Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part II)

Continuing to mine my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals, as we build up to the shmita year, this week I share with you the section on using the prayer as an opportunity to focus on proper nutrition. I won't overstate the analogy, but I believe that just as saying this prayer can be a time for personal and communal reflection on issues relating to food, diet and nutrition, so too can we look at the coming year as a chance to rethink and renew our approaches to these topics. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
The World Health Organization defines "Health" as balance between physical, mental and social being. Birkat Ha-Mazon reminds us of the need to pay attention to, and strike a balance between, each one of these aspects of our health. Birkat Ha-Mazon is a social activity, as it is often said as the conclusion of a communal meal. Focusing on the text can lead to heightened cognitive awareness of, and encounter with, challenging issues affecting Jews and people in general. Here, I wish to look at the role that Birkat Ha-Mazon can play as a focal point in thinking about the physical impact of food on our bodies, or in other words, for nutrition education.

According to Genesis 1:26, humans are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. Although the interpretations of this are manifold, one generally accepted implication is that any form of self-harm violates Jewish law as it is a desecration of the Divine image. The extent to which this principle is applied varies: Some communities forbid body-piercing based on this idea, while others will not smoke cigarettes. Arguably, a concern for proper diet and exercise should be considered a Jewish obligation.

Birkat Ha-Mazon is a mandatory pause at the conclusion of a meal. We can use this time to make a connection between the food we have eaten and the nourishment it has provided us. This is also an opportunity for us to reflect upon the choices we have made with the foods we have eaten. One might ask oneself questions along the lines of: Did I waste food?  Did I overeat? Was the food grown (or raised) in a manner that fits with my ethics? How did this food get from its point of origin to me? How did the choices I made affect other people’s lives?

Furthermore, Birkat Ha-Mazon can be an opportunity to focus on eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. [The guidance of a trained counselor should be sought before leading any discussions on this subject.] Such “unhealthy eating” might be contrasted with the self-denial of the Jewish fasts. Regulated fasts are an intrinsic part of the Jewish year, and fasting is considered by many rabbis to be an effective form of atonement. Nevertheless, health is always considered a priority, and those for whom fasting is a health concern are forbidden to do so.

One might also make the connection to the entire digestive process. Just as there are blessings to be said before and after eating, there is also a blessing to be said after elimination! The “asher yatzar” blessing, which is recited after using the bathroom, thanks God for the wondrous working of our internal organs.

In short, Birkat Ha-Mazon, as a pause after eating, can be a time to reflect upon and re-evaluate the food decisions which one makes, from the types of food to the quantity. The balance between the social, mental, and physical aspects of the blessing can help us to examine the balance between these aspects in our lives.

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