Monday, October 16, 2017

The Birkat HaMazon and Other Table Centered Rituals

Image result for grace after meals

Notes from Talmud Circle October 8, 2017

We dedicated the day’s learning to Rabbi Steinsaltz who suffered a stroke last December and is still unable to speak, or write. But he can read, says rabbi Peretz. He goes to his office, and he smokes his pipe.

A Good Year, and Sweet

At the new year, and during the contemplative period leading up to Yom Kippur, we say “Sha Na Tova,  U’metuka.”  “Sha Na Tova” means “good year” and “U’metuka” means “and sweet.”  That is the custom. But why do we say both? Why “a good year, and sweet?”  

Rabbi Steinsaltz put it this way, says Peretz. “Tov,” the good in the year to come, is not known to us. We live in a large universe. Things happen in this universe, to us, to our loved ones, to our community. And we may wonder why? We may wonder what is good about it? And it often happens that the ultimate good escapes us. It is obscured. The good of it may be resolved out of our knowledge, out of our sight. By contrast, the “metuka” (the sweet), is sensation. That we can immediately grasp. We know what’s sweet and what’s bitter. This is known and personal to us. As we embark on the year, we will encounter sweet things and bitter things—and these will be immediately apparent to us. So we say both “a good year,” believing in the ultimate good even if it’s not apparent to us, and we wish a “sweet year” to be immediately experienced.

Shulkan bimkom Mishkan

For the past year, Peretz reminds us, we have been talking about “Shulkan bimkom Mishkan” (the table in place of the temple). Most of the late temple practices were not carried forward into rabbinic Judaism. The Tannaim and Amoraim barely refer to these older practices. They replaced the temple practices that focused on the altar and sacrifices with table centered rituals, focused on meals and blessings.

Susan Marks has edited a compilation of essays collected into a book “Meals in Early Judaism” about the early formation of rabbinic Judaism and how it brought communities together over meals.

Aside 1. The late temple period was full of violence. The schools of Hillel and Shammai (First century BCE) were not always such “friendly” rivals, suggests Peretz. Indeed sectarian violence between Jews allowed Pompey to walk in (63 BCE) and assert Roman rule. It was a time of conflict. Early messianism and the Book of Daniel stem from this era.  After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Judaism is reconstructed not only on the ashes of the temple, but also on the grief of all the fighting that had occurred before: Jewish internal strife, the violence and abuses of Roman governors, the First Jewish-Roman war leading to destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the fall of Masada in 74 CE, the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.

The Talmud does a work around. The early rabbis take the table in place of the altar in the temple (which is also a table): the communities now come together—wherever they are—at the table. Ceremonies around wine, bread, and communal meals replace sacrifice in the temple. The replacement of the temple with the table is a progressive move. It is not intended to be temporary.

Judaism as we know it is established in the Mishna, and Talmud does not really imagine being in power in the land of Israel. The Tannaim, Amoraim, Maimondies, and Rashi have no imagination for modern day Israel, says Peretz.

The table is present wherever we gather. At weddings, at bar and bat mitzvahs, at Shabbat services, at daily meals, where we study. Wherever we gather, there is an opportunity to rebuild the temple (metaphorically) and to rebuild its best values. It’s a perfect instrument for a people dispersed in diaspora.

Aside 2.  This rabbinic Judaism, well suited for diaspora, introduces a tension as Judaism returns to the land with power. Since Zionism, we have tried to bring this rabbinic Judaism back to the land of Israel: and now there is territory. But Talmud is of no help when it comes to forming a government and an army.

Aside 3. In diaspora we have all kinds of tables. There is diversity. (“If you don’t like this Passover table, go to another”) But when we bring our table to the Kotel, now we have authorities that try to dictate what kind of table we should have, . . .  and who can be there, adds Janet. We are in a post-temple period with a temple site: how we deal with that is the central puzzle of Zionism 3.0, says Peretz.
Israeli police at Kotel
Grace after Meals—the Birkat HaMazon

From Meals in Early Judaism:

“The recitation of the Birkat HaMazon negotiates and renegotiates the central relationships between teacher and student, scholarly companions, scholarly rivals, mourners, and the community rejoicing with the brides and grooms that will reproduce the world.”

“Birkat” is blessing; “mazon” is food.

Aside 4. David Berlutti asked about the “central relationships between teacher and student” etc. referenced in this Meals in Early Judaism quotation. “It’s about interdependence,” says Peretz. In temple times we were a temple dependent community. We depended on living in the land of Israel, going to the temple at festival times and bringing our offerings. . . . Now we are a community that is interdependent with each other, says Peretz. All of these events mentioned are relational moments: mourners, brides and grooms, studying together. It’s about community building. The Talmud creates a community. We’ve become urbanized socialists in the process. We were forced to become a literate community.  We became us. 

HERE is a trim and proper explanation of the blessing after meals by Rabbi Micah Greenstein, at Temple Israel in Memphis. He uses a Reform Bencher (prayer book, from Yiddish bentshen “to bless”).

The Birkat HaMazon is recited at all life-cycle events. It cements central relationships: between teachers and students, scholars, mourners, wedding guests . . . . The Birkat HaMazon affirms the values of everyday life, says Peretz.

Aside 4. When the Mishna speaks of the Birkat HaMazon it is only three paragraphs: who feeds all, blessing of the land, and who builds Jerusalem. And the Sages contemplated this would be said at every meal. But the blessing has grown over the centuries. The Birkat HaMazon is recited in Jewish camps, and thus widely learned, but as parts were added, it became an onerous thing, to the point where we don’t do it at every meal.  [Even at a dinner in honor of Rabbi Steinsaltz in New York—which he did not attend—the Birkat HaMazon was skipped from the program]

Aside 5. Reciting the Birkat HaMazon, of course, is a mitzvah grounded in Torah. Deuternomy 8:10 states: “And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” Traditionally, the Birkat HaMazon is recited after any meal with bread (more than an olive portion; or the size of an egg—Sages differ).

“The Birkat HaMazon recites our core identity,” says Peretz. “If you recite it regularly, Jewish identity is there.” And, indeed, if we read the Reform Siddur version we see praise, acknowledgement and thanks, and (finally) a petition: (1) we praise God and his name, his abundance and goodness, his love for his people; (2) we acknowledge God as the source of our food, and His rebuilding of Jerusalem, and our everlasting bond with Him, and finally (3) we petition that He bless our house and the table at which we’ve eaten:

Leader:  Chaveirim vachaveirot, n’vareich! (Let us praise God)

Group: Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach,
mei-atah v’ad olam.
(Praised be the name of God, now and forever)

Leader: Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach
            Mei-atah v’ad olam.
            Birshut hachevrah, n’vareich Eloheinu
            She-achalnu mishelo.
            (Praised be the name of God, now and forever!
            Praised be our God, of whose abundance we have eaten)

Group: Baruch Eloheinu she achalnu mishelo
            Uv’tuvo chayinu.
            (Praised be our God, of whose abundance we have eaten,
            and by whose goodness we live)

Leader: Baruch Eloheinu she-achalnu mishelo
            uv’tuvo chayinu.
            Baruch hu uvaruch sh’mo.
            (Praised by our God, of whose abundance we have eaten.
            And by whose goodness we live.
            Praised be God and praised be God’s name.)

Group: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu,
            Melech haolam, hazan et haolam
            Kulo b’tuvo, b’chein b’chesed uv’rachamim.
            Hu notein lechem l’chol basar
            Ki l’olam chasdo.
            Uv’tuvo hagadol tamid  lo chaser lanu,
            V’al yechar lanu mazon l’olam va-ed.
            Baavur sh’mo hagadol,
            Ki hu El zan um’farneis lakol,
            Umeitiv lakol, umeichin mazon
            L’chol b’ryotav asher bata.
            Baruch atah, Adonai, hazan et hakol.
            (Sovereign God of the universe, we praise You: Your goodness sustains the world. You are the God of grace, love, and compassion, the Source of bread for all who live; for Your love is everlasting. In your great goodness we need never lack for food; you provide food enough for all. We praise You, O God, Source of food for all who live)

            Kakatuv, v’achalta v’savata
            Uveirachta et Adonai Elohecha
            Al haaretz hatovah asher natan lach.
            Baruch atah, Adonai,
            Al haaretz v’al hamazon.
            (As it is written: When you have eaten and are satisfied, give praise to your God who has given you this good earth. We praise you, O God, for the earth and for its sustenance.)

            Uv’nei Y’rushalayim it hakodesh
            Bimheirah v’yameinu.
            Baruch atah, Adonai,
            Boneh v’rachamav y’rushalayim. Amen.
            (Let Jerusalem, the holy city, be renewed in our time. We praise You, Adonai, in compassion you rebuild Jerusalem. Amen.)

            Harachaman, hu yimloch aleinu
            Lolam va-ed.
            (Merciful One, be our God forever)

            Harachaman, hu yitbarach
            Bashamayim u’vaaretz.
            (Merciful One, heaven and earth alike are blessed by your presence.)

            Harachaman, hu yishlach b’rachah m’rubah
                        Baayit hazeh,
                        V’al shulchan zeh she’achalnu alav.
                        (Merciful One, bless this house and this table at which we have eaten)
Rabbi Alan Lew
Aside 6.  Molly asked about the meaning of reciting this blessing when we are often reciting it quickly, just to get through it. Alan Lew, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom 1991-2005, says Rabbi Peretz, used to complain about putting on tefillin every day. ‘Most of the time I don’t like it,’ said Alan. Yet he kept doing it ritually because every once in a while it brought him up short, and it was meaningful. Ritual practice holds the space for occasional epiphanies. ‘Every once in a while, in that space, it dawns on me,’ said Alan.

The beauty of the ritual in the Mishkan, says Peretz, was it functioned, it was non-negotiable. Everybody understood exactly what to do, and what the priests were to do: you went in, brought your offering, went to the mikvah. . . and you felt really good. That was it.  Ever since then, we have been trying to rediscover our connection to God and spirituality and community with words. And that has been a journey.

Aside 7. Some communities in Israel are becoming pre-literate again, suggests Peretz. You don’t have to know what you are saying. You just have to do the ritual, because you are there, and it’s all provided for you. The municipality drops things off, you don’t even have to find it. Battling this tendency is one of the reasons for the Steinsaltz project, says Peretz: making the Talmud available in modern Hebrew to Israelis.


Three men, or more, who ate as one, must form a zimmun, and recite the introductory call and response to the Birkat HaMazon. The zimmun starts a conversation. It builds community. It builds harmony.

It’s one of the goals of the Mishna—this building of harmony, says Peretz. Four children, four cups of wine (Passover) are about harmony. By formalizing the ritual, it allows us to participate anywhere in the world. Mishna creates interchangeable parts.

We say the Birkhat HaMazon, says Steinsaltz, after a meal that satisfies one’s hunger. But for clarity “the Sages require a person to say Grace after meals after eating more than an olive-bulk of bread.” If bread is not part of the meal, we still say grace after meal, just a shorter version.

Aside 8. An analogy. James Madison was aware of the Talmud. Our constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and thereby imposed order on a chaotic system. Commerce was not working. We needed a stronger central government. Similarly, Talmud imposed order on a chaotic post-Temple Jewish world. The Mishna and U.S constitution were both drafted in secret, by elites. It was not a broad democratic process.  We can also look at the Gemara as amendments to the “constitution” of the Mishna, like our constitutional amendments.
The Mishna of Yehuda HaNasi
Six Orders, 63 Tractates
Aside 9. There are two types of Jewish communities: there is the Jewish community (Orthodox) that looks at halakhah (which starts with Torah, the Mishna, and continues into the Gemara and later commentaries) and takes it all as binding. This community surrenders its personal autonomy to the halakha. They may drive to within two blocks of shul on Shabbat, then walk, but they are negotiating. It’s Orthopraxi—necessarily imperfect. And there is the community that doesn’t surrender its personal autonomy to the halakha. This community sees the halakhah as influential, as having a voice, but not as having a veto. They are navigating with halakhah (without pretense). Over time, these communities look back at this literature with different interpretations. 

Aside 10. The idea that Talmud comes from Sinai, says Peretz, is a post-Talmudic invention. The Talmud makes no such claim. In Talmud, the rabbis are always aware that some things are from Torah (which the tradition holds, comes from Sinai) and some things are made up by us—which would include the bulk of rabbinic Judaism. Nevertheless, there is a community that treats Talmud as though it’s pronouncements and authority come from Sinai—that Moses knew the Talmud and its laws. It’s a struggle.

Chapter 7, Mishna 45a

“Three people who ate as one are required to form a zimmun and recite Grace after Meals. If one ate doubtfully tithed produce, and first tithe from which its teruma was already taken, or second tithe, and consecrated food that were redeemed and therefore permitted to be eaten; and even the waiter who served the meal to those who ate at least an olive-bulk, and the Samaritan . . . each of these is among the people included to obligate a zimmun.”

The number three required for a zimmun is not accidental, says Peretz. Three points make a plane, a table. The number three is solid, like a tripod, or a stool on which the world stands.

“First tithe” refers to the 1/10 of produce separated for the Levites in temple times (measured after the teruma—the sacred portion—has also been given to the priests for their consumption). See Steinsaltz Note, Berakhot p. 293. 

Looking forward . . . , looking back

The Mishna is trying to create a harmonious world moving forward, while at the same time reaching back and not forgetting Jerusalem: thus, the last words of the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur are “next year in Jerusalem . . . ;” the last words of the Passover Seder are “next year in Jerusalem . . . ;” the last of the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings, includes the wish that “let there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy….” We remember Jerusalem through all of the sacrificial items, everything that was brought to the temple in pre-rabbinic Judaism.

Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder
This characteristic of looking forward, while keeping an eye on Jerusalem explains our time period exactly, says Peretz. “I once asked my teacher, Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder, ‘Why is there no past tense in the Mishna?’ ‘It’s all virtual but in the present tense,’ said Wacholder. ‘The temple practices are not relegated to the past tense. And it’s all practical,’ added Wacholder, ‘because it will all come back one day.”  Hmm. The best way to keep these two ideas in hand is to always speak in the present.

This amalgamation of past, present, and future, seems like alchemy, not so unlike the Trinity.

. . . and looking back, everything is doubtfully tithed.

Blessings, as we learned last year, free up that which is consecrated (everything) for our use, see HERE (class notes The Architecture of Everything). Therefore, Jews in Temple times did not say a blessing over a tithed portion; a tithed portion was not for our use. But in case of doubt, says the Mishna—looking backwards—we said a blessing. [“Even if there is doubt. . .” we form a zimmun and we say the blessing]. But that is looking backwards.

Today, we look forward and “it’s all done in the head,” says Peretz. “Even if you are not sure that you ate food (that might have been tithed in temple times) you say the Birkat HaMazon.”  But today when there is no actual teruma (tithed portion) at all, and all this tithing business “is done purely in the head”—I’m deducing—all of it is doubtful, because any portion you eat could be a portion that might have been tithed. Because all of it is doubtful, therefore, we now say a blessing over it all. Ironically, because all of it is doubtful, none of it is in doubt: we know what to do. Zimmun. 

Aside 11. Teruma. “The first fruit of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” shall be given to the priest. Deuteronomy 18:4; Numbers 8:12. The Sages extended the scope of this commandment to include all produce, says Steinsaltz. The Torah does not specify an amount that must be segregated, but Talmud imagined a rule of thumb: two percent as an average amount. Teruma in temple times was sacred and could only be eaten by the priest and his household whilst they are in a state of ritual purity. Priests and their family were obligated to wash their hands before partaking of it.

Radical Inclusion (sort of . . .)

Even the Samaritan counts for a zimmun. The Samaritans did not follow the Mishnah and Gemara into rabbinic Judaism, yet they are counted for a zimmun.

“And now women too . . .” says Janet. “Don’t push it,” implies Peretz.  “That’s the anxiety, . . .  the Persian anxiety over the female presence that Tova Hartman speaks about. It was such a separated world that the Gemara was unable to move: it freezes.”  The Mishna, suggests Peretz, “is more fluid because it is a Greco-Roman document, and the bible has women all over it because it is a Canaanite document.”  The moral is that “as we move through epochs, our feelings about gender changes,” says Peretz. Therein lies hope. 

But then we read, top of p. 294: “Women, slaves, and minors do not obligate those with whom they ate in a zimmun.  Sigh. Women, slaves, and minors, says Steinsaltz, are free “to form their own zimmun by themselves,” but, of course, they are not obligated. It’s scant comfort. Women, slaves, and children can play-act at honoring God in a zimmun… but the rabbis know where the real action’s at: with the men.

Gentiles and Christians don’t count.  “Christians reject the primacy of the Torah,” says Peretz. “They hold to the primacy of Jesus.”

Rabbi Zeira took Ill

And we studied the text on p. 298, Daf 46a in havruta.

Rabbi Zeira took ill and his friend, rabbi Abbahu went to visit him and resolved: if this little man with the scorched legs is cured I will make a feast. And so it happened and Rabbi Abbahu put on a feast for the Sages.

When it came time to break bread at this feast, Rabbi Abbahu invited Rabbi Zeira--the honored guest--to “please break bread for us.” But Zeira declined: “don’t you follow the halakha of Rabbi Yohanan, who said: ‘The host breaks bread?’ And so Abbahu—the host—broke bread for them.

When it came time to say the Birkat HaMazon after the meal, Rabbi Abbahu again invited Rabbi Zeira to say the blessing. “Doesn’t the rabbi follow the halakha of Rabbi Huna who said: “He who breaks bread recites Grace after Meals?”

So, the Gemara asks, where did Rabbi Abbahu get the idea to ask Rabbi Zeira to say Grace after meal? And the Gemara answers: Rabbi Abbahu was not without support, for “Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai held ‘the host breaks bread (so he will be generous), but the guest recites grace after meals (so he will generously bless the host). “May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come,” the guest will say. And all will be good.

And the Rabbi (HaNasi) added elements to this blessing for the host: “And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.”

Aside 12. When Talmud uses generic “Rabbi” it refers to Yehuda HaNasi. “Rabbi” is a relational term. It means “he who enlarges me”, “the one who makes me more.”

It’s a most generous and broad blessing from Rabbi HaNasi: (1) a blessing for earthly success for all, and (2) a blessing that this success should not go to our heads.

Aside 13. Satan here means “the distractor.” When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the U.S. the Great Satan, he meant something very different than what we in the West hear with our post-Dante ears. “America, the Great Distractor” has a different ring to it! Indeed we might even admit to that. . . .

And Rav Nahman says “the blessing extends until ‘Let us bless,’” while Rav Hheshet says “Until ‘Who feeds all,’” . . . . and there you have it! 

Please email me with any additions or corrections at

Next Talmud Circle at JCCSF will be held on November 19, 2017. 

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