Excerpted from Birkon Mesorat HaRav: The Wintman Edition, edited by Rabbi David Hellman with commentary from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Birkat HaMazon: To Bless the Great and Holy Name
Birkat HaMazon, like our entire liturgy, exists on two planes. On the one hand, it is a standardized text instituted by the rabbis that we are obligated to recite after every meal. However, it is much more than a codified formulation; its specific words and language encapsulate ideas, themes, and concepts that we must extract, define, and elucidate. Fundamentally, we must ask, what is the telos of Birkat HaMazon and what religious experience does it capture? In other words, what is the essence of the mitzva that the Torah itself commands? To address these questions we must turn our attention to a few crucial Talmudic passages.
The Biblical Obligation
Before we can appreciate the theological and religious implications of Birkat HaMazon, we must clarify the diﬀerent views regarding its halakhic definition. It is quite clear that the Torah requires some sort of blessing after we eat: “You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). However, when it comes to the specific blessings we recite there seem to be two contradictory Talmudic passages regarding their origin and authority. One source, a beraita (Berakhot 48b), sees allusions to the first three blessings of the Birkat HaMazon in the above quoted verse: “Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless’ – this signifies Birkat HaZan [the first blessing]…‘For the land’ – this signifies Birkat HaAretz [the second blessing]. ‘The good’ – this signifies Boneh Yerushalayim [the third blessing].” This source implies that the first three blessings of Birkat HaMazon are all Biblical obligations. (The last blessing of HaTov VehaMeitiv was established in response to the burial of the victims of the Betar massacre, and is clearly Rabbinic in origin. See Reshimot, p. 209 .) Yet, the Talmud (ibid.) also quotes Rav Naĥman as stating that these same three blessings were instituted by the courts of three diﬀerent generations: “Moses established for Israel the blessing of HaZan at the time when the manna fell for them; Joshua established for them the blessing of HaAretz when they entered the land; David and Solomon established the blessing of Boneh Yerushalayim.” As opposed to the beraita, this second teaching implies that all of the blessings of Birkat HaMazon are only of Rabbinic origin.
Looking to the Rishonim (medieval authorities), we find two major approaches to harmonizing these sources. Rashba (Berakhot 48b) explains that the Biblical obligation requires expressing thanksgiving for the themes of the first three blessings: for sustenance, for the Land of Israel, and for Jerusalem. Every time one eats, he must acknowledge God who provided him with his food, and who gave the people of Israel the Land of Israel and her capital, Jerusalem. However, the Torah did not mandate a set formulation. Instead, each individual could express these motifs in whichever way he chose, using the language he found most fitting. Later, Moses, Joshua, and then David and Solomon instituted set texts for the nation to recite. Thus, the formulation and phrasing are a Rabbinic institution, but the themes and motifs of the first three blessings are all of Biblical origin.
Ritva and Shita Mekubetzet (ad loc.), following Rashba’s approach, point out a parallel as well as a distinction between Birkat HaMazon and the obligation of tefilla. Like the commandment of Birkat HaMazon, the Biblical obligation to pray also has no required text; originally, one would pray in his own words. Only because of the displacements and chaos of the exile, explains Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:4), did the Rabbis compose a standardized text of the Amida to facilitate prayer for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the tools to express themselves properly. However, the diﬀerence between these two commandments is that the Biblical mitzva of tefilla does not require reciting any specific praises of God or making any specific requests. A person could recite any prayer to fulfill his obligation. In contrast, the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon has a structure that requires the inclusion of three specific themes: that God has granted us sustenance, the Land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.
There is, though, another approach which understands that the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon involves not three themes, but one simple, core idea. Naĥmanides, in his glosses to Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot (Shoresh 1) discusses several diﬀerent commandments which are Biblical in nature, but for which the Rabbis codified a standardized text. Discussing Birkat HaMazon, Naĥmanides says that although the commandment is clearly Biblical, “its text is not Biblical; rather, the Torah commanded us to recite a blessing after we eat, each person according to his understanding, as in the blessing of Benjamin the Shepherd who recited, ‘Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread’ (Berakhot 40b).” This example of Benjamin the Shepherd proves that one can fulfill the obligation of Birkat HaMazon even with this simple blessing. Benjamin the Shepherd was not a scholar. He was a simple Jew who blessed God as best as he could, according to his meager understanding and capabilities. According to Rashba and his school, the Talmud means to say that Benjamin the Shepherd’s simple blessing would fulfill the first of the three Biblically-mandated blessings, but it would not have fulfilled the Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. However, Naĥmanides seems to imply that Benjamin the Shepherd’s blessing would fulfill the total Biblical obligation. In other words, according to Naĥmanides, the blessings for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem are Rabbinic in nature.
This opinion of Naĥmanides would also appear to be the position of Maimonides, who opens the first chapter of the Hilkhot Berakhot stating simply, “There is a positive commandment to bless after eating food, as it says, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD, your God.’” In discussing the Biblical obligation, Maimonides makes no reference to the Land of Israel or Jerusalem; he mentions those ideas only in Chapter Two of Hilkhot Berakhot when he discusses the fixed text of Birkat HaMazon codified by the Rabbis. Like Naĥmanides, according to Maimonides we fulfill the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon by reciting any blessing for the food we have eaten, regardless of its specific form or content.
But how can Maimonides and Naĥmanides maintain that there is no Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel when the verse states, “You shall bless the LORD your God for this good land that He gave you”? Seemingly, we find in this verse an explicit requirement to mention the Land of Israel. In fact, however, a dispute between the ancient translators on how to translate this verse will resolve this question.
Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, that we are obligated to bless God “for the good land that He gave you.” Accordingly, there is a clear Biblical obligation to thank God for the Land of Israel every time we eat, as is the opinion of Rashba and others. However, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the relevant phrase as “for the fruit of the good land that He gave you.” This reading sees the phrase “the good land” as an elliptical reference to the fruit of the land, and thus the Biblical commandment does not include an obligation to thank God for the land itself, but rather only for its fruit, i.e., the produce one has consumed. Thus the dispute between Rashba and his school, on the one hand, and Maimonides and his school, on the other, revolves around how one translates the words “for this good land.” The halakhic argument was clearly formulated only in the days of the medieval authorities, but the disagreement regarding how to understand the verse dates back to the ancient Aramaic translators.
Remembering God and Recognizing His Mastery
Returning our focus to Naĥmanides’ position, that one can fulfill his Biblical obligation by stating “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread” – we will recognize that not only does this reduce the number of Biblical themes in Birkat HaMazon from three to one, but it also offers a fundamentally diﬀerent perspective on the mitzva. Intuitively, we would assume that Birkat HaMazon is a mitzva of hoda’ah, thanksgiving, of oﬀering our appreciation for the food that we have just enjoyed. Yet Benjamin the Shepherd’s formula contains no trace of thanksgiving – his blessing does not thank God for the food at all. Rather, it is a statement of God’s mastery and kingship, that He is the master of this food and that I enjoy it only with His permission. According to Naĥmanides, the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon is not an obligation to praise or thank God for the kindness of providing us with food; it is an idea even more basic, a recognition even more fundamental to Judaism’s worldview. Birkat HaMazon is a declaration of God’s lordship over the world, and in particular, His mastery and ownership over the food we have consumed.
Indeed, if we examine the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon, we come to the same startling conclusion: it too contains no elements of thanksgiving. In the first blessing we recognize God as the creator and sustainer of the natural world, the one who feeds all living creatures. Only with the second blessing, opening with “We thank you LORD, our God…” does the concept of thanksgiving enter Birkat HaMazon. According to Naĥmanides, one fulfills the Biblical obligation of Birkat HaMazon even without expressing any sentiments of thanksgiving. The mitzva requires recognizing God’s sovereignty, and no more. However, according to Rashba and his school, the themes of the first three blessings are all Biblical, and thus Birkat HaMazon includes both concepts, recognition of God’s mastery over the world, and expression of thanksgiving for sustaining us. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse as “you shall thank and bless,” reflecting these two concepts, and in this regard, he parallels the position of Rashba.
In truth, when we look at the context of the verse, the approach of Naĥmanides is almost explicit in the Bible itself. The Bible commands, “You will eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD your God.” However, it continues, “Be careful lest you forget the LORD your God and not guard His commandments…Lest you eat and be satisfied…and your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the LORD your God…and you will think in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:10-17). The Torah doesn’t require man to thank God; rather, the Torah warns man lest he forget God. The purpose of Birkat HaMazon is to prevent the arrogance which creeps into a man’s heart and causes him to forget that God is the Creator. Fundamentally, Birkat HaMazon is not an act of thanksgiving or praise, but an act of remembering God, a fulfillment of the constant command to remember and be cognizant of our Creator in every aspect of our life. As the Torah concludes the section, “Rather you shall remember the LORD your God who gives you the strength to be successful.”
Thus, Birkat HaMazon is not simply a particular commandment regarding food and our satiation; it is instead an expression of the belief and commitment that underpins our entire religious life. Indeed, from the standpoint of the psychology of religion, the telos of Birkat HaMazon, to remember God, is the most important element in one’s religious experience. To oﬀer praise before God is easy; to give thanks, one merely has to become sentimental. However, to remember God and ascribe everything to Him, to attribute the whole cosmic process of creation to God, and to know always that He is the Master, the LORD, and the Owner of everything, requires a mental discipline of the highest order, and it is in truth the fundamental religious experience.
Birkat HaMazon and All Other Blessings
Understanding Birkat HaMazon in this light – not as an expression of thanksgiving, but as an act of recognizing and remembering God’s kingship – also allows us to explain several passages in Maimonides’ Code that would otherwise be diﬃcult to understand. In the beginning of Hilkhot Berakhot, Maimonides, as usual, begins with the Biblical commandment: “There is a positive commandment from the Torah to bless God after eating.” Maimonides then moves on to the Rabbinic obligations: “and there is a Rabbinic obligation to bless before a person enjoys any food…and to bless after anything a person eats or drinks.” Maimonides means to say that these Rabbinic obligations are not independent concepts, but extensions of the Biblical idea of Birkat HaMazon. However, the blessings that we recite before we eat are not expressions of thanksgiving, as they simply state, “Blessed is the LORD…creator of the fruit of the tree.” Moreover, the blessings before we eat couldn’t be expressions of thanksgiving, as thanksgiving is only appropriate after we have benefited from God’s kindness. Rather, the blessings that we recite before we eat are declarations of God’s mastery over this world, recognition that the food before us belongs to Him and that we enjoy it only with His permission. If Birkat HaMazon would have been an act of thanksgiving, it could not have been the conceptual basis for the Rabbinic blessings that we recite before we eat. Only because Birkat HaMazon is an act of recognizing God’s kingship and mastery over our possessions can it serve as the conceptual foundation for all blessings that we recite.
Maimonides continues, “Just as we recite blessings for all physical pleasures, so too we recite blessings before mitzvot and only then perform them. The Rabbis instituted many blessings as expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and request in order to constantly remember the Creator.” Maimonides groups the blessings that we recite before the performance of mitzvot with the blessings that we recite before we eat, and he understands that all blessings are based upon the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon. How does Birkat HaMazon serve as the conceptual source for the blessings recited before performing a mitzva? Based on what we have explained, it is because fundamentally all blessings are statements of God’s authority. With birkot hanehenin we recognize His dominion over the natural order, and with birkot hamitzvot we similarly declare His dominion over the moral order. Just as He is the creator of the physical world and its laws, so too is He the author of the moral norm and the legislator of all religious laws. As Maimonides says explicitly, the common denominator of all blessings is to remember and fear the Creator.
We can now dispel a common misconception. Many believe that to bless God means to praise Him, and in fact, the English translation of berakha, benediction, comes from the Latin root words bene and diction, meaning to speak well of or praise. However, this understanding is simply incorrect. In Genesis we read “God blessed man, saying, ‘You shall be fruitful and multiply.’” God didn’t praise man; He blessed him: He instilled in him the ability to multiply, a new source of goodness and fortune in his life. So too, Rav Ĥayyim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaĤayyim 2:2) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Ba’al HaTanya (Torah Or, Parashat Ĥayyei Sarah), both explain that the word “barukh” means expansion, and to bless God means to expand God’s presence in this world. How can a mortal human being, a frail and finite creature, accomplish such a thing? The answer is that man has the unique ability to recognize and declare God’s authority and mastery. By dispelling the mirage of nature’s independence and declaring the true Creator, the influence of God’s presence thereby increases in this world. Similarly, the Sefer HaĤinnukh (Mitzva 430) writes in his discussion of Birkat HaMazon that when we say God is “blessed,” we declare that all blessing and goodness flow from Him. The prayer that God should be blessed is a wish that all people should recognize God as the source of goodness. All blessings, like Birkat HaMazon, are meant to forestall the natural human arrogance that makes man forget God. Blessing God is not an act of thanksgiving, but an act of remembering God, of declaring Him the true master of our world and its fullness, which is the very essence of Birkat HaMazon.
“His Great and Holy Name”
Finally, we can understand a cryptic phrase that Maimonides uses in the heading to Hilkhot Berakhot, where he writes that the Biblical obligation is “to bless the great (gadol) and holy (kadosh) name after we eat.” What does Maimonides mean when he includes the divine discriptions “great and holy”? Maimonides is known for his precise language, and he should have simply written that we are obligated “to bless the name of God after we eat.” Moreover, elsewhere Maimonides attaches diﬀerent attributes to the name of God. For example, regarding the prohibition to erase the name of God he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:1) that “anyone who destroys one of the holy and pure names of God is lashed,” and similarly, in another context he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1) that “there is an imperative to love and fear the honored and exalted God.” Maimonides wrote with extraordinary precision, and he was even more careful in his use of divine attributes, as is evident by his discussions in the Guide for the Perplexed. If he uses “the great and holy name” to describe God in the context of Birkat HaMazon, it is because these two descriptions capture the essence of the commandment. How is this the case?
To understand Maimonides’ choice of words, we must first understand what we mean by describing God as “great.” We find this divine description in the Bible in the following verse: “For the LORD your God is God of gods, and LORD of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, who favors no person, and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17). In this verse we see that God’s greatness flows from His mastery, because He is the master of all other powers. Thus, to recognize God as great is to recognize Him as the authority of our lives, the master of our world. The appellation “holy” means that God is absolutely above and beyond all of creation, that nothing in this world can be compared to Him. Thus, Maimonides defines the commandment of sanctifying God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) as demonstrating our absolute commitment to God even to the point of loss of life – to publicize that we recognize no other authority and that no other person or force in the world could intimidate us to violate His will. It follows that when these two appellations are used together, the phrase “the great and holy God” means the God who is the absolute master and authority of all creation, totally unique and beyond all matters and powers of this world. It is in this sense that the prophet Ezekiel uses these descriptions when he writes that God declares that in the end of days, after the war of Gog and Magog, “I will make Myself great and holy, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations, and they will know that I am the LORD.” God will be great and holy when the whole world recognizes His dominion, that He is master of the world. The Tur (Oraĥ Ĥayyim 56) writes that the opening phrase of Kaddish, “Let His name be made great and holy” (“yitgadel ve’yitkadesh”), is based on this verse in Ezekiel, and he explains that Kaddish is a prayer for that time when all nations will ultimately recognize the authority and kingship of the one true God.
In defining the Biblical commandment as “to bless the great and holy name after eating,” Maimonides underscores that by reciting Birkat HaMazon we acknowledge God’s mastery of the world, and that He is the provider for the food we have just eaten, or as Benjamin the Shepherd put it, “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread.” The mitzva of Birkat HaMazon is not to praise or oﬀer thanksgiving, but to remove from our hearts the arrogance of material success that leads man to forget God and to declare “my strength and the might of my hand produced this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). By reciting a blessing after we eat and are full and satiated, we aﬃrm that God is the source of our sustenance, of life, and of existence itself. The purpose of the blessing is to declare, as the whole world will in the end of days, that He is the one true “great and holy God.”
* This essay is based primarily upon a shiur delivered by the Rav in Boston in 1961, as well as Shiurei HaRav al Inyanei Tefilla, pp. 269-287, and Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot, pp. 516-519. The essay also incorporates material from a shiur delivered in 1969.