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Birkat Ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Birkat Ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            The mitzva to recite birkat ha-mazon is counted as a mitzva by all the Rishonim who listed the mitzvot.  The Biblical origin of the obligation to bentch (recite birkat ha-mazon) emerges clearly from the Torah's comment in Parashat Eikev, "You will eat and be satiated, and you shall say a berakha to Hashem, your God, for the good land that He has given you" (Devarim 8:10).  Of course, the specific text of the berakhot is not ordained by the Torah, but the general content is, apparently, biblically mandated.  The beraita (Berakhot 48b) establishes that the various clauses of this verse refer to the different components of birkat ha-mazon.  The phrase, "You will eat and be satiated" refers to "birkat ha-zan" - the first berakha of birkat ha-mazon; "to Hashem your God" refers to zimun (birkat ha-mazon as said by a group); "the land" alludes to the second berakha – "birkat ha-aretz"; "the good" refers to "bonei Yerushalayim" (the third berakha); and "that He gave you" refers to "ha-tov ve-hameitiv" (the fourth berakha).  However, the gemara (ibid.) then cites Rav Nachman's view that Moshe Rabbeinu instituted birkat ha-zan when Benei Yisrael ate manna, Yehoshua enacted birkat ha-aretz when Benei Yisrael entered the Land, David and Shlomo instituted bonei Yerushalayim, and ha-tov ve-hameitiv was instituted by the scholars of Yavneh.


            We find a similar discussion with regard to the obligation of daily prayer.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1) considers daily prayer as a Torah obligation.  While it is true that it was the Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola who formulated the text of our prayers, the structure of tefilla, according to the Rambam, is biblically ordained.  The Rambam writes (ibid. 1:2), "The obligation of this mitzva is as follows: a person must supplicate and pray daily.  He should tell the praise of God and then ask (God) for his needs … And afterwards he should praise and thank God for the bounty… "  The Or Sameach (ad loc.) and others have attempted to show the biblical source of this required structure of praise, supplication, thanksgiving.


            We might, therefore, explain the obligation of birkat ha-mazon along similar lines.  The basic thematic structure of food, land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Davidic monarchy, is required by the Torah.  Moshe, Yehoshua, David and Shlomo, and the scholars of Yavneh merely formulated the exact text.  Of course, this would assume that birkat ha-zimun and ha-tov ve-hameitiv are also of biblical origin, but the gemara (ibid. 46) ultimately comes to the conclusion that ha-tov ve-hameitiv was added by the Rabbis.  We still could argue that the three first berakhot, based on the verse in the Torah, constitute a biblical requirement, but the gemara speaks of a biblical source of the other berakhot as an asmakhta (subtle allusion in the text, rather than an outright source).


            Indeed, the Ritva, Ra'a and other Rishonim seem to take this approach.  They note the problem that whereas the syntax of the verse implies that the berakhot are biblically required, they were instituted much later.  The Ritva (Berakhot 48b) explains, "Birkat ha-mazon has some biblically mandated text, as one must recite a berakha on food and mention the land and Jerusalem.  It thus turns out that all are based on the Torah.  However, if one recites those components in a different manner than was prescribed by Moshe, Yehoshua, etc., he still fulfills the biblical command."  It is noteworthy that the Ritva omits any mention of zimun or ha-tov ve-hameitiv, even though the gemara ascribes the biblical source to them, as well.  He likely held that these berakhot are entirely rabbinic in origin, as suggested above.


            The three components mentioned earlier are therefore biblically mandated, and must be included in birkat ha-mazon in order for one to fulfill the Torah obligation.  It is possible that the biblical command would also include a requirement to mention these three themes in three separate berakhot.  The gemara (Berakhot 16a) formulates an abbreviated form of birkat ha-mazon for salaried workers, so that they would not have to take too much time from work to recite birkat ha-mazon.  This abbreviated form incorporates the same three themes into two berakhot, rather than three.  Tosafot (ad loc.) ask how the gemara permits workers to dispense with a biblical requirement, and they answer, quite simply, that the Chakhamim indeed have the power to abrogate a law of the Torah.  Tosafot clearly felt that the three berakhot themselves, and not merely their content, are required by Torah law.


            Although this opinion holds that the mitzva requires three berakhot, it still constitutes only a single mitzva.  It may be compared to the mitzva of taking a lulav, which actually consists of four components - the lulav, hadasim, aravot and etrog – but is still considered one mitzva.  The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Shoresh 9) gives other examples of mitzvot, such as tzitzit, which consist of several elements (in the case of tzitzit, four corners of the garment) but are nevertheless counted as a single mitzva.


            Rav Yosef Karo (Beit Yosef – O.C. 191) argued with Tosafot and claimed that the Torah does not require any specific number of berakhot.  He understood the Rambam's definition of the mitzva as requiring only that one recite a berakha after eating.  He apparently felt that the entire section of the gemara which showed the source for each component refers to an asmakhta, rather than an actual biblical source for each of the berakhot.  In truth, any form of berakha recited would fulfill the biblical requirement.


            The mishna (Berakhot 20a) states unequivocally that women are required to recite birkat ha-mazon.  The gemara (ibid. 20b) raises the issue of whether women are required to bentch by force of Torah law or rabbinic enactment.  Rashi explains that since birkat ha-mazon includes a section about the land of Israel, perhaps women, who did not receive a share in the land, are exempt from the biblical requirement.  Tosafot, however, reject this interpretation, in light of the fact that the daughters of Tzelofchad received their father's share in the land.  Clearly, then, women also have at least the potential of receiving a portion of the land.  Moreover, kohanim did not receive a share and yet they certainly must recite birkat ha-mazon at the level of Torah law.  Tosafot therefore explain that since women are exempt from the mitzvot of berit mila and Torah, two integral themes of the second berakha of birkat ha-mazon, the Torah obligation perhaps does not apply to them.


            The gemara then asks, once we've established that women are required to recite birkat ha-mazon, what difference does it make whether or not they are obligated on the level of Torah law?  The gemara explains that this issue will determine whether or not a woman can be "motzi" (recite the berakha and fulfill the obligation on behalf of) men through their recitation.  Since men must recite birkat ha-mazon according to Torah law, women can be motzi them only if they, share the same level of obligation.


            Rav Yechezkel Landau (TzelachBerakhot ibid.) questions why the gemara had to resort to this issue as the practical difference between a Torah obligation and rabbinically ordained requirement.  After all, a general rule in Halakha dictates that in a situation of doubt, one must act stringently with regard to biblical law but may be lenient when it comes to a rabbinic law.  Why didn't the gemara point to this classic principle as the practical ramification of the issue concerning the nature of a woman's obligation of birkat ha-mazon?  R. Landau suggested that since, as the gemara mentions, Moshe composed the first berakha of birkat ha-mazon in the desert when Benei Yisrael ate manna, this berakha is certainly obligatory upon women.  They, too, were obliged to thank the Almighty for sustaining them in the wilderness.  The gemara questioned only the origin of women's obligation to recite the second berakha, the blessing over the land, berit mila and Torah.  Therefore, in a case of doubt, a woman must certainly bentch in order to fulfill her biblical requirement, and for this reason the gemara had to search for another practical ramification of this issue.  Although R. Landau ultimately dismisses this theory, we nevertheless see from his discussion an interesting conceptual difference between the various sections of birkat ha-mazon.