Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
HATOV VEHAMETIV IN BIRKAT HAMAZON
This Shabbat is Tu beAv, a happy day when Tachanun is normally omitted because of the many joyful historical events which occurred on this date. One such event is that on this day the Romans permitted burial for the victims of the terrible massacre of Beitar, which we mourned on Tisha BeAv.
The gemara relates that the bodies were miraculously preserved, and did not decay until the burial was permitted; and that in order to commemorate this miracle an additional blessing was added to the birkhat hamazon, the blessing “hatov vehametiv”. This is the fourth blessing in which we call HaShem the good King “hatov vehameitiv lakol” – who is good and does good to all. (Taanit 31a.)
Surprisingly, there is another blessing with the same name – the blessing said on good tidings which benefit many people together. Whereas if I alone benefit I would say “shehechyanu”, thanking HaShem for bringing him me to this day, if many benefit together I say “hatov vehameitiv”. (SA OC 222.) One explanation is: HaShem is good to me, and does good to others as well. (Tosafot Berakhot 43a.)
The Anaf Yosef connects this idea to the “tov umetiv” blessing in the grace after meals as well. He explains that the preservation of the body is good to the individual – it prevents the disgrace of decay. Whereas the burial is good for the community, because the soul primarily begins its journey to the next world after the burial, and this is a general good, because all Jewish souls are bound together. (Anaf Yosef on Taanit 30.)
We may note that the halakhot of burial lead to the same conclusion. The gemara asks if burial is required because it brings atonement, which is a private benefit (yikra deshikvi), or because it avoids the shame of a body cast without burial, which is the concern of all (yikra dechayi). (Sanhedrin 46b.)
The Shulchan Arukh rules that it is the concern of all. (SA YD 348:3.) The gemara then concludes that degradation of the body is particularly relevant to the deceased person. (Sanhedrin 47b.) We see that a purely halakhic approach also supports that idea that the preservation of the corpse is a private good (hatov) whereas bringing it to burial is a public one (hametiv). So the nomenclature hatov vehametiv has a parallel understanding in both blessings which bear this appelation.
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Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.