Our lives are saturated with blessings. Before almost any act and in almost every situation, there is an appropriate benediction. This is most certainly the case before we put food into our mouths.
Our sages set out the rules for blessings to be recited before eating (M. Berachot 6:1-3). On fruits - that is crop that grows on trees that produce fruit annually without withering away in winter - we recite: "Blessed are You, O God, our Lord, king of the universe, creator of the fruit of the tree."
Wine, despite its similarity to fruit, has its own unique benediction in recognition of its importance. The opening words are the same, and we conclude by saying "creator of the fruit of the vine."
The benediction over other fruit, such as bananas, and vegetables is "creator of the fruit of the ground." There is a dissenting opinion that does not reflect normative practice that on vegetables we say creator of various species of herbs.
A special blessing is mandated for the all-important staple - bread: "the One who brings forth bread from the earth." The Mishna does not describe a benediction for non-bread grain products - such as pasta, cake and porridge - but the Talmud mandates the blessing "creator of various kinds of food" (B. Berachot 35a-b).
Further in the Mishna a general blessing is coined: for everything exists by His word, and this blessing is recited over food that is not grown in the ground, such as meat and milk. This blessing is universal and comprehensive, for it is effective ex ante if it is recited before eating any food, even if that substance has its own special blessing.
On this background, the Talmud rules that it is forbidden for a person to benefit from this world - that is, to eat anything - without first reciting a blessing. The Talmud goes further, explaining that transgressing and eating without a blessing is akin to embezzling Temple property, items that have been set aside for a holy purpose.
A further talmudic statement removes the religious overtone from the misdemeanor of eating without the preceding benediction: Benefiting from this world without reciting a blessing is akin to robbing the Almighty and the Congregation of Israel.
One hassidic master - the Imrei Emet of Gur (1866-1948) - once quipped: Since eating without reciting the appropriate blessing is akin to stealing, this civil obligation is not primarily religious in nature and hence should be incumbent on Jew and gentile alike.
Rabbi Menahem Azarya da Fanu (1548-1620), the famed Italian kabbalist and halachic authority, once related to the grandiose feast that will celebrate the end of days (B. Bava Batra 74b-75a). The main course would be the Leviathan, a gargantuan sea creature that would satisfy all. The tent where the righteous will gather will be made from the hide of this creature of mythical proportions. A real meal, however, should be accompanied by bread, yet our sources are silent on whether bread will be served at this banquet. The Rema of Fanu - as he is known - offered a novel suggestion: A jar of magical manna had been preserved since the desert-wandering days. As the threat of the destruction of the First Temple loomed, this jar was spirited away to a safe hiding place. For the Leviathan feast, this jar would be found and served as bread.
What blessing should be recited on the manna? We can hardly laud "the One who brings forth bread from the land" when manna is not grown from the ground. Following the style of set out by our sages, the Rema of Fanu suggested that we will bless the One who brings forth bread from the heavens before eating the manna.
Years later the hassidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of DynÃ³w (1783-1841) recounted a discussion he heard at the table of his teacher and relative by marriage, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Zhydachiv (1763-1831). His teacher had wondered aloud what blessing would be recited on the manna. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech suggested the approach of the Rema of Fanu: the One who brings forth bread from the heavens. Those present were unconvinced and continued to debate the possibilities.
Finally one student impishly suggested that no blessing would be recited on the manna. Those present were shocked at the thought: eating the Almighty's holy manna with no blessing? Absurd! But the student was not deterred and he explained to those sitting around the table: Every object in this world contains sparks of godliness within, for there is no reality in this world devoid of the divine; without godly sparks, no physical matter would exist. Blessings recited before eating target the sparks of the divine hidden inside the food. The benediction recited reveals the divine sparks, releasing them from the physical bonds of this world. In this way the recital of a blessing elevates a mundane physical food from the plane of the material to the realm of the spiritual. The benediction changes the culinary experience from a routine satisfaction of bodily needs to a sacred act with mystical significance.
Thus far with regard to normal foods. The manna, however, was an otherworldly substance, a divine food. It was so infused with godliness that it had no true physical manifestation. As such, its consumption was not a physical act that required spiritual elevation and hence no blessing was called for.
Hearing this explanation, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech was impressed, but wondered how the holy Rema of Fanu had said that a blessing would be recited in the end of days. Indeed, a close reading of our talmudic passage seems to support the student's approach: "It is forbidden to benefit from this world without a blessing," yet the manna was not of this world and hence carried no blessing requirement.
Before we derive benefit from this world, it is appropriate to acknowledge the hand of the Almighty by reciting a blessing. In this way we reveal the divine even in the mundane.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.