The biblical source for thanking God for our worldly gifts is to be found in this week’s portion, Ekev. As preparation of our meals takes a great deal of time and effort, and if our tradition mandates so many laws about permitted and prohibited foods, and if the Talmud devotes a complete chapter to the Grace after Meals, we should study this blessing in depth.
Let us begin with the Talmudic rule that we only recite the full Grace after Meals (three biblical and one rabbinic blessing) after eating a meal with bread. (Other foods mandate an abridged thanksgiving blessing.)
What is special about bread? In many societies, bread is the major component of every meal, the basic mainstay and “filler” of diet, the very “staff of life.” Nevertheless, the sacred Zohar provides a deeper reason: Bread symbolizes the partnership between humans and God. There are so many backbreaking processes in the production of bread that the individual may think it was due to his efforts alone that food is found on his table. Be mindful, exhort our Sages, to be grateful to the Source of Nature who is the ultimate provider of bread — and then share your bounty with others less fortunate, using the energy you derive from bread to act altruistically and not only egoistically.
When three or more eat together, we begin Grace after Meals with a special invitation, “zimun” in Hebrew; when 10 or more eat together, the name of God is added to zimun, teaching us that the purpose of a meal ought not only be nutritional or pleasurable — it must also be social, fraternal and communal. Indeed, the English words “companion” and “company” literally mean “with bread,” indicating that a friend is someone with whom you share a meal, and it is likely that the person with whom you share a meal will become your companion. In effect, food serves as a means to fellowship and sharing. And why should we share with others? Because God shares with us!
The zimun invitation leads into the first of the biblical blessings thanking God “who nourishes the entire world in His goodness, with graciousness, with loving-kindness and with sensitive compassion.” God gives whether the recipient deserves it or not, whether he/she has earned it or not — and so must we share with others.
The second of the biblical blessings thanks God “for having bequeathed to our ancestors a desirable, good and spacious land, as it is written in Your Bible, ‘you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.’” But the food I am eating comes from American farms … for close to 2,000 years we lived in exile from Israel — and we still recited this blessing: Why? We bless God for our ancestral land because exile expresses a precarious existence endangering Jewish survival. A stranger to the land and the bread on his table are soon parted. The earth upon which we stand can be pulled out from under us if we are living on it only by the largesse of the gentile owner. When your food grows on your own land, by contrast, the food is truly yours.
The third blessing of our Grace after Meals directs us toward Jerusalem, the earthly meeting point of God’s transcendence, the city from which God’s message of peace and tranquility will spread to the entire world.
Jerusalem is the home of Divine Presence, the vision of our national mission, the place where, according to our holy Prophets, all of humanity will gather and be redeemed.
There is also a fourth blessing, established in Yavne at the end of the aborted Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE. When the last stronghold of Betar was destroyed, hope for the restoration of a Jewish national home was dashed. In the wake of this defeat came the terrible Hadrianic persecutions during which the greatest of our pious Sages were tortured to death. At this time, the Romans forbade us from burying Jewish corpses, but miraculously, the bodies did not putrefy. Thus, the fourth blessing praises God “who is good, and who does good.” “Good” because the bodies did not rot, and “who does good” because eventually we could bury our dead.
Why does this historical miracle about burial find its way into the Grace after Meals? In tying the tragedy of Betar to the Grace after Meals, the Rabbis are teaching a critical lesson. It is proper to thank God for great miracles, but it’s important not to forget to thank Him for simple necessities. We must, even in the face of political and national defeat, appreciate whatever we have, and give thanks, even if only to be able to give our dead a proper burial.
The necessity of sharing God’s bounty, the yearning for Israel, the spiritual goal of Jerusalem and the need to appreciate whatever we have are all expressed in our majestic Grace after Meals. Fortunate is our generation that can add to the last blessing: “May the All-Merciful-One bless our reborn State of Israel, the beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.