It is a common practice for many religious traditions that some form of prayer or blessing is recited before meals. In general, these express an awareness of how fortunate we are to have this food to eat, and that we cannot take it for granted. Theistic traditions like ours also acknowledge that the raw materials—fruits and vegetables, wheat and other grains, etc.—come from the earth. And since God created the Earth and all that issues from it, ultimately the produce of the Earth belongs to God. So, for instance, when we eat bread, we acknowledge God as its source:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth.
It is a commonly held belief that saying blessings of this sort over various kinds of food makes the food holy. Frequently rabbis are asked to “bless the challah.” But perhaps blessing the challah is not what we are doing at all. Perhaps, in fact, it is just the opposite. . .
There is a fascinating article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Baruch Bokser, who had been on the faculty of UC Berkeley, called: Ma’al and Blessings Over Food: Rabbinic Transformation of Cultic Terminology and Alternative Modes of Piety (JBL 100/4, 1981). In this article, Professor Bokser looked particularly at a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berakhot (Blessings) 4:1. Dr. Bokser observed:
Saying a blessing prevents me’ilah, the unlawful use of something whichbelongs to God. When the individual recites the blessing, he or sheacknowledges that the food was originally owned by God and that now itrepresents a gift. One thereby receives permission—or is granteddispensation—to make use of the divine bounty. The blessing’s effect,therefore, is to release the object from the status of the divine bounty.
When we recite a blessing over food, then, rather than sanctifying it, we are de-sanctifying it! We are effectively removing it from the realm of the holy, and placing into the realm of the ordinary, so that we ordinary mortals can partake of it without presuming upon God’s property.
In addition to blessings for various kinds of food, Jewish tradition prescribes blessings for after meals as well. Most familiar to us is the Birkat HaMazon, Blessing of the Meal, commonly translated as the Grace After Meals. Technically, we only recite Birkat HaMazon after a full meal that opened with bread, and thus with the motzi. Thus we not only remember the Creator of Earth before we partake of the Earth’s bounty, we do the same after we have partaken of this bounty.
Our Torah portion this week contains the key phrase out of which the Birkat HaMazon grows (Deuteronomy 8.10):
V’achaltah, v’savatah, uveirachtah et Adonai Elohecha, ‘al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan-lach.
When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you.
The body of the text of Birkat HaMazon is Rabbinic in composition, and focuses on four primary themes: a blessing of thanks for the food, a blessing of thanks for the Land of Israel, a prayer for the holy city of Jerusalem, and a blessing of thanks for God’s goodness.
On Shabbat and Holy Days, the Birkat HaMazon is preceded by Psalm 126 (Shir HaMa’a lot, Song of Ascents).
Since it is our practice at the temple to sing Birkat HaMazon at our communal meals, assuming they have begun with a Motzi, you might want to take a look at the text and listen to a wonderful rendition by a cantor of the Reform Movement, so that you can practice it at your leisure. Here is the link, from the Union for Reform Judaism.
For some, blessings before meals may desacralize food. But at the very least, they serve to remind us of how fortunate we are to have enough to eat, and remind us to help those who do not.
This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.
Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)
As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.
Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.
It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.