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Ekev – What is a Blessing?

Aug 3, 2023

This week’s Torah portion contains the commandment to bless God after eating.

You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord, your God, for the good land that He has given you. –  Deuteronomy 8:10

This blessing of God, known liturgically as birkat hamazon – Grace after meals, is one of very few prayers that is biblically mandated. Almost all Jewish liturgy is rabbinic rather than biblical. But here, in an explicit verse in the Torah, we are commanded to bless God after we eat.

How are we to understand this obligation? The text explicitly instructs us to “bless” God after we eat. That is the verb that is used. But what exactly does it mean to “bless” God? When we say that someone is “blessed,” we usually mean that the person in question has had something good bestowed upon them. Examples that come to mind are someone who is “blessed” with wealth or with a particular talent. Are we to understand that when we bless God, we are bestowing something upon Him? The implication that there is some good that we could give God makes no sense. That God is complete and perfect is essential to His definition. To say that we could bestow anything upon Him implies that there is some way in which He could be improved. Furthermore, as God’s creations, we cannot possibly possess anything to give God that does not come from Him to begin with. The inescapable conclusion is that when we talk about blessing God, we must be referring to something other than the conventional use of the term.

Is it “Thank You”?

Some might suggest that what we bestow upon God when we bless Him is our thanks and appreciation. I mentioned that Grace after Meals is biblically mandated by the verse quoted above. The problem with this simple explanation is that there is a word for thanks in Biblical Hebrew and this verse does not use it. If the intent of the Bible was to command us to thank God for the food, a different verb would have been used. The text clearly tells us to “bless” God. Furthermore, within the Jewish traditional understanding of the verse going all the way back two thousand years, we see that this obligation to “bless” God after eating was not understood as simply thanking Him. 

In the Talmud, the rabbinic requirement to recite a blessing of God before eating food is derived from the Biblical commandment to bless Him after eating.

The sages taught: What is the Torah source for Grace after Meals? [The Torah] states ‘You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord, your God, for the good land that He has given you. (Deut. 8:10)’ … This teaches us only [that we must bless] after eating. From where do we know [that we must bless] before eating? It is logical. If one must bless when one is satisfied [i.e. after eating], then when one is hungry how much more so [must he bless]? – T.B. Berachot 48b

Here, the Talmud explains that it makes more sense to bless God when one is hungry than when one is satisfied. Therefore, if the Torah requires a blessing after food, it is only logical that a blessing is required before food as well. It seems from this Talmudic passage that the primary purpose of blessing God is not as an expression of thanks. If it were, the Talmud’s logic would not make sense. Why would it make more sense to thank God when hungry than when satisfied?

Blessing = Actualizing the Potential of Creation

Rashi’s (11th century France) comment in the Talmud is as follows: 

When he is hungry and he is about to alleviate his hunger with the creation of the Holy One Blessed is He, how much more so is he required to bless God even more. – Rashi, Talmud Berachot ibid

Obviously, a hungry person who is about to eat intends to alleviate his hunger with “God’s creation.” What else could he possibly eat? What is Rashi alluding to with this choice of words?

The Hebrew word for “blessing” is beracha. The first time this word – or its verb root – appears in the entire Bible is on the fifth day of creation.

He blessed them [the fish] saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas.’ – Genesis 1:22 

Rashi comments:

AND HE BLESSED THEM — Because people decreased their number, hunting them and eating them, they needed a blessing (see Genesis Rabbah 11:2); it is true that beasts also were in need of a blessing, but on account of the serpent that was to be cursed in the future, He did not bless them, in order that it not be included in the blessing. – Rashi, Gen. 1:22

God told the fish that there would be many of them. In Biblical Hebrew the word beracha – blessing – implies “abundance.” God blessed the fish by saying, “May there be a lot of you.” Blessing is the realization of potential abundance. Two fish, or two people, may have the potential to reproduce. This potential by itself is not, technically speaking, a “blessing.” The “blessing” is the realization of this potential when a child is actually produced. When we bless a friend, we are wishing upon them the realization of potential abundance in their lives.

When we “bless” God we are not bestowing anything on God. We are attempting to realize and actualize the hidden potential for abundant Godliness in the world. When we say, “Blessed are You, our Lord…” we are saying to God, “Let there be more of you in the revealed reality of this world.”

Let’s sum up what we have said. Everything that God created can be used to reveal Him. Every one of God’s creations contains latent Godliness. This Godliness exists in potential form. When we connect what we experience in the world to God, we are using His creation for its true purpose. We are using His creation to manifest His presence in the world. For example, if I take an apple and eat it without recognizing the Godliness within it – that it is one of God’s creations – I have not revealed the potential Godliness in that apple. As a result, there is less awareness of God in the world. On the other hand, when I first recite a blessing, and thus declare my recognition that this apple is an external manifestation of God, merely one small example of God’s creation, I have actualized the potential of this apple to be a vehicle for the revelation of God in the world. Now when I eat the apple, I am no longer simply enjoying the flavor and nutrients. I am experiencing God. As a result of my blessing God, there is more God revealed in the world. 

When blessings are recited, there is more perception of God in the world. For this reason, there are blessings to be made on so many natural experiences. There is a blessing to say when one hears thunder, when one sees blossoms in the spring, when a Torah commandment is performed, and even after going to the bathroom. Every experience in life is an experience of a particular aspect of God’s world. When we say blessings over one of life’s experiences – however great or small – we actualize the latent potential Godliness within that particular experience. We welcome God’s presence into the world. In a revealed sense, there is more of Him. When we say, “Blessed are You, Lord,” we are saying, “Dear God, we want Your presence to be revealed in abundance.”

There is a famous Hassidic anecdote that expresses this point. The students of Reb Mendel of Kotzk asked him, “Rabbi, where is God?” Reb Mendel replied, “Wherever you let Him in.”

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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