You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless Hashem your
If we had to guess, we would have predicted that the Torah would ask us to
thank Hashem after a meal. We are so comfortable with the practice of
making berachos before eating, that we don’t even realize the difficulty and
awkwardness of a commandment to “bless” Hashem, as if we were the ones
offering Him something!
Rewind a few pesukim, and we can begin to find a solution to the problem.
The Torah spoke of the manner in which HKBH sustained us in the wilderness,
feeding us the mon, and providing for our other needs. It then transitions
us to life in the Land of Israel, where He would insure an abundance of
food, albeit of a less overtly miraculous variety.
The essential point here is that the two ways in which Hashem sustains us
are virtually identical; they are two sides of the same coin. For forty
years, Bnei Yisrael saw Providence extended to each and every one of them,
miraculously and individually. Every morsel of food they ate was a gift from
Heaven, addressed to each person, and inaccessible through any kind of human
activity alone. For forty years, they learned about Hashem’s care and
concern, internalizing a lesson they would need to recall for the rest of
history: each measure of bread we eat, although grown, ground and baked by
Man, is no different from a portion of mon.
According to our mesorah, the antecedent of the command to bless Hashem is
the bread mentioned in the pasuk that precedes ours. The mitzvah of birkas
ha-mazon, therefore, is limited to meals that include bread. This is
counterintuitive to many people, who find it easier to thank G-d for
receiving something special and out of the ordinary, than for the bread that
enables our very existence. We cannot live, they argue, without subsistence
nutrition. As long as we are alive, He owes us the basic enablers of life.
Our effusive praise in birkas ha-mazon should be occasioned by gifts without
which we could survive. Those are the blessings that show His Providence.
Halacha, however, dictates a very different mindset. We “bentsch” Hashem
precisely when we understand that everything comes from Him, that we are
entirely powerless to provide ourselves with our most basic needs like
bread, and that existence itself is His gift of love for us.
If every bite of bread is like the mon, and if it symbolizes existence
itself, then birkas ha-mazon is not a simple “thank you,” but a
reorientation of our lives and our selves towards His service. When we stand
in profound realization of our absolute dependence upon Him – no different,
really, from the unnatural way our forebears were sustained by Him in the
wilderness - and our indebtedness towards Him, we are able to dedicate
ourselves completely to His mission and expectations of us. In that
dedication we find the “blessing,” as it were, of Hashem: it is the pledge
to work towards the fulfillment of His Will that is the blessing.
We can now more readily understand the architecture of birkas ha-mazon. It
is not about food, but about existence – and Jewish existence is nuanced and
complex. Thus, we find within it four berachos, not one.
We begin with the first, the most obvious. We acknowledge that what we ate
is a Providential gift of His Goodness. Depending on who we are, we will
receive it בחן, בחסד,ברחמים , – either through His grace, His love, or, when
all other arguments in our favor fail, through His compassion. Through one
of these approaches, our physical existence is continued and vouchsafed
It is impossible to separate our individual existence from our place within
the Jewish people, and its role in furthering His plan for the world. In the
second berachah, we acknowledge the special relationship with Him that
supports this role. Nothing indicates the role of the Jewish people as much
as the Land of Israel, whose fortunes mirror the spiritual accomplishment of
its people. When our actions accord with our mission, we dwell on that land
in security. When we fail, we are exiled from it, and it remains desolate.
The specialness of the Land presupposes the Bris Avraham, in which each
Jewish male pledges his entire body to the service of Hashem. That service,
in turn, is a fulfillment of the dictates of the Torah. Thus, the three
elements of the second berachah – Land, bris, and Torah – form a relational
set that moves us from the fact of our existence to its goal.
In the third berachah the purpose-driven national existence of our people
moves from the theoretical to its manifestation. The Jewish national goals
are best expressed through the rich symbolism structured into the Torah’s
sanctuary in Yerushalayim. Dovid ha-Melech’s reign turned Torah goals into
reality like no other period; the dynasty he founded expresses the idea of
continuity to the rule of Torah law. The third berachah by right ought to be
a prayer for the continuity of mikdosh and malchus. With the destruction of
the Temple, however, it took a new form – a prayer for the restoration of
the old Yerushalayim.
The ill-fated revolt against Rome decades after the churban left in
shambles Jewish hopes for rebuilding Yerushalayim through their own devices
and efforts. When the Romans consented to allow the dead of Betar to be
buried after many years, Chazal saw fit to add a fourth berachah to the
three required by Torah law. It would fix in our minds the memory of Betar,
and the inexplicable change of heart of the Roman authorities. We are
expected to learn though it that Hashem’s closeness to us in galus would
continue to show itself according to His timetable, and that we were to turn
to Him to seek an end to galus, but not to our own plots and plans.
In the hands of Chazal, birkas ha-mazon became the raw material out of which
they would construct the entire institution of berachos. Through them, we
would learn to look beyond what we were about to enjoy, and focus upon the
One Who gives us that enjoyment. Chazal would ordain for us a set of
berachos not only after eating, but before benefiting from many earthly
pleasures. Through these berachos, we hope to become worthy of those
pleasures, and to pledge to turn them into greater vigor and energy in
turning His Will into reality.
A different berachah – the one recited before Torah study – may also be
required by Torah law. It, too, would become a model – in this case, for
berachos before mitzvos.. While berachos before eating would ready us for
proper consumption, this second set of berachos would orient our mitzvah
performance towards its proper goal. We emphasize אשר קדשנו במצותיו – we
seek nothing less than holiness when we happily respond to His commands.
Between the berachos before enjoying physical pleasures, and those before
performance of mitzvos, Chazal punctuate our day with numerous statements
and restatements of what is really the core of our fixed tefillah-periods:
our dedication to turning our lives and everything in them towards His
service. Twice a day in the beis ha-mikdosh, we offered the korban olah on
behalf of the entire nation, stating our determined struggle to elevate our
lives ever higher towards its lofty goal. In the absence of our Temple, that
articulation moves to a different place – to the berachos we recite
throughout the day.