Birkas HaMazon 1
We will now begin a five-to-six-part series on Birkas HaMazon. We will be presenting a masterpiece written by Rabbi Shlomo Goldfinger, who has also authored very insightful s’farim on tefilah.
There is much to say about reciting Birkas HaMazon with concentration and joy, and there are some amazing stories of the power of reciting bentching carefully. For now, we present Rabbi Goldfinger’s piece in a five-week series, starting this week with part one.
Expressing Our Relationships with Hashem Through Birkas HaMazon
By Rabbi Shlomo Goldfinger
Birkas HaMazon is one of the most familiar prayers. It is recited often, and it is one that we have learned, by singing almost its entirety, since the age of five or so. As such, it is very difficult to step back and look at it with fresh eyes. On the other hand, it is certainly deserving of thorough examination and reflection, as it is the only blessing that is universally accepted as being a mitzvah d’Oraisa (a Torah commandment, as opposed to a Rabbinic ordinance).
In this essay we will attempt to do just that. We will find, upon that examination, that several major difficulties immediately present themselves. A citation of the Gemara in B’rachos will at first appear to solve our problems, but we will find that it in fact presents additional difficulties. Finally, we will present an approach to Birkas HaMazon that will not only answer our questions, but that will open up the deeper experience, or perhaps more accurately, experiences, that Birkas HaMazon is intended to provide. Let us begin.
The Structure of Birkas HaMazon
Birkas HaMazon consists of four separate blessings. The first three are required in order to fulfill the mitzvah d’Oraisa, while the fourth is of Rabbinic origin. All of the blessings, though different in style and tone, deal with thanking Hashem for the sustenance He provides us, and most of them include bakashos (prayerful requests) that this sustenance continues.
Just this overview precipitates our first two questions: First, why is Birkas HaMazon so long? Why couldn’t the relatively uniform themes be expressed in a more concise fashion?
And even if we allow that for some reason our expression of thanks for our sustenance and the related ideas that are mentioned (such as the land and the Torah) need to be expressed in this lengthy fashion, we are still faced with the question, why four separate brachos? We know that reciting a blessing that is unnecessary is a very serious prohibition, tied to one of the Ten Commandments, Lo Sisa. When we find a series of separate blessings elsewhere, each of the blessings expresses an entirely distinct theme. This is the case in the Amidah, or in the Sheva Brachos at a wedding. But in Birkas HaMazon, all of the themes are tightly connected. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that there is essentially only one theme with the content of the fourth blessing being not much different from the first. In that case, why indeed was Birkas HaMazon formulated as four separate blessings?
To make this question even sharper, we in fact have another blessing, the brachah achas mei’ein shalosh, colloquially referred to as Al HaMichyah, which seems to cover the same territory in only one blessing. Why is it that when we eat cake, or any of the seven species, that we are able to compact our thanks and our prayers into one blessing, whereas after eating bread, we require four distinct blessings to say more or less the same thing?
We might add one more question to this initial overview: The mandate to recite Birkas HaMazon in the Torah is expressed in the verse in D’varim: “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta…” We indeed cite this verse in Birkas HaMazon, but it doesn’t show up until the second blessing. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to immediately – in the first blessing – cite the verse that obligates us to recite Birkas HaMazon? Why defer this statement of validation and fulfillment of the act we are performing until the second blessing?
Authorship of the Four Blessings
The Gemara in B’rachos 48b gives us a historical perspective that, at first glance, seems to help us out with our difficulties, but upon further reflection only raises additional questions.
The Gemara states that the four blessings were formulated by different individuals, at different times, and with different things in mind:
- Moshe Rabbeinu instituted the first blessing in connection with the mahn, the manna that was eaten by Israel in the wilderness;
- Yehoshua instituted the second blessing in connection with entering the Land of Israel;
- David and Shlomo instituted the third blessing in connection with the building of Yerushalayim and the Holy Temple (Beis HaMikdash); and
- The sages of Yavneh instituted the fourth blessing in connection with the massacre of Beitar after the destruction of the Temple. Specifically, it expresses thanks that the dead were able to be buried at that time.
At first glance, the Gemara helps answer many of our initial questions: We can understand that there are four separate blessings because they were instituted at separate times, by different people, with different purposes in mind. We can also understand why the verse in the Torah is not mentioned until the second blessing: This verse references the land, but at the time of the composition of the first blessing, the Jews were still in the wilderness and did not have the land.
But upon further reflection, we are just faced with new questions: Why was each individual after Moshe compelled to compose an additional blessing and add it to the Birkas HaMazon, if prior to then the previous formulation was sufficient? Was Yehoshua coming to improve on the formulation of Moshe, or David and Shlomo and the Sages of Yavneh on Yehoshua?
Furthermore, the idea that the first blessing was instituted in relation to the mahn is very problematic. First of all, the mahn was only eaten for a brief period in Jewish history – 40 years. Certainly nowadays, we do not eat the mahn. We get our food from the ground. If so, why was the blessing instituted by Moshe over the mahn relevant for future generations? To put it another way, why shouldn’t we begin Birkas HaMazon with the second blessing, which discusses food growing from the earth? What is the relevance to us of a blessing instituted for the mahn?
Going further, if we look at the actual text of the first blessing, we are totally confused. This blessing beautifully praises Hashem for feeding and nurturing all of his creation, all humans, with love and kindness. “He provides bread to all people, for His kindness is boundless.” This blessing contains no reference to the Jewish people whatsoever. It goes without saying that other nations, other humans, never ate mahn. So why would Moshe compose a blessing about the mahn that has no reference to either the mahn or to the Jewish people. The subject of this blessing seems totally at odds with what the Gemara states as its intention. And again, if it indeed was composed in connection with the mahn, why was it instituted as part of Birkas HaMazon for all generations? Why do we recite such a blessing?