One of the first mitzvot we teach our kids is to say brachot before – and as they get older, also after – eating. We train them to say the words, and hopefully also start instilling a concept of the meaning behind this mitzvah.
Often, we tell them that eating without saying a bracha is like stealing from Hashem – but that explanation doesn’t quite express what Chazal themselves say about brachot.
Where does the mitzvah to say brachot come from? The Torah instructs us to bless after eating bread (or any of the seven species of Israel, according to some): “ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את ה’ א-לקיך…” – “You will eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem, your G-d…” (Devarim 8:10) Saying a bracha after eating other foods, however, as well as before eating, is purely Rabbinic – and we should pay attention to the reasons they themselves offer for this practice.
One explanation is found in the Tosefta in Brachot 4:1, which states that a person must bless before benefiting from the world (such as by eating), based on the pasuk in Tehilim that states “The earth is Hashem’s, and its fullness” (24:1). If the world and everything in it belongs to Hashem, the Tosefta explains, then anyone who takes from it – such as by eating an apple – has essentially violated me’ilah – taking sacred property for oneself. This statement sounds a lot like what we tell our kids: Everything belongs to Hashem, so we have to “ask” before eating it or else we’re stealing.
I remember wondering, though, when that explanation was offered to me: Why do we wait to ask until the apple is on its way to our mouth?. Shouldn’t we say the bracha before picking it, if the issue is stealing?
If we look more carefully, it seems that brachot are not about taking G-d’s property in our hands, but about using it.
After all, the Tosefta actually uses the word “benefit,” not “take,” and it uses the word me’ilah – which is different from theft. Theft begins with picking up an object that belongs to someone else without permission, while me’ilah only applies if one benefits from the item. (Not that I’m an expert on either area of halacha, but so I’ve read; see Rambam Hilchot Gezeilah 1:3 and Rav Pinchas Kehati’s introduction to Mesechet Me’ilah.) More significantly, when someone steals something, there is no way they can change what they’ve done: if the owner doesn’t give permission, the thief has no power to take the object without it being theft. But with me’ilah, the person taking the sacred object has the power to determine whether that act is forbidden or permitted, even sacred, by following the rules of using it in a holy way. Usually, that means something like making sure that an animal belonging to the Temple is used only for a sacrifice, not for someone’s personal hamburger. But what does it mean if we apply the word “me’ilah” to eating without a bracha?
An apple might not seem to have anything particularly holy about it, but it belongs to Hashem. If I eat that apple without a bracha, I have misused it; I missed the chance to use it for a holy purpose. But simply by making a bracha and acknowledging that Hashem is the One who brought this miraculous food into the world, I turn my use of this food into a holy act. As the Gemara says on Berachot 35a: before the bracha, the food belongs to Hashem; with a bracha, it belongs to the person who said the bracha.
Could we ever transform an act of theft that easily?
In fact, the Gemara tells us that once a person says a bracha, the second half of that pasuk from Tehillim applies: “והארץ נתן לבני אדם” – “G-d gave the earth to humans.” I am not only taking legitimately; I am accepting something which was given to me. Unlike a thief, we have the power to decide to take ownership of something that had belonged to Someone else. Unlike a thief, we have the power to transform the action of taking: without a bracha it’s me’ilah, forbidden; with a bracha, it becomes not just permitted, but a holy use of the apple. Because Hashem gave it to us, as long as we recognize it as His gift and shape our use appropriately.
We actually have this power in other areas of life, too. Just a few days ago, on Shavuos, we expressed the holiness of the day with the words “mekadesh Yisrael v’hazmanim” – G-d sanctifies Israel and the times. We mention G-d’s sanctification of His people first because we play a role in the sanctification of the “times”; 6 Sivan becomes holy because we declare that day to be 6 Sivan. (See Nedarim 78b and Beitza 17a). When we use an object for a holy purpose, it can become holy. (See Megillah 26b.)
Holiness might seem very far away – untouchable, like someone (Someone) else’s property. But it’s actually all around us, and we can make it happen.
As Rav Soloveitchik writes:
Holiness does not wink at us from “beyond”…but appears in our actual, very real lives… The beginnings of holiness are rooted in the highest heavens, and its end is embedded in the “end of days”…but the link that joins together…is the halakhic conception of holiness…the holiness of the concrete. An individual does not become holy through mystical adhesion to the absolute nor through mysterious union with the infinite…but, rather, through his whole biological life…actualizing the Halakhah in the empirical world… Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood. Through the power of our mouths, through verbal sanctification alone, we can create holy offerings… (Halakhic Man p.46-47)
Hashem decides what can be holy, but we take that potential and make it real.
Reciting berachot before eating, or deriving any other benefit from G-d’s world, is much more than a way to say “please” and “thank you.” It’s one way we actualize our G-d-given power to make even simple actions, like eating a hamburger or an apple, into a holy part of our daily lives.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org. She is also Editor-At-Large at Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.