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).

In the Talmud, the rabbis emphasize that not only bread is a gift from God, but all food. Although Birkat Ha-Mazon is the only blessing commanded by the Torah (Deut. 8:10), based upon the statement from Psalms “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” (24:1) the rabbis nevertheless saw it as an obligation to acknowledge that all the fruits of the earth are a gift from God. Therefore, they “instituted the practice of reciting a benediction when partaking of any of them” (Klein 1972, p. 42). There are specific blessings prior to a meal based on several general categories: bread, all other grain-products, things grown on trees, things grown in the ground, wine, and all other edible substances.

The rabbis saw such blessings as not just a nice way of showing appreciation to God, but a true obligation (although, as they are not Biblically ordained, not technically as mitzvot). In Talmud Berachot 35a we read that “Our rabbis taught: It is forbidden to a person to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a benediction, that person commits sacrilege.” In the next passage, this notion is compared with “making personal use of things consecrated to heaven.” Here, the words “sacrilege” (“ma’al”) and “consecrated to heaven” (“mikadshei shamayim”) are reflective of the language of the Temple service, underscoring that if one ate food without reciting a blessing, it is as if one stole the sacrifice off of the altar of the Temple.

The idea that all of the Earth belongs to God, and that humans are merely its caretakers, is reflected in a wide range of Jewish laws, many of which are Biblically based. While the Temple was standing, Israelites were required to set aside the firstborn of all cattle, sheep, and goats, the early fruit from a young tree, the first barley and other foods at each season, and even part of all bread (the “challah”) made for the benefit of the priests or for sacrifice at the Temple to God, “as if to pay ‘rent’ to the owner” (Waskow 1995, p. 41). Only by setting aside these consecrated offerings was it permissible for one to make use of the remainder of the crop or the herd.

Human beings, in the Biblical view, did not have absolute authority over the use of the land or its products. Every seven years, no new planting or cultivation of the land could be done, to allow the Earth to rest (Ex. 23:11). During this “shmittah” or “Sabbatical” year, “any fruits or vegetations that grew by themselves . . . became hefker, i.e. public property, free for consumption by man and beast alike. The owner of a field was not permitted to store up in his home large amounts of produce, because this would deprive the poor of their sustenance. He was permitted to retain only enough fruits and vegetables for his own normal needs” (Chill 1974, p.109). Individuals were required to trust in God’s providence throughout the Sabbatical year, not in their own actions.

According to the understanding of both the Bible and the rabbinic commentators, all of the world is the property of God. Use of the land, and any food that could be taken from it, are Divine gifts. After the destruction of the Temple, by the time of the writing of the Mishnah at the end of the second century, “the rituals that permitted a person to consume the foods of the earth were not the sacrifices of animals at the Temple, or the offerings of meal, or the separation from one’s produce the gifts for the priests and Levites. The Jew had to recite the proper formal blessing before eating and then could benefit from the produce of the land” (Zahavy 1990, p. 32).

Dr. Steven M. Brown [in a personal conversation] asserts that there is an ethical responsibility derived from our awareness of the world as a gift from God. When one receives a precious gift, and offers one’s gratitude for it, in doing so one must also take responsibility for the care and safe-keeping of that gift. Similarly, he concludes, once we are aware that food, and the Earth itself, is a Divine gift, we are obligated to become stewards, or care-takers, of the planet.

There are many implications of this statement, and there is great disagreement about the degree to which such obligations may be extended. Yet, few would disagree that we are in an era of increasing awareness of the impact that our individual and collective actions have upon the planet. Many argue that unless dramatic life-style changes are made within our own lifetimes, irreversible damage will be done to fragile ecosystems across the globe.

Birkat Ha-Mazon, therefore, is an opportunity to be mindful of the Jewish law of “Ba’al Tashchit,” avoiding wasteful destruction; of ecological issues, including water quality, habitat depletion, and bio-engineering of food; and of steps individuals can take, such as recycling and shopping consciously.
If this is indeed true - that as we say Birkat Ha-Mazon we should give some thought to the leftovers (psolet) on our plates, to recycling, and so forth - how much the more so in this shmitah year!

    Chill, Abraham. The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1974.
    Garfiel, Evelyn. The Service of the Heart. New York: United Synagogue of America, 1958.
    Goldberger, Moshe. How to thank Hashem for Food: Lessons from Birkas Ha-Mazon. New York: Gross Books, 1988.
    Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1972.
    Munk, Elie. The World of Prayer. New York: Philip Feldheim, 1954.
    Scherman, Rabbi Nosson.  The Complete Artscroll Siddur: Nusach Ashkenaz.  New York: Mesorah Publications, 1984.
    Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995.
    Zahavy, Tzvee. Studies in Jewish Prayer. Lanham, Maryland: United Press of America, 1990.

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