Whenever we gather together to eat, there is always the question of who should recite the blessings. Should the host honor one of the guests with leading all present, or is it the host's obligation to recite the benedictions?
The Talmud recounts a tale that focuses on this very question (B. Berachot 46a). Rabbi Zeira was once in poor health and his colleague Rabbi Abahu paid him a visit. Rabbi Abahu accepted upon himself a vow, saying: "If the small man with the singed thighs [a nickname for the diminutive Rabbi Zeira who had once been scorched in an oven (B. Bava Metzia 85a)] will recover, I will make a festival for the rabbis." Rabbi Zeira indeed recovered and Rabbi Abahu organized a feast for the all the rabbis.
When all were seated and the meal was about to start, Rabbi Abahu turned to Rabbi Zeira inviting him to recite the appropriate blessing, break the bread and begin the meal. Rabbi Zeira declined: "Don't you hold of the ruling that the host should recite the blessing and break the bread?"
The Talmud explains that Rabbi Abahu indeed adhered to the opinion that the host should break the bread. Why then, we may ask, did Rabbi Abahu ask Rabbi Zeira to begin the meal? Commentators explain that since the meal was in honor of Rabbi Zeira, Rabbi Abahu considered him the host and therefore expected him to start the meal (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona; and others).
Our sages explain the reason that the host should be the one to begin the meal: So that the host will break the bread with a "good eye," that is, generously offering the guests large pieces.
Based on an interchange between two hassidic personalities, perhaps we can suggest a further reason why the host is the most appropriate person to break the bread.
Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halevi Halstock of Ostrowiec (1852-1928) was once visited by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter of Gur (1866-1948). As was the custom, the host asked for fruit and beverages to be brought for his guest. When the refreshments were served, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai did not touch the food. Rabbi Meir Yehiel was somewhat surprised: "Why won't you taste anything?" he inquired.
Rabbi Avraham Mordechai astutely answered by referring to a talmudic passage (B. Berachot 35a-b). Our sages declare that it is forbidden to benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing. Eating with no prior benediction, or for that matter deriving any benefit from this world without acknowledging the Almighty, is akin to embezzlement; indeed the Psalmist says: "The earth and all that is in it belongs to God" (Psalms 24:1).
The talmudic discussion continues, comparing the verse that attributes all to divine ownership with another biblical verse: "The heavens are the heavens of God, but the land He gave to humans" (Psalms 115:16). Do the earth and all that it contains belong to the Almighty, or did God give them to humans?The Talmud explains that the two verses are referring to two different junctures: Before a blessing is recited all belongs to the Almighty, once the appropriate benediction has been said the rights to the object are granted by God to humans. Thus partaking of any item requires leave of the true owner, God, and this permission is obtained by saying a blessing.
Returning to our two hassidic masters, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai explained to his host, Rabbi Yehiel Meir: Until you recite a blessing you are offering me fruit and drink that is not yours! Only after you recite the blessing do the rights to the food transfer to you and then you can honor me as your guest.
Without hesitating, Rabbi Meir Yehiel picked up a fruit, made a blessing and ate. This was no trifle, for Rabbi Meir Yehiel was known to distance himself from all forms of involvement with the physical world. He did not change his clothes during the weekdays nor did he let his ears hear any melody even though he greatly loved music. Days would pass and Rabbi Meir Yehiel would remain silent without issuing so much as a word from his mouth. Hassidic lore records that Rabbi Meir Yehiel fasted for 40 years, eating only in the evenings. Thus joining his guest in eating refreshments was no small feat.
Once Rabbi Meir Yehiel had recited the blessing and tasted the fruit, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai also ate from the food that had been placed before them.
Here we see a further reason why the host must break bread first: If hosts seek to honor their visitors, they can only do so with their own food. Thus the host makes the blessing, effectively acquiring the rights to the food and then proffering it to the visitors.
At the end of the meal, however, the honor of leading the Grace is different. Returning to Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Zeira: At the conclusion of the feast, the host Rabbi Abahu invited Rabbi Zeira to lead the Grace After Meals. Once again Rabbi Zeira demurred: "Don't you hold of the ruling that the one who breaks the bread should also recite the Grace?" Here Rabbi Abahu did not agree with Rabbi Zeira. He felt that it was most appropriate for a guest to lead the Grace so that the leader could include a blessing for the host. Indeed, a guest who recites the Grace should offer a blessing to the host, though it is the host's prerogative to forgo the blessing and lead the recital (Shulhan Aruch OH 201:1).
One further law bears mentioning: If one is asked to lead and refuses, his days are shortened (B. Berachot 55a). Our sages derive this foreboding rule from the more positive divine pledge to Abraham - "And I will bless those who bless you" (Genesis 12:3). Thus blessing the host who has generously broken bread with a good eye is offering a blessing to the descendants of Abraham and in turn merits divine favor.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.