Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why do we bless our bread?

As some of you will recall, my master's thesis as a student at Davidson School of Education (15 years ago!) was on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. As we round the corner into a shmita year, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you a section of that work. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section be found after the jump.
A concern for food appears at the very beginning of the Bible. Sustenance for human beings, and for all creatures, is viewed as an intrinsic component of the Divine plan of creation. In God’s first address to humanity, in the first chapter of Genesis, God instructs the humans that they may eat from every plant on the ground and every fruit of the tree (Gen. 1:29). Shortly thereafter, this is qualified with the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Just as babies receive nourishment while in the womb, in the “perfect” paradise of the Garden of Eden, food is provided for humans without any effort on their part.
When the humans are expelled from Eden, a new stage in their relationship with food begins. Now, God admonishes Adam, only “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:19). This is the first mention of bread in the Bible, which, in contrast to the fruit of the Garden of Eden, requires human labor. In the next chapter, perhaps in response to the anxiety provoked by the responsibility of providing food for oneself, Cain and Abel bring the first sacrificial offerings to God (Gen. 4:3-4). This offering can be seen as a petition, or as a thanksgiving, for successful harvests and healthy livestock.

Arthur Waskow writes of two ways by which the ancient Israelites sanctified the food they ate, which can be traced back to these first four chapters of Genesis. “One major approach they took to hallowing food was to set some aside as sacred, others as forbidden” (23).  The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge can be seen as paradigmatic of this approach, later reflected in laws of Kashrut, tithing, fasts, Sabbatical years, and so on. The “other process for hallowing food was to take the products of the land to a single place, the Temple in Jerusalem, there to bring God near to them” (24). The offerings of Cain and Abel are the prototype for sacrificial worship, evinced in stories of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7) and so on, and which ultimately reaches its peak in the unified system of regulated sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
These two dimensions for the sanctification of food -- that of making distinctions between food which may and may not be eaten and that of consecrating food as an offering to God -- will be discussed in great detail in the upcoming sections.  Here, I wish to emphasize that there is a third conception of the sanctification of food. The very act of eating, the turning of physical matter into energy, of the life-force in a plant or animal into one’s own life-force, is in itself a sacred activity.

Samuel H. Dresner contrasts the way that such basic human drives as hunger and sex are understood by Paganism and Judaism. Paganism “glorifies these powers as such,” (13) and sees the natural world as intrinsically holy. The only goal of life, consequently, is the satisfaction of one’s basic, hedonistic desires. In Jewish thought, by contrast, only God, “the Holy One,” is seen as intrinsically holy; nature, and the natural world, “is neither holy nor unholy” (14). Biblical support for this idea is found in the wording of the story of creation. As Allen Grossman points out (392), when God creates the world, and the various living things in it, God does not call it “holy,” but “good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, etc.).

However, the possibility of making the ordinary into the sacred is a constant potential, a potential that is realized when the Divine is made present through human activity. Judaism, therefore, asserts that in every action there is a potential for holiness, and life is structured around the attempt to realize this potential in every deed. Indeed, “the duty of the Jew is to lift up all of life to God, to hallow the everyday, so that all of life becomes holy” (Dresner, 17, italics in the original). The hallowing of daily life is accomplished by two means: The performance of Mitzvot -- actions commanded by God -- and the saying of blessings, the purpose of which is the realization of the Divine quality of every action. Eating, as one of the most basic of daily activities, one shared with all animals (and, in some sense, plants), is an opportunity to bring holiness into one’s life on a consistent and fundamental basis.

The Jewish mystical tradition sees the sanctification of eating as “not just one among many aspects of correct action . . . [but] among the most important” (Waskow, 100). The Sefer Yetzirah explains that in order to create the world, God had to contract inwardly and open a space in which a finite, knowable universe could exist. God created vessels (“keylim”) within which to contain the holiness that had been contracted, but they could not hold the Divine presence and shattered into fragments. Sparks of Divine holiness (“n’tzitzot”) were scattered throughout all of creation. Through the hallowing of daily activities, one may gather these scattered sparks of holiness, thereby healing and repairing the world (“tikkun olam”).

Saying Birkat Ha-Mazon is a Mitzvah; even if said by rote, one sanctifies the act of eating. However, according to the sixteenth century mystic Isaac Luria, this is not enough to free the spark of Divine holiness that may be embedded in the food one eats. Only through intense concentration and spiritual focus (“kavanah”) can this be accomplished. In contemporary terms, one might see the act of making the blessing as an opportunity both to realize that it is miraculous that we can turn plants and animals into energy, or to become mindful of how this energy will be used to work toward the betterment of the world.

Arizal explicitly connects the sparks of holiness with the nourishment that food provides. He explains that “every physical object or being owes its existence to a holy spark buried within it. Man’s soul inhabits his body and derives nourishment from the food he eats as well as from the Torah he studies and the good deeds he performs. A person eats. His body extracts the vitamins and minerals in needs, but that does not keep him alive, for if his soul were to leave him he would be no more animate than rocks and sand.  His soul extracts the spark of holiness within the food – and that maintains life” (Scherman, 1977, 18).

In the chapter of Deuteronomy in which we find the passage upon which Birkat Ha-Mazon is based, Moses also tells the Israelites that God gave them “manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deut. 8:3). Scherman, quoting from the Sifsei Tzaddik’s commentary on this verse, writes that “the great lesson of the manna [was that] man does not live by bread – by flour and water and leavening, its calories and vitamins and minerals – he lives by the emanations of God that are in every slice of bread.” (Scherman, 1977, 18, italics in the original). It is perhaps no coincidence that authorship of the first paragraph of Birkat Ha-Mazon is attributed to Moses, when the manna first fell from the sky.

In Jewish thought, eating is not seen as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. Reciting Birkat Ha-Mazon is an essential step toward experiencing the act of eating as a holy act, especially when it is said with comprehension and with intention. It is also the perfect opportunity for us to focus on the choices we make about what we put into our bodies and how we use the energy this nutrition provides.


  • Dresner, Samuel H.  The Jewish Dietary Laws: Their Meaning for our Time.  New York: The Burning Bush Press, 1959.

  • Grossman,Allen. Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought Eds. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. New York: The Free Press, 1987 

  • Scherman, Rabbi Nosson.  Birkat Ha-Mazon: Grace After Meals.  New York: Mesorah Publications, 1977.  

  • Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life.  New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995. 

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