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.