Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part IV)

Tomorrow evening we enter into the sabbatical or shmita year, and so once again I share with you a section from my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. In my three previous posts, I discussed the significance of sanctifying the act of eating, how saying this blessings can help us think about proper nutrition and a healthy diet, and how we should always relate to our food as a Divine gift.

This week, as is only fitting in the days after the world's largest climate-change protest here in NYC, I discuss how saying this blessings can help us to confront our increased alienation from the sources of our food. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education.
Birkat Ha-Mazon is an opportunity to examine where our food comes from, how it is grown and raised, how it is packaged and transported to us, and how it is prepared. In the modern era, most city-dwellers have lost touch with the sources of origin of their food. This is evident in the description of the world in Goldberger’s How to Thank HaShem for Food: “The earth is the most ancient and the most modern food-factory which was created and is constantly maintained by the Master of the Universe” (p. 21). We have become so alienated from the processes of farming and harvesting that in order to provide an analogy that makes sense to the contemporary reader, Goldberger describes the workings of the world in terms of a factory, the strongest symbol of industrialization and the human domination of the planet one could find!

Arthur Waskow analyzes the problem, asking whether “in our own time of earthquake both in the world and for the Jewish people . . . we need to rethink how to make food sacred as deeply as our ancestors did? For them, food was no longer what they grew in a small land by dint of their own labors, but what came to them by ship and camel train. For us, food has more and more become what is manufactured, not just grown: It comes from crossbred and genetically engineered plants and animals; it comes with inserted vitamins; it comes heavily packaged, precooked, frozen, irradiated, invented” (p. 68). Dr. Steven M. Brown asserts the value that Birkat Ha-Mazon can have in responding to this situation, for each time we say a blessing we acknowledge God and the chain of events (human or otherwise) that enabled us to have the gift of food in front of us.

Even when the Israelites experienced the miracle of manna falling from the sky, they still were obligated to collect it every morning, for it would rot if kept overnight (Exodus 16:21). The lesson here seems to be that our sustenance is the result of a partnership between God and human beings. Food is a miracle, but human effort plays a critical role in planting, raising, harvesting, and preparing the food we eat. Ultimately, God is the source of all of our nourishment, but we must also be aware of the humans (such as the farmers, the truckers, and the cooks) which brought the food to our mouths.
    Goldberger, Moshe. How to thank Hashem for Food: Lessons from Birkas Ha-Mazon. New York: Gross Books, 1988.
    Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part III)

Before I share with you this third gleaning from my master's thesis, I want to mention that my brilliant (and pedantic) friend Ori correctly observes that the title of this series is poorly worded, as we do not actually bless our bread. Rather, when we say a blessing we are blessing God, or rather, we are blessing God's ineffable name.

This is, of course, a critical difference. If you arrive late to Shabbat dinner, you are still required to make the blessings over the challah before you start eating. This is because, when we say a blessing over food, the food itself is in no way changed. What was previously an ordinary piece of bread is not made sacred (as is, for example, believed by many Christians to be the case for the communion wafer). Rather, it is our relationship to our food that is altered and made sacred, as is described in more detail in this excerpt. My 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.
According to tradition, Birkat Ha-Mazon was instituted by Moses at the time when the manna miraculously descended to feed the Israelites during their travels in the Sinai desert (Talmud Berachot 48b). Elie Munk, quoting S. R. Hirsch, writes that by connecting Birkat Ha-Mazon to the manna, the rabbis teach us that “every piece of bread eaten now is as much a gift from God as the manna was.” (1954, p. 211). Goldberger, drawing from Talmud Pesachim 118a, asserts that the process by which God “causes a seed to transform earth into food [is] as spectacular as the miracle of the splitting of the sea” (1988, p. 5).

The point of each of these statements is that food is always gift from God, a gift which cannot be taken for granted. The provision of food is a daily miracle, whether it is effortlessly picked from the trees (as in the Garden of Eden) or reaped from the earth through great effort (after leaving the Garden). “The message appears rather clear: When we thank God for giving us food, we are recognizing that there is no intrinsic difference between the manna and the livelihood one wrests from the earth through sweat and hard toil; both are gifts from heaven” (1984, p. 182).

This connection is also made in the blessing said prior to eating bread, “Ha-Motzi.” This blessing thanks God “who brings forth bread from the land.” Bread – not wheat, which would be more technically accurate – to affirm God’s centrality to the entire process of making bread, from the sprouting of the grain to its baking in the oven. As Evelyn Garfiel puts it, “finding his daily bread never ceases to be a Nes [miracle] even to the farmer who toils so hard to produce the grain, for he recognizes its ultimate source to be God’s loving care for all His [sic] creatures. It is God ‘Who brings forth [the] bread from the earth’” (1958, p. 122).