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Parshas Eikev (5769)

Benching For Dummies

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Eikev, we find the mitzvah popularly known today as “Benching” (lit. “blessing”) – i.e. reciting the Bircas HaMazon, the Grace After Meals, after eating a bread meal. The Torah instructs us: “And you will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord, your God …” (Deuteronomy 8:10).

There are four major components to the Bircas HaMazon: (1) the blessing of HaZan, (2) the blessing for the Land, (3) the blessing of Building Jerusalem, and (4) the blessing of HaTov VeHameitiv. The first three blessings are Biblically mandated, while the last blessing was added on by the Rabbis.

According to the Talmud in Berachos 48b, Moses composed “Bircas HaZan” - “the blessing of the One Who nourishes" — for the Jews when the manna fell from heaven. Joshua composed "Bircas Ha'aretz" — "the blessing for the Land" — when the Jews entered the Land of Israel. The blessing of "Bonei Yerushalayim" — "Builder of Jerusalem" — was composed by Kings David and Solomon. David conquered Jerusalem and composed the segment of "Racheim" — "Have mercy... [on Jerusalem]" — and Solomon, who built the Holy Temple, added the segment "the great and holy House."

The fourth blessing of "Hatov VeHameitiv" - “The One Who is good, and Who does good for others” - was composed by the Sages in Yavneh (headed by Rabbi Gamliel) after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, in appreciation of G-d’s goodness towards the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Beitar who were slain during Bar Kochba's ill-fated rebellion against the Romans and then denied burial. After years of praying and fasting by Rabbi Gamliel and his court in Yavneh, permission for burial was finally granted. The phrase "Hatov" — "Who is good" — refers to the fact that although years passed the bodies did not decompose, but were fresh and whole. The phrase "Vehameitiv" — "And Who does good" — refers to the fact that they were afforded proper Jewish burial.

[For an excellent overview and tutorial on the Benching, including a printable formatted text as well as an audio of the entire Grace After Meals, click on:] Now I think we all get the idea of thanking G-d for the food that we eat – especially after having consumed a huge meal with freshly-baked bread and other yummy foods. But what always bothered me (and surprised many of my Shabbos guests as well) is the length of the Grace After Meals that the Torah asks us to recite. I mean, couldn’t we just say, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, G-d!” like we used to sing in camp as kids?! Why the need to chant four long paragraphs in order to thank G-d for granting us the pleasure of eating a challah or some bagels? And why do we need to mention the entire history of our people – from Moses and the manna to Solomon’s Temple to the miracle of the non-decomposing bodies of the Jews of Beitar – every time we finish a bread meal? (I once quipped that the Benching is the ultimate Jewish dieting tool. When you realize that you have to recite all those blessings every time you eat a slice of bread, you think twice about eating it!)

Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchak HaKohein Kook, in his commentary to the Siddur titled Olas Reiyah, helps us understand the deep and powerful idea behind the Benching and its many components as follows:

The Jewish people are a people with a mission – we are to be an Or L’Amim, a “light unto the nations” (see Isaiah 49:6). This task is not easy to fulfill, nor is it easy to focus on, especially since most of our day is occupied with very mundane activities like eating, working etc. The Torah wanted to ensure that we Jews would never forget our ultimate mission and purpose here on earth, and that even when involved in the most physical acts, we should give thanks to G-d and recall what it is that He put us here for in the first place. We accomplish this through the Biblically mandated blessings of the Bircas HaMazon, which we are meant to recite daily after completing our bread meal.

Rabbi Kook explains that these blessings are ordered in a perfect progression that takes us from the most basic and mundane to the most lofty and sublime. For the Jewish people to ever achieve the highest goal of being a light unto the nations and transforming the world through the Torah and its teachings – a task which is best accomplished when we are back in our rightful homeland with the Holy Temple rebuilt and the Davidic dynasty re-established - we first have to ensure that each individual Jew is able to sustain and nourish himself properly and adequately. This is the function of the first blessing, Birkas HaZan, which is our recognition and thanks to G-d Who nourishes each and every one of us and gives us the foods that we need in order to be healthy and function properly.

Once we have nourished and sustained ourselves as individuals, we can now focus on our aspirations as a nation for establishing a national physical presence in the Land of Israel, which is the function of the second blessing of the Benching – the Blessing for the Land. In this blessing, we recognize our rights to the Land of Israel – conditional upon our observing the mitzvah of circumcision and our general commitment to follow the Torah – and remind ourselves of our obligation to establish a physical and political framework in Israel where we can best accomplish our national mission.

The third biblical blessing of the Grace After Meals, "Bonei Yerushalayim" — "Builder of Jerusalem" - reminds us of our ultimate goal and mission as a people – the establishment of a spiritual center from which to spread forth Torah and G-dliness to all the nations – and this will be accomplished through the building of the Holy Temple and the restoring of the Davidic dynasty to its rightful place.

Through this three-step process, the Jew who eats a simple meal of bread will remind himself of the Jewish people’s lofty mission of being a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Kook goes on to explain that the Sages in Yavneh, who, along with everyone else, had witnessed the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth, were concerned that the Jewish people would despair and give up hope of ever achieving their spiritual goal. So they added on the fourth blessing, "Hatov VeHameitiv" - “The One Who is good, and Who does good for others”, which calls to mind the miracle that G-d performed for the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Beitar that their bodies didn’t decompose and were ultimately brought to Jewish burial.

The recitation of this blessing and the miracle it commemorates would serve as a reminder to the exiled Jewish people – and to all of us languishing in the Diaspora for the past 2000 years - that just as the fallen Jews of Beitar didn’t rot out in the fields, so too would the Jewish people maintain themselves and remain whole and full of vitality even in their fallen state of exile. And just as the dead bodies of those Jews were ultimately brought to Jewish burial in the ground – there to stay until the Resurrection at the End of Days - so too can all of us aspire to a national “resurrection” with the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple speedily and in our day. Amen.

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