photoCommentary from The Book of Blessings

Blessing Before the Meal

The twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes: "The sweet, fully ripened fruit of humanity craves community . . . in the very act of renewing the life of the body." If, as Rosenzweig has it, the meal is the foundation of community, bread is often the foundation of the meal. In ancient times, bread itself was considered a meal, and breaking bread was the way people engaged in fellowship. Thus bread was symbolic of both physical and social sustenance. The rabbis, too, saw bread as a double symbol—of God's gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity's sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was a reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.

Throughout Jewish history, from rabbinic times to the present, the blessing over bread, customarily called hamotzi (from one of its key words, meaning "which [or who] brings forth"), has been the prayer most commonly recited at the beginning of meals. Based on Psalm 104:14, this blessing praises God as the one "who brings forth bread from the earth" hamotzi lehem min ha'aretz. In the original biblical source, God is said to provide grass and plants so that human beings may "bring forth bread from the earth." Thus, embedded in the liturgical phrase is the rabbinic idea that divinity and humanity are partners in creation. In this biblical passage, as elsewhere in the Bible, lehem, "bread," is a metonymy for food.

Although bread remains a powerful symbol in Judaism, the meal today is often a private experience, and many people find themselves frequently eating alone, without social ceremony. This can be an isolating experience, making the need for a table ritual, with its symbolic connection to history and culture, even more compelling. In my own daily life, saying a blessing over bread has become that ritual.

The Blessing Before the Meal was one of the first new blessings I composed, and in doing so I established the fundamentals of my liturgical-poetic process. In creating it, I replaced the phrase barukh atah, "blessed are you [masc., sing.]," with an active, first person plural, gender-inclusive form, n'vareykh, "let us bless." With this word, the community exhorts itself to experience oneness with the whole in the very act of blessing. The speech that follows this opening is unrestricted; unlike the word barukh, "blessed," which is gender-specific, n'vareykh may introduce images in either gender, drawn from any number of contexts.

Thus in this first of my blessings I followed the word n'vareykh with the first of my images to replace the rabbinic Lord-God-king. I derived that new image from an ancient text, Deuteronomy 8:7: eretz nahaley mayim, ayanot uthomot yotz'im babikah uvahar, "a land of watercourses, wellsprings, and depths emerging from valleys and from hills." In the wellsprings that rise from the land, pouring their waters back into the land, I found what seemed to me the perfect metaphor for my Blessing Before the Meal: ayin, "wellspring" or "fountain," with the figurative meaning of "source." In the springing up of the fountains, I saw an arc of motion that mirrored the description in the traditional blessing of hamotzi, the psalmist's image of bread drawn from the earth. This description from hamotzi was one I wished to preserve, rich as it was with associations to the biblical story of our origins--of how we were created from the dust of the earth, drawn from it like the bread we draw forth with our own labors, the bread that at once feeds us and reminds us of our earthliness, of our connection to the ongoing process of creation. It felt right to me to link the bread of the earth with these fountains that rise up from under the earth to suggest a deep ground-of-being, divinity as immanent presence. These connections were what finally led me to form the phrase eyn hahayim, "wellspring (or fountain, or source) of life," and to compose the blessing N'vareykh et eyn hahayim / hamotzi'ah lehem min ha'aretz, "Let us bless the source of life / that brings forth bread from the earth." (Note that because eyn hahayim is grammatically feminine—although semantically without gender--the word hamotzi from the traditional blessing becomes here hamotzi'ah.)

Because this blessing was one of the first I wrote, I think of it now as a kind of prototype, but only in a limited sense: in composing it, I had found a way to break through the traditional blessing form and begin my ongoing exploration of new forms and images. But that beginning was only a beginning, as should be apparent from the various kinds of blessings in this book, and the line N'vareykh et eyn hahayim remains, to my mind, but one of a multitude of utterances by which one may perform the act of blessing. Should this line ever become formulaic—seen as the ultimate form of expression, to the exclusion of other forms—it would be idolatrous and should be abandoned.

While traditionally hamotzi is said only when bread is part of the meal (other blessings are recited for meals without bread), I use this new Blessing Before the Meal whenever I eat, understanding lehem as symbolic of all food. In its simplicity, the ritual becomes one I do not fail to do; hence it has the benefit of increasing my awareness of daily gifts.


Blessing After the Meal

The traditional grace after the meal, known as birkat hamazon, literally, "blessing of the food," is actually a compilation containing three ancient blessings at its core. The themes of these three blessings are gratitude to God for providing food for all creatures; appreciation for ha'aretz, "the land" or "the earth," which here means the land of Israel; and hope for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition, a fourth blessing, said to be composed later, praises God's goodness to all creation. These four early blessings were gradually embellished over time, resulting in a lengthy chain of prayers intended for daily use, with variations and additions for Sabbaths and holidays.

My new Blessing After the Meal, which is considerably shorter than the traditional prayer, is intended for use at any meal on any day of the year. Formed of three statements, each of which is marked by a different verb given in the first-person plural, it encompasses all three of the original core themes, newly interpreted.

The first statement is an acknowledgment of the source of all being and all nourishment. The verb opening this utterance is nodeh, "let us acknowledge (or thank)," and the opening line, Nodeh l'eyn hahayim, "Let us acknowledge the source of life," echoes the opening line of the Blessing Before the Meal, N'vareykh et eyn hahayim, "Let us bless the source of life." The second line of this statement, hazanah et hakol, literally, "which (or who) feeds all," is borrowed directly from the traditional birkat hamazon (where, however, it appears in the grammatically masculine form hazan et hakol).

The second statement of the blessing refers to ha'aretz hatovah v'har'havah, literally, "the good and spacious land," a phrase taken from the traditional prayer, where it denotes the land of Israel. In its new context, this phrase refers both to Israel and to the earth as a whole; the first-person verb here is nishmor, "let us protect." The purpose of the second statement is to affirm human partnership with the source of creation in preserving the life of the planet, even as we acknowledge our dependence on the earth for sustenance. At the same time, we acknowledge the role of the land of Israel in sustaining Jewish life, affirming our responsibility to protect it from evil and harm. Thus universalist and particularist concerns, which are present in different parts of the traditional prayer, are here intertwined. Unfortunately, the English version of the blessing fails to preserve the twin meanings of ha'aretz as "the earth" and "the land of Israel"—I could find no single word willing to do this double duty. (This is an example of the kind of difficulties that can arise when writing Jewish poetry in a language that has not, historically, been shared by Jews—one reason I believe it imperative to keep the Hebrew liturgical tradition alive.)

The third statement of the Blessing After the Meal makes a commitment to work for a world where none will go hungry. This may be seen as a way of striving to make the world in its entirety a sacred space—a symbolic re-creation of the sacred space of the ancient Temple. The verb here is n'vakeysh, "let us seek" (appearing here as unvakeysh, "and let us seek"), which, like nishmor, "let us protect," implies a commitment to ongoing future action beyond the ritual activity of the blessing.

Thus the new Blessing After the Meal connects spiritual yearning to social concern and commitment. Taken as a whole, it encompasses the hope of the fourth blessing in the traditional prayer—that goodness may be provided for all living beings.


© Marcia Lee Falk.