At the conclusion of every meal we thank the Almighty for the nourishment we have been given. Birkat hamazon, the Grace after Meals, is not merely an expression of thanks; rather the text of this prayer reflects central themes and recounts historic episodes.
The Talmud records the history of the formation of birkat hamazon highlighting the historical context of each of its four sections (B. Berachot 48b). The first section speaks of God-given sustenance, and the Talmud tells us that this paragraph was instituted by Moses at the time that the manna fell from heaven in the desert for the wandering Jewish people. Here we thank the Almighty for the continued nourishment bestowed upon us and indeed granted to all living things. Thus the blessing concludes: "Blessed are You, O God, who gives sustenance to all."
The second section was instituted by Joshua when the fledgling nation entered the Land of Israel. This passage recognizes the divine gift of our homeland. It recounts the Exodus from Egypt, mentions the covenant with the Almighty and the Torah that serves as the hub of our relationship with God. The culmination of our liberation, of the covenant and of the law is the possession of our own land where we can flourish as a people in the Almighty's image. This portion thanks God for everything and concludes: "Blessed are You, O God, for the land and for the food."
The third part of birkat hamazon is attributed to two authors - King David and his son King Solomon. The Talmud explains that David composed the first part of this blessing that refers to the Jewish nation and its focal city, Jerusalem. When referring to the nation's capital, the Bible merely mentions the place that God, your Lord, will choose (Deuteronomy 12:5) without specifying the location of that place. King David was the first Jewish sovereign to make Jerusalem his capital. While Jerusalem lay on the border of two tribes - Judah and Benjamin - King David chose this border city as the capital, expressing that the Jewish people are not merely a conglomerate of different tribes descended from one ancestor; rather they are one united nation. Thus Jerusalem is not a border town on the seam between the lands of two tribes; it is a city in the heart of a nation.
King David's son and successor, King Solomon, continued the work of his father, building the Temple in the capital city. To the blessing of his father, King Solomon added a mention of the Temple: "The great and holy house over which Your name is proclaimed." This blessing signs off with the words: "Blessed are You, O God, who in His compassion rebuilds Jerusalem."
Later authorities note that the text which we have before us could not have been the text recited by King David and King Solomon for they had no need to request the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Instead, they prayed for continued peace and tranquility in the land, stability in government and permanence of the Temple (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). David and Solomon - according to one codifier - concluded their blessing with the phrase: "Blessed are You, O God, who sustains Jerusalem" (Rabbi David Abudraham, 14th century, Seville, Spain). Thus the two rulers set the theme for this third part of the birkat hamazon without coining the exact words that we say.
While the first three sections of birkat hamazon reflect central themes of our existence and destiny, the fourth part is of a different timbre in that it appears to be specific to an historic episode. During the reign of Hadrian, Roman emperor in the second century, Bar Kochba led an uprising against Roman rule. When the Roman overlords crushed the rebellion, they took revenge by massacring innumerable people in the city of Betar. The Roman reprisal did not stop there: As punishment the Romans forbade the burial of the slaughtered people and their bodies were left strewn in the streets of Betar to be scavenged by vultures.
Some time later, the rabbinic court in Yavne, under the leadership of Rabban Gamliel, fasted and prayed for a reversal of this cruel decision. At great personal expense, Rabban Gamliel bribed the Roman oppressors to permit the burial of those killed in Betar. Finally permission was granted and when they went to bury the murdered people, they found that their bodies had not decayed. The Yavne rabbinic court then instituted the fourth section of birkat hamazon, entitled hatov vehameitiv - [God] who is good and who confers good.
The Talmud explains the double language: God who is good in that miraculously the bodies did not decompose. And God who confers good in that ultimately the slain people were accorded a proper burial.
Why was this blessing included in birkat hamazon? One commentator explains that with the massacre at Betar the dignity of Israel was cut down. Our honor will be restored only when Jerusalem will once again be rebuilt. Thus this fourth section is a continuation of the previous benediction requesting the reconstruction of Jerusalem (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain).
Another commentator suggests that the thankful benediction of hatov vehameitiv befits the joyous atmosphere of a feast (Abudraham). Indeed, a shorted form of this blessing is recited upon propitious rainfall or upon hearing good news (M. Berachot 9:2). The shortened form of the blessing is even recited on a second glass of wine that is better quality than the first glass (B. Berachot 59b).
A final explanation of the inclusion of the hatov vehameitiv blessing offers an insight into the symbolism of this benediction (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague). The bodies of the slaughtered did not decompose and similarly, though we are physically exiled, we do not decay. The spirit of our people retains its vitality even as we pray for a complete redemption. Hatov - we thank the Almighty for ensuring that we do not rot in physical exile, vehameitiv - and we thank the Almighty who will grant us a spiritually restful place.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.
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