World of the Sages: Giving thanks

By sincerely reciting blessings we elevate the mundane, physical necessity of dining to a Divine plane.

birkat hamazon 88 (photo credit: )
birkat hamazon 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish tradition mandates blessings before and after we eat. By sincerely reciting blessings we elevate the mundane, physical necessity of dining to a Divine plane, where God's role in providing sustenance is acknowledged.

Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) is the only food-related blessing for which the Talmud identifies a biblical source (Deuteronomy 8:10): "And you will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you" (B. Berachot 48b). As such, Birkat Hamazon is the prototypical blessing.

Four blessings comprise Birkat Hamazon. The first blessing thanks God for giving us sustenance. Our sages tell us that Moses instituted this blessing, which is indicated in the verse by the words "and you will bless," when the manna descended for the Jewish people in the desert.

The biblical words "for the land" suggest the second blessing that was established by Joshua upon the Jewish people's entry into the Land of Israel.

The third blessing, expressing the hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, is connected to the word "good" and is credited to the founder of the capital, King David, and to his son the Temple builder, Solomon.

A fourth blessing was added later by the sages upon the burial of the bodies from the Beitar massacre in the second century. The Roman perpetrators had left the bodies exposed, but extraordinarily they did not decay. In recognition of that miracle and in appreciation of the opportunity to bury them, the sages appended a blessing.

A legal requirement to give thanks may reflect a sorry state of affairs; if there is truly abundant goodness we should reflexively thank God.

A close reading of the biblical passage from which the obligation to say Birkat Hamazon is derived may buttress our question. As the 19th century Italian scholar Samuel David Luzatto (Shadal) points out, the verse is not phrased as an instruction. Rather, the Bible is notifying us that our goodness will be so bountiful and our success so unbridled that we will recognize God's kindness and be naturally inspired to bless Him.

Indeed, the appropriate response to prosperity is to thank and bless the provider of that goodness. In our society, common courtesy dictates an expression of thanks whenever we receive something.

If thanking is the obvious rejoinder to the granting of goodness and if there is no biblical source requiring a blessing, why did the sages mandate the Birkat Hamazon?

Reading on in the biblical passage we are immediately confronted with a warning: "Beware lest you forget the Lord your God… lest when you have eaten and are satisfied and have built fine houses and dwelled (in them), and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold have increased and everything you own has prospered, then your heart may be haughty and you will forget the Lord your God…" (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).

A show of gratitude, despite being the fitting response, is not always the natural reaction. Though human nature may be to bless God for the goodness He provides, with the passage of time that fortune becomes standard and those who have prospered can no longer recall another reality.

Not realizing how privileged we are is not the only folly of prosperity; a worse state of forgetfulness can also ensue where the affluent dismiss God's hand, taking credit for good fortune. The Bible warns against this as well: "And you will say in your heart: My own power and the might of my own hand have attained this wealth for me" (Deuteronomy 8:17).

A verse in Moses's final poetic speech to the Jewish people encapsulates the progression from prosperity to rejection of God: "But Yeshurun" - referring to Israel - "grew fat and kicked / you grew fat and thick and gross / then he forsook the God who made him / and spurned the Rock of his deliverance" (Deuteronomy 32:15).

In truth, giving thanks is never an easy task. Our sages note that from the time of the world's creation there was no one who thanked God until our foremother Leah came along and thanked the Almighty (B. Berachot 7b). This designation is based on Leah's soliloquy when she names her son, Yehuda: "Now I will thank the Lord" (Genesis 29:35).

Extolling Leah for thanking God is surprising as she only expressed her appreciation once her fourth son was born. Even this thanks is accompanied with subtle indifference: "This time…" - implying that she did not feel driven to thank God for her fortune in bearing the first three boys. Surely her co-wife, Rachel, who was pining for offspring, would have been devastated to hear her sister only thank God for her fourth child.

Our sages explain that Leah prophetically saw that Jacob was to father 12 sons, and she presumed that each of his four wives would bear three sons. Upon the birth of her fourth son, Leah thanked God for granting her more than her allotment (Bereishit Rabbah 71:4 and parallels).

Though we can understand Leah's elation at bearing a fourth son, this hardly mitigates her lack of an expression of gratitude upon the birth of three healthy children.

Alas, expressions of appreciation may not always be the natural and straightforward response to good fortune. The biblical notion of blessing in the wake of being nourished and content may not be describing the instinctive reaction; it may be reflecting the ideal response. With this understanding we can appreciate why the sages translated the description of eating, being satisfied and blessing into the requirement of Birkat Hamazon.

As parents we encourage our children to develop the good habit of saying "thank you." Even though this may be an emotionless and mechanical expression, we aim to increase awareness in our children, encouraging them to be appreciative and thankful for what they receive. The sages mandate blessings, not because they support cold and detached words of thanks, rather because they are trying to inculcate feelings of gratitude for the goodness that God has bestowed upon us.

The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.