. The following is Deuteronomy 8:6-10:
6: Therefore keep the commandments of your God: walk in God’s ways and show reverence.
7: For your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill;
8: a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;
9: a land where you may eat lehem (bread or food) without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.
10: When you have eaten, and been satisfied, bless your God for the good land given to you.
Verse 8 mentions what later comes to be known as the seven species with which Israel was blessed. Verse 9 mentions lehem, which in the Bible means food or maybe meat, but by rabbinic times usually means bread. Verse 10 is the source for the positive commandment of blessing after eating food. The gist of the verses seems to be that whenever you eat and have been satisfied, you should bless God for the food that comes from the land.
But of course, in rabbinic law, nothing is ever so simple. In at least two places in tannaitic literature the rabbis create a two (and eventually three) tiered system for “ranking” foods and which berakhah is recited after eating which food. In Mishnah Berakhot 6:8 there are three positions as to when the full Birkat Hamazon is recited and when an abbreviated one is recited:
If one has eaten grapes, figs or pomegranates he blesses after them three blessings, the words of Rabban Gamaliel.
The sages say: one blessing which includes three.
Rabbi Akiva says: even if one ate only boiled vegetables and that is his meal, he says after it the three blessings.
A similar dispute appears in Tosefta Berakhot 4:
Rabbi Yehudah says in his name: Anything [made] from the seven species [for which the Land of Israel is blessed] and is not a type of grain or [it is made from] grain which has not been made into bread,
Rabban Gamliel says: [After eating it] he makes the Three Berakhot (Birkat Hamazon).’
And the Sages say: [After eating it] he makes the One Berakhah.
And anything which is not from the seven species [for which the Land of Israel is blessed] and is not a type of grain,
Rabban Gamliel says: [After eating it] he makes the One Berakhah, And the Sages say: He does not make any berakhah [at all].’”
This is a classic case where it helps to see that normative behavior is being shaped mainly by midrash, rabbinic interpretation of the verses, and not, or not exclusively, by what rabbis simply think should be done. According to Rabban Gamaliel, there is no option of not reciting any concluding blessing whatsoever. To him, it seems that verse 10 refers to verse 9, but that Rabban Gamaliel interprets “lehem” as all food, as it can mean in the Bible. Thus the species in verse 8 receive a special blessing, what we call Birkat Hamazon and the tannaim called “Three Blessings.” And anything that’s not one of these species receives a concluding blessing, but a lower level one–what was called back then, “One Berakhah” and in the Bavli is called, “One Berakhah out of Three.”
The other rabbis read “lehem” as “bread.” Since bread is made from grains, and those grains were already mentioned in verse 8, it must be that bread receives a higher blessing, Birkat Hamazon. The species in verse 8 receive the lower blessing, “One Berakhah.” And this leaves no concluding blessing at all for any other food. This is remedied in the Bavli and subsequent halakhah by the creation of a third type of blessing, “Bore Mine Nefashot.”
Rabbi Akiva in the Mishnah seems to be anchored in a different element of the verses–namely the phrase, “and you have been satisfied” in verse 10. The types of foods mentioned in verses 8-9 do not play a factor in what blessing one recites. Verse 10 is read in isolation and therefore as long as one is satisfied with what they ate (“it is his meal”) they would recite Birkat Hamazon.
Today, as would be expected, we follow the ruling of the sages. Birkat Hamazon is recited after meals based on bread, the One Blessing (known usually as Al Hamihyah) is recited after eating grains or one of the seven species, and Bore Nefashot after everything else. But I want to emphasize here a point that people sometimes miss. Rabbinic law is a combination of rabbinic thought and biblical interpretation. Through halakhah, verses in the Torah that were at times not meant to be law, are transformed into such. Concluding blessings over food bring to mind chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, a chapter which reminds us not only that we should be thankful for our food, but that there was a miraculous time in our history when God taught us that there is something that can nourish even more than food–God’s words.