The Subject of the Berakha of Borei Minei Mezonot

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.


Although the five grains require a berakha (blessing) of ha-adama, when these grains are processed (through cooking or baking) they warrant a new berakha - borei minei mezonot. Is this an example, similar to wine (see shiur #18) where a raw material – grains - which has undergone change receives a berakha upgrade to mezonot? Or is this a unique berakha, recited not upon the improved grains but upon a new class of food item which has been manufactured to create a feeling of satiation. What, effectively, is the subject of the berakha of mezonot, the improved grains or the carbohydrate based food substance? This may seem like a purely syntactical question but it yields several interesting consequences.

Perhaps the most revealing consequence surrounds a famous halakha about food mixtures containing mezonot elements. In general, the gemara in Berakhot (44a) establishes guidelines for reciting berakhot upon 'food combinations' containing foods of diverse berakhot. Typically the berakha upon the ikar, or primary item, 'covers' the secondary item known as tafel. For example, a borei pri ha-adama upon vegetables of a salad would exempt a berakha upon the salad dressing. Typically, the status of ikar is dictated by the volume of the respective foods, but conceivably, items in smaller quantity which deliver strong taste may also be considered ikar and 'capture' the berakha.

There is one glaring exception to the ikar/tafel system: Any food containing even minimal quantities of mezonot products requires a borei minei mezonot. Additionally, this mezonot exempts a berakha for other foods within this mixture - even if those goods comprise the majority of the mixture. The gemara in Berakhot (36b) cites Rav and Shmuel who claim that food containing any quantity of mezonot mandates the mezonot berakha. How are we to explain this anomaly? Why don't mezonot mixtures adhere to the typical rules of ikar and tafel?

One approach may claim that mezonot materials are deemed ikar despite their minimal presence and lack of dominant taste. Though, typically, taste and quantity are the parameters used to measure ikar, mezonot provide a unique quality - carbohydrate provision. The chemical structure of grain products yields a sensation of 'satisfaction' and this lends these grains the status of ikar despite their meager volume. Once defined as ikar it dictates the berakha in the same manner that quantitatively dominant materials do in the conventional sense. Essentially, the subject of the mezonot berakha is the processed grain and this item retains its identity even when numerically overwhelmed.

Alternatively, perhaps the power of grain products in determining berakha assignment stems from a different dynamic. Indeed, as the mezonot is outweighed it cannot be considered ikar and cannot impart its berakha. However mezonot is not a berakha upon a particular material in the sense that ha-etz applies to fruits and ha-adama to vegetables!! Borei minei mezonot is a berakha recited upon the ENTIRE food article which now satiates. Once grain derivatives are added to a food THE ENTIRE ITEM provides satiation and the entire ITEM requires a berakha of borei minei mezonot. Essentially, there is no division between ikar and tafel since the entire product currently satiates and the entire product warrants a mezonot. Mezonot is not a berakha recited upon grains as much as a berakha recited upon satiating items.

Rashi in Berakhot (44a) asserts a position which essentially follows the first logic. He agrees that the mezonot grains retain their halakhic weight even when quantitatively overwhelmed. However they retain significance not only because they provide a unique physical sensation, but also because grains are part of the seven select species of Israel. Though wheat and barley are specifically mentioned in the pasuk (verse) in Vaetchanan (Devarim 8:9) the other three species are implicitly referred to as they are subcategories of wheat and barley. Essentially, all five grains are deemed select species of Israel and this title assures their 'survival' and 'dominance' even when quantitatively challenged.

Essentially, the two different approaches toward understanding the actual subject of the berakha of mezonot yield two respective approaches toward understanding the viability of mezonot even within lopsided mixtures.

An interesting clause in Tosafot may reveal their stance regarding this unique power of mezonot in ta'arovet (mixtures) and, ultimately, the subject of the berakha itself. Tosafot in Berakhot (36b s.v. kol sheyeish) claim that if the mezonot material is added 'li-dabek' (merely to solidify the food item but not to add flavor), a mezonot is not recited. Had Tosafot believed that mezonot is recited upon processed grains which retain their importance even in a mixture, they may not have excluded mezonot products which solidify or congeal the food from mezonot. After all, the grain is present and should dictate a berakha of mezonot!! If, however, borei minei mezonot is a function of the ability of the current food to satiate – the exemption of mezonot as a solidifying agent is understandable. In this instance the grain derivative does not create fulfillment but merely holds the food intact. Evidently, by exempting mezonot which solidify from the berakha of borei minei mezonot, Tosafot was viewing the overall berakha in a certain fashion.

Yet another application of this question may concern the berakha recited upon rice (orez) and millet (dochan). These items are not classically considered within the category of five grains yet they provide sustenance (especially in the case of rice which serves as the nutritional basis for millions of people). Indeed the gemara (Berakhot 37a) cites a dispute as to whether borei minei mezonot or shehakol should be recited upon rice and millet (Shmuel demands shehakol whereas the Rabbanan disagree and require mezonot). Ostensibly, Shmuel viewed borei minei mezonot as a berakha upon grains and therefore did not extend the berakha to rice and millet which may not be considered eminent grains. By contrast, the Rabanan viewed the berakha as a response to a food's ability to satiate and applied the berakha to non-grains which still satiate.

Perhaps, a third issue would relate to the berakha upon beer. The gemara in Bava Batra (96b) declares the berakha to be shehakol and records no dissenting opinion. Tosafot in Berakhot (38a s.v. hai duvsha) question this ruling, wondering why borei minei mezonot is not recited. Tosafot offer two reasons for the absence of borei minei mezonot upon beer. In their first answer they reason that beer contains the flavor of grain but not its essence. Specialized berakhot (such as ha-etz and mezonot) are only recited upon an essence but not upon extracted flavor. This reasoning would seemingly disqualify borei minei mezonot from beer regardless of how we may understand the base berakha.

Tosafot's second answer may be based upon a particular view of borei minei mezonot. They claim that the berakha cannot be recited upon drinks and is reserved only for solids. Even if the beer has absorbed the essence of the grain, as a liquid, it cannot warrant borei minei mezonot. Presumably, this opinion in Tosafot viewed the berakha as a product of the satiating capacity of grain-based foods. When in liquid forms. however, the sensation of being 'full' does not emerge, and no borei minei mezonot can be recited. Again, had this opinion in Tosafot viewed borei minei mezonot as a berakha upon processed grain, the fact that beer is a liquid form would not compromise its berakha of mezonot.