neighborhood. And you’re hungry. Your stomach is actually rumbling. The table is spread with a basket of fresh pita bread, some steamed vegetables, a huge platter of burgers and kabobs and a chilled pitcher of iced tea. You sit down, gratefully recite the short, sentence-long benedictions before eating, and dig in.
Picture the scene only minutes later: Your belly is full… too full actually. So full, that all you can picture doing is stretching out on the couch with the newspaper. Full enough that you’re ready to go off to your room and work on that school project or call a friend to get together. You push your chair back from the table, ready to rush off. Why is it that once our bodies are sated, it is easier for our souls to forget to whom we owe thanks? How come it is more natural to say the Jewish version of “For what we are about to receive, we thank You, G-d” before we eat, than to thank G-d for what we already received?
When people pray only when they are inspired to, when it is meaningful to them, they are overlooking the purpose of prayer and the need for practice. Regular, formal prayer increases our awareness of G-d in our lives and the role which He plays. And if you want to do something right, you have to practice (even when you don’t feel like it and would rather stretch out on the couch, do your schoolwork, call a friend). If you pray regularly, you will learn to express yourself better and develop the proper mindset, even if you’re saying the same set text of the Jewish liturgy day after day, meal after meal. Routine doesn’t translate into the meaningless and mundane. Its intent is to allow for the concentration and desire needed to fulfill the obligation to pray.
Though it is one of the most important prayers in Judaism, one of the very few that the Bible commands us to recite, this prayer is never even recited in synagogue! This prayer is called the Birkat Hamazon, literally “Blessing of the Food”, more commonly known as “Grace After Meals.” The scriptural source for the requirement to say Grace After Meals is Deuteronomy 8:10 “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your G-d for the good land which He gave you”.
Every Jewish Prayer book contains the text of the Grace After Meals but the ones which are more commonly used are the small, pocket-sized, double or triple-folded cardboard versions. I doubt that there is a religiously observant Jewish household that does not own dozens (if not hundreds) of these printed booklets with the Grace After Meals. Most homes have drawers or pantries- full, every purse and wallet has one for meals on the go, and most are laminated to withstand being pulled out at food-filled tables, picnics, bus and subway commutes or a schoolyard. After all, the Grace After Meals is a prayer which could end up being said a few times a day.
Grace After Meals is probably one of the first prayers a child learns in his repertoire of prayers. One reason can be that traditional melodies are used for a good portion of this prayer and it’s easy to learn when sung aloud. Kids learn it, a few paragraphs at a time, sometimes not learning all the words until they’re a few years into elementary school. In kindergarten, before the young children learn how to read, the first paragraph of the Grace After Meals is learned by rote and sung enthusiastically and sweetly with an admittedly great number of mispronunciations. In kindergarten, even if the children all eat their sandwiches at different times, when everyone is done, they return to their small tables and chairs to sit and sing out this prayer to G-d. Kindergarteners all over Israel have a charming, 10-word Hebrew pre-prayer that they chant as an introduction to the Grace After Meals and I think it helps them understand what they are about to say: “We ate, we are satisfied, the food was tasty, and now, we will all say this prayer and thank our G-d.” Says it all!
It’s a joy to listen to. I still get a kick out of Elitzur, because now that he’s in first grade, heactually points his chubby little finger on the words, following along as he reads, sounding the words out, realizing he has to relearn quite a few of them!
I think another reason this is one of the first prayers kids learn is because it teaches a value we are always trying to instill in our children. “What do you say to your Aunt Sara for the new dress?” “Don’t forget to say thank you to Rebecca’s mother for letting you stay for lunch.” You leave a store, you remind your child to say thank you to the cashier; you get off a bus, you tell him to thank the driver. Appreciation. Gratitude. It’s so much easier to say “please” because we say it when we want something. After we get it, it’s just not as easy to remember or not as natural to take the time and effort to say thanks. And that’s what the Grace After Meals is. Thank you.
I remember, when I was growing up, there was a (slightly blasphemous?) sentence we kids used to say as a comic replacement for what we felt was a too-lengthy prayer: “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Yay G-d!” The Grace After Meals is long. It is a major commitment and it gets said after every meal that includes bread (or matzah) made from one of the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt. Sometimes it requires concentration and introspection to focus on the meaning of each word and not to mumble and rush through the words before hurrying off to resume our reality. On Shabbat and on holidays, when our family sits around the festive meal, we can take the time to sing the prayer aloud, each paragraph with its traditional melody or chant and it is easier to block out extraneous thoughts and sing out to G-d at leisure.
We would never leave a meal at a friend’s home without thanking our gracious hosts. And that’s what we are doing here. We are guests in G-d’s world and He is our host and we will thank Him. And not just for the food we have just eaten and enjoyed. In this prayer you find many expressions of gratitude for having food to eat, as well as for the Land of Israel, the Exodus from Egypt which allowed us to become a nation, the Torah, and other good things we enjoy in life. And of course, while our “host “is listening, we ask Him for some favors. The majority of the Grace After Meals consists of prayers for the Redemption, the return to Israel, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, health and well-being, sustenance and dignified self-sufficiency.
The Grace is made up of four benedictions, the first three originating from the original Scriptural command and the fourth instituted much later by the Sages.
The first is a blessing of thanks for G-d providing food and sustenance for all. It represents a public thanksgiving for G-d’s goodness to all humanity. This section was composed by Moses in gratitude for the manna which the Jews ate in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. We declare that the motive of our request for food is not selfish, but so that we may be better able to serve G-d.
“Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the Universe, who feeds the entire world with His goodness, who with grace, kindness and mercy provides every organism with sustenance, because His kindness is eternal… For the sake of His great name… Opening Your hand, You satisfy every wanting, living being.”
The second blessing thanks G-d for leading us out of Egypt, making His covenant with us and giving us the Land of Israel as an inheritance. It is attributed to Joshua after he led the Jewish people into Israel. “We seek to thank You, Lord our G-d for bequeathing to our forefathers a gorgeous, wonderful, wide-open land and for delivering us… from the land of Egypt and for redeeming us from a regime of slavery… and for teaching us Your Torah, and for communicating to us Your Laws… And for everything we thank You and bless You; Your name will be exalted in the speech of all living beings, constantly and until eternity, as it is written, `And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your G-d for the fine land He gave you.` Blessed are You, Lord, for the homeland and for the produce.”
While the previous benedictions expressed gratitude for past favors, the third one is a prayer… a petition to protect and ensure the future flowering and rebuilding of Zion and Jerusalem. It is ascribed to King David who established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to King Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem. “And hurry to rebuild Jerusalem as the sacred capital in our age. Blessed are You, Lord, who in His mercy is rebuilding Jerusalem. Amen”
The fourth benediction praises and thanks G-d for His goodness. This blessing was added around 137 C.E. after the failed revolt of Bar Kokhba, and the terrible murder and exile of Jews at the hands of the Romans. Despite the tragedy that makes up the background of this blessing, amazingly, it emphasizes the goodness of G-d’s work, that G-d is good and does good:
“Blessed are You… our King, our champion, our creator, our savior… our ideal of sacredness, our shepherd… the benign King bestowing well-being upon all… who has rewarded us, continues and will persist forever in rewarding us; for the sake of grace, kindness and mercy, for rescue and relief, prosperity and salvation, consolation, sustenance and provision, mercy, life and peace and all that is worthy…”
After these four blessings, there is a series of short prayers, each beginning with the word Harachaman, “The Merciful One” which asks for G-d’s compassion. They contain prayers for the hosts of the table and for all those present; they contain a prayer for the coming of Elijah and a prayer that we may be worthy to see the days of the Messiah. The Grace After Meals also incorporates additional blessings for various special occasions like holidays and Shabbat. This special prayer is often connected with occasions of joy. At the celebratory meals for the bride and groom for the whole week following a Jewish marriage and at the celebratory meal of a Jewish baby’s ritual circumcision, the Grace After Meals becomes the climax of the party. Additional introductory lines and special blessings are added to the conclusion of the Grace to reflect the joy of the occasion.
As we near the end of the Grace we say a prayer for peace, for what good is food and drink without the blessing of peace which will allow us to enjoy those blessings?
“The Merciful Being should admit us to the era of Messiah… He should establish a peace over us and over all of Israel…” The final passage is a collection of Biblical verses. It is a passage which is more a hope and an ideal than a fact. “They who fear the Lord know not want” (Psalms 34:10) and “I have been young and now I am old, yet have I not seen a righteous man forsaken, nor his offspring begging for food” (Psalms 37:25).
The Grace After Meals raises the satisfaction of a physical craving into something much more spiritual. The Rabbis have said that until the Temple is rebuilt, prayer replaces the sacrifices to G-d which are so much a part of Temple worship. Through this prayer, I feel my family table becomes the family altar. May bounty always fill our table and may our voices always ring out in full-hearted praise to G-d for His blessings.
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities