The Blessings after Bread
By Menachem Levisohn
The table of a Jew is considered in the place of the altar that stood in the times of the holy temple for it is by inviting the poor and hungry to eat him that he is able to extend the days of his life since his hospitality atones for him today like the sacrifices did in the times of old. After eating a meal that included bread a traditional blessing is made to thank G-d for His goodness, for it is only through his grace that we have food. In the olden times one person was selected to recite the blessings and the others would listen and answer 'amen', but today the custom is that each person recites the blessings by him/herself. It may be said in Hebrew or any other language that the person understands. The blessings should be recited within a short time of the eating, some say a maximum of seventy-two minutes should not pass.
The traditional blessings after eating bread which is also known as grace after meals consists of four sections which are four separate blessings which were instituted at four different times in history. The obligation to recite the blessings after eating bread is based on the statement in the Torah, (Deuteronomy 8:10) "and you shall eat and be satisfied and bless G-d..." Now since the statement is mentioned in the Torah, the requirement to bless G-d for His goodness after eating bread is a Torah requirement. Even though the Torah requirement specifies that there be satisfaction, meaning a feeling of being filled up, neither the less, the sages have required us to thank G-d through the blessings after eating even if we eat a small amount of bread that is compared to the size of a large olive.
The first blessing that we recite was given to the Jews by Moses in the first month that the Jews left Egypt. When the manna came down from heaven in place of bread Moses instituted this blessing. This blessing expresses our thanks and gives praise to G-d who in His goodness feeds and sustains the entire world. It does not mention bread since they did not eat bread during the forty years that they wandered in the desert. Rather they ate the manna which descended from heaven with the dew. They did not have to labor for their sustenance; they merely went outside and harvested it with their hands, brought it to their tent and ate it. It required no cooking or preparation. This first blessing was the only blessing that the Jews recited during the time that they wandered in the desert.
When Joshua took the Jews into the Promised Land they began to eat bread made from the grain that grew in the land of Israel. Unlike the manna which could be eaten without any human effort, the Jews had to work to harvest the grain, to mill it, grind it and take out the impurities, and finally bake it in the over into bread. It was at this time that Joshua instituted the second blessing to thank G-d for giving us "a desirable, good and ample land..." In addition this second blessing states the Torah requirement "and you shall eat and be satisfied and bless G-d..." and concludes with thanking G-d for the land and the bread. We see from this that whether man's food (income) comes to him easily like the manna did or if it comes with much effort and toil as with the grain that he is obligated to thank G-d for His goodness. It is in this second blessing we insert extra thanks for our holidays such as Chanukah and Purim.
The third blessing was instituted by King David nearly five hundred years later and it includes a request for the building of the holy city of Jerusalem and Zion and for the descendants of King David. It includes a request that we may never come to need the assistance of man but rather to depend on the out-stretched hand of G-d. It concludes with a request for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Special mention of the Shabbat, the Torah mandated holidays, and the new moon are said near the end of this blessing.
Strangely enough the reader says 'amen' at the end of this blessing. Normally a reader never says amen to his own blessing; it is only those who hear a blessing from another who respond 'amen'. The reason that the reader says amen at this point is that this is the end of the blessings that are instituted by Torah decree. The next blessing, the fourth blessing, is rabbinic in origin.
The fourth blessing is a special blessing that was instituted after the unsuccessful revolt of Bar Kochba. The wicked emperor Hadrian suppressed the revolt and killed multitudes of Jews in the city of Beitar. Trying to teach the Jews a harsh lesson, the cruel Hadrian forbade the burial of those Jewish warriors who lay slain on the ground. It was only after he died that permission was given to bury all who had died. Miraculously, the bodies did not give off a bad smell.
When the dead were buried, the Sanhedrin, the great court, which at that time sat in Yavneh expressed gratitude to G-d by instituting this fourth and last blessing which is based on the words, "...the good G-d who does good to all each and every day, He did good for us, He does good for us and He will do good for us...".
Later more requests were added to the blessings after food. These are called the "HaRachamons" since they all start with the word "HaRachamon," meaning the Merciful One.
The blessing after eating bread is an important blessing since the Torah itself requires us to say it. It is a bit long and therefore it is advisable for all to carry a small copy of the blessing so that it can be said when ever bread is eaten. Remember, if you bless G-d, He is certain to bless you. In this manner you will insure yourself to receive the blessing of G-d for a good, long, healthy and happy life.
from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine