It seems innocuous enough, but in our time-starved world, its sheer length strikes fear in the hearts and minds of men, sufficiently so to have spurned an industry of avoidance. How sad it is!
I refer to the fear of bentsching (grace after meals or birkas hamazon), that alongside fleishig phobia (the fear of eating meat, lest God forbid one miss out on that geshmake Haagen-Daaz or Klein’s), figures prominently in the real lives of Orthodox Jews who can’t find the time or zitsfleisch (patience) to bentsch properly. Thus mezonos rolls, rice cakes and Ezekiel bread have emerged as possible alternatives. Both the former (are mezonos rolls really mezonos?) and latter (what’s the bracha on Ezekiel bread?) have developed fascinating halachic discussions that transcend this forum.
[I find it fitting that as I write these words, (Friday Morning 4:26 am) the smell of delicious Angel’s bakery bread wafts into our Jerusalem apartment. It is a shtickl fun olam haba – a piece of other worldliness].
The source of the incredibly beautiful mitzvah of bentsching can be found in our parsha (8:10).
You will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good land He has given you.
You may have noticed that the Biblical obligation of birkas hamazon starts when one is satiated(1) – a mere k’zayis (olive size measure – 1.1 oz.) of bread just won’t do. To adduce support to this idea, a famous, beautiful piece of Talmud is often cited(2):
R. Avira taught: The ministering angels said before God: Master of the Universe, it is written in Your law, “(I am God) that does not favor nor accepts bribes”(3), but in fact, do You not show favor to Israel, as it is written,” The Lord shall show his favor towards you?(4)” He replied: And shall I not raise up My countenance towards Israel, for in my Torah I wrote: And you shall eat, be satisfied and bless the Lord, your God, and they are particular [to bentsch] if the quantity is but an olive.
A two tiered obligation emerges. Rabbinically, we are obliged to bentsch after a k’zayis of bread whilst the Torah obligation only commences after one achieves satisfaction. The Talmud then extols the Rabbinic level that invites special Divine grace as a worthy investment with residual benefits.
Much about this Talmudic piece baffles. Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1878-1966) asks two basic questions:
- If the obligation to bentsch requires satisfaction and one is not satisfied with a k’zayis, why is the Rabbinic obligation not equivalent to a blessings made in vain?
- How has the gemara solved its initial problem of God’s favoritism? At the end of the piece, God is still favoring His Jews ?
Rav Weinberg’s brilliant insight flows first from his personal nostalgic reflection – one worth our consideration:
Before his move to Germany and then Switzerland, Rav Weinberg lived in Lithuania. He described the dire poverty of many in his “city”. I suspect he meant the small town of Pilvishki. Often dire poverty created Shabbos Jews – Jews who were basically hungry all week so that their Shabbos could be celebrated with (not a lot, but) a bit more.
“And these Jews”, said Rav Weinberg, “what would happen to them when they would come to the shul and find guests who needed a meal? Many were the first to jump at the opportunity.” Of course, when they came home with their guests, their meager morsels had to be stretched out to accommodate the guests.
But make no mistake, exclaimed Rav Weinberg, even as they ate less, perhaps only a k’zayis of bread, oh was there satisfaction; a sense of contentment that flowed from giving another Jew the ta’am (taste) of Shabbos. In other words, their love of kindness more than made up for their lack of food. This said Rav Weinberg is what the gemara is teaching. With only partially filled stomachs, they found great joy in the k’zayis and were indeed able to bentsch from a place of great satisfaction.
Such an attitude unleashes a Divine quid pro quo: My dear children, by attaining satisfaction from your noble acts of excessive kindness, I too must respond by showering you with excessive kindness as well.
As a bar mitzvah, my son recently received what I like to call a “me-pod” (actually 3 of them), a symbol worthy of its generation. Now, even one who is walking on the street has the societal license to completely ignore all other people. A few years back, in an anecdotal survey of slogans for popular products, I encountered these ennobling messages: “Because you deserve it”, “Do something for yourself”, “I am the King”, “Obey your thirst”, and “Double your pleasure”.
Unquestionably, transmitting the hallmark Jewish legacy of loving kindness within such an environment carries a whole set of challenges.
Let us rise to the occasion!
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.