The Blessing for What Goes Into our Food
במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה כג
כי אתם באים אל ארץ כנען הלכה עד שלא נכנסו לארץ כיצד היו מברכין על המזון שנו רבותינו עד שלא נכנסו לא”י היו מברכין ברכה א’ הזן את הכל משנכנסו לא”י היו מברכין על הארץ ועל המזון משחרבה הוסיפו בונה ירושלים משנקברו הרוגי ביתר הוסיפו הטוב והמטיב הטוב שלא הסריחו והמטיב שנתנו לקבורה
Numbers Rabbah 23
“When you enter the land of Canaan” (Numbers 34:2) Before they entered the Land, what blessing did they say after meals? Our Rabbis taught: Before they entered the Land of Israel they used to recite one blessing, viz., “Who feeds all.” When they entered the Land of Israel they recited also the blessing, “For the land and for the food.” When the Land was destroyed they added the blessing, “Who rebuilds Jerusalem.” When the people slain at Betar (during the Bar Kochba revolt, 132–135 CE) were given burial the blessing, “Who is good and does good” was added, “Who is good” being said because the bodies did not decay and “Who does good” because they were given burial.
Are blessings over food spontaneous or rote? Do we bless our food out of gratitude for nourishment—or do we use the moments surrounding that most basic animal act of eating for spiritual uplift?
The midrash invites us to see that we are not just blessing our food. Indeed there is a stark difference between the blessings before the meal—in which we focus on what is on our plates—and the blessings recited afterward, which as the midrash suggests have very little to do with eating. The first blessing, over “God Who feeds all,” should be enough. But as history marched on, generations felt the need to add to that blessing, to use the excuse of mealtime as the jumping-off point for a spiritual check-in. Layer upon layer, our liturgy grows.
So too at the personal level: the midrash invites us to thank the God who feeds all, and then to layer upon that blessing other ideas, ultimately arriving at a place where we can bless God who is good even during our darkest moments. For a time my own practice was to bless “God Who feeds all” and then move backward through the food production cycle, offering thanks for each of the miracles that is eating in contemporary America: the body to digest the food; the money with which to purchase the food; the cafeteria workers or restaurant staff or family members who prepared the food for me; the blessing of living in an economy, in a time and place and country, in which food is abundant on the shelves of stores; giving thanks for those whose business it is to provide the food to the stores, the truck drivers and supermarket staff; the construction workers who kept the highways clear so food can be shipped; the farmers and farm workers; and behind all of it, the Creator God. At other times, the liturgically prescribed food blessings have been the very dear: during the stark years of motherhood when my own davening time was nil, I found that the blessings around meals were the few regular blessings I uttered. What this midrash opens up for us is the possibility of using the moment of eating as a moment of spiritual check-in; that we use it as a moment to layer upon layer our own sense of blessedness precisely at the time our bodies are satiated.