The Talmud mentions many ideas concerning Birkat HaMazone – the blessing recited after eating bread. The Birkat HaMazone is comprised of four blessings. The Talmud in Berachot 48b teaches that Moses formulated the blessing which expresses gratitude for food when God provided the Jews with manna in the desert, Joshua formulated the blessing which praises God for allowing the Jews to enter into and dwell in the land of Israel, King David and King Solomon formulated the blessing which praises God for Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Sages of the Mishnaic period formulated the blessing praising God for the miracle He performed at Betar when He preserved the unattended bodies of the Jews who were slaughtered by the Romans. The Talmud then proceeds to teach that there is an order in which these blessings must be recited. Of interest is that the order which the Talmud proposes happens to coincide with the historical order mentioned in the previous teaching.
Before continuing we must ask several questions. The first question is: why must there be an “order” to the blessings of the Birkat HaMazone? The Talmud implies that a person who recites these blessings out of order does not fulfill his obligation, despite the fact that he verbalized the four requisite praises. The verse in the Torah from which the obligation for Birkat HaMazone is derived does, indeed, allude to this order. Perhaps this same verse is also the source for the order mentioned in the Talmud? Nevertheless, we must still ask: why is “order” essential? What would a person’s Birkat HaMazone be lacking were he to recite the blessings out of order?
Another question arises upon examination of these laws in the Mishnah Torah. In Hilchot Berachot 2:1 Maimonides reverses the order of the teachings of the Talmud. He first mentions the requirement of “order” and only afterward mentions who instituted each particular blessing. Why did Maimonides deviate from the order of teachings mentioned in the Talmud?
The Talmud then poses the question: “we only have the source for the blessing after bread, but from where do we learn that one must bless before one eats?” In its response the Talmud utilizes one of the 13 Principles through which the Written Torah is expounded. The principle used by the Talmud is an “a fortiori” argument – a deduction from lesser to greater. The Talmud answers, “if one must bless God when he is full, he certainly must do so when he is hungry.” What is the Talmud’s reasoning? One could just as easily claim the opposite, that there is more to praise God for when one is full than when one is hungry. Furthermore, the Talmud seems to imply that the blessing before eating is of primary importance, that there exists a greater need for a blessing before eating than a blessing after eating. But if it is true that a blessing prior to eating is primary in importance, why isn’t there a separate verse from which this blessing is derived? Shouldn’t the more primary blessing deserve its own mention as well?
Comparing the Birkat HaMazone to prayer, the Talmud teaches that a partial structure for the former is found in the words of the Torah, but we do not find any indication in Torah for the structure of prayer. Why would the Torah provide a structure for the Birkat HaMazone but neglect to provide a structure for prayer?
The Talmud teaches that there are other essential features to the Birkat HaMazone besides order. One must mention the Brit – God's treaty with the Jews – and Torah. What is the connection between Birkat HaMazone, Brit, and Torah? Brit and Torah are important concepts, but so are tefillin and mezuzah, yet they are not mentioned in these blessings after eating. What is special about Brit and Torah?
There is one final question that needs to be addressed. Moses knew the Torah's textual source for the blessing after eating. This verse includes not only a requirement to recite a blessing praising God for supplying food, but one must also bless God over the land of Israel, the Temple, and God's goodness (specifically, the miracle He performed at Betar). The question is: if Moses knew that these Divine acts of kindness demand praise, though they had not yet occurred, why did Moses omit them from his formulation? Why did he only formulate praise for food?
In order to answer these questions we must first address a question about blessings in general: why must one praise God for all the good He does? Though the answer may be obvious, I wish to articulate it here. Immediately following the injunction to bless God after satisfaction derived from food, the Torah warns us, “Take heed less you forget Hashem, your God . . . lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build good houses and settle, and your cattle and sheep and goats increase, and you accumulate increased amounts of silver and gold for yourselves, and everything you have will increase – and your heart will become haughty and you will forget Hashem, your God” (Devarim 8:11-14). The Torah associates the fullness of one's stomach and subsequent wealth with the self absorption that causes us to forget God. Man has an innate tendency to abandon God when all is good. A friend of mine suggested that perhaps the institution of Birkat HaMazone address this human flaw. Man is commanded to direct his thoughts to God when in a state of satisfaction, lest he forget God. Perhaps man – even religious man – desires to flee from God. We are taught that "the Jews left Sinai like children leaving school." They viewed the Torah and its demanding system of commandments as a burden. A person with such an attitude demonstrates the fact that he has little or no appreciation for God’s creation of man as an intellectual being, one who is equipped with the ability to perceive the wonders of God’s creation. Such a person desires only money, possessions, homes, silver, gold, and cattle. In other words, man desires physical security. Why? So that he can secure his life, his continued physical existence. Man seeks assurance that he will continue to live. What daily activity gives him such assurance? The daily activity of eating. When man eats, he feels secure – his instinctual need is satisfied, and all of his other cravings temporarily subside. This quelling of desires, however, can be dangerous, as the Torah points out. God has another plan for us. He desires that we involve ourselves in knowledge. By commanding man to bless God after eating, man never encounters the pitfall of losing sight of his Maker, of His Provider. Thus, we can now see how Birkat HaMazone aims to promote the greatest good for man.
What is the reasoning behind the Talmud’s a fortiori argument that “if one who is full must bless, one who is hungry must certainly do so”? Before eating, man is in a state of pain – hunger. Perhaps the blessing before eating is more important because man has a greater obligation to bless God when in a state of pain than when he is in a state of pleasure – satiety. Thus, the Talmud is really saying, “if one whom God provides with a pleasure must bless, certainly one from whom God removes a pain must bless.” Now the Talmud’s reasoning makes sense.
Why did the Torah only provide a source for the blessing after eating? Perhaps the Torah mentioned the source for one type of blessing and omitted the source for the other in order to emphasize which blessing is the greatest praise of God. What is a greater praise, blessing God for the pleasure gained from eating an apple, or praising God for the miraculous act of sustaining 2.5 million Jews in the desert with manna, for Israel, the Temple, and the miracle of Betar? Perhaps the intent in omitting mention of a specific source for the blessing before eating was in order to emphasize that the blessing after eating is really the greatest praise of God.
The Talmud says that Moses, Joshua, King David, and King Solomon had formulated the four sections of the Birkat HaMazone, but only after the events occurred. Moses did not formulate the praise over the land because he had not conquered it – only Joshua was able to do so when he later conquered the land. But if Moses knew from the Torah's words that one is obligated to praise God for the land of Israel then why did he neglect to formulate the blessing over Israel? I believe the answer is that we must praise God for His continued providence over the Jewish nation. I believe this is the central principle behind the commandment of Birkat HaMazone. Reciting these four blessing out of order would remind us of God's kindness, but only that He performed acts of kindness at certain points in history. An out-of-order recitation would not bring to mind His "continued" providence. Such recognition can only be accomplished by reciting these blessings in the historical order in which they occurred. Thus, Moses fulfilled this goal through his recitation of the Birkat HaMazone, even though he didn’t recite the blessings over Israel, the Temple, or the miracle at Betar – the blessing he recited was just as much a recognition of God’s continual providence as the Birkat HaMazone we recite today. Perhaps this is also why Maimonides mentioned the requirement for order before mentioning the historical formulation of the Birkat HaMazone – the idea of “order” is essential to the idea of Birkat HaMazone whereas the historical order of formulation is only accidental.
I believe this is the underlying philosophy of blessing after eating. We do not only bless God for food, but for all of the good He has bestowed upon us. It is for this reason that we must also mention Brit and Torah. Man must verbalize a "complete" praise of God, which can only be accomplished by mentioning the concepts of Brit, Torah, and the land of Israel. Food alone is not and ends in itself, but only a means. This idea is demonstrated by the incorporation into Birkat HaMazone of God's primary goal for man – Torah study. Wisdom is God’s primary goal for man, and food is only a means enable man to achieve that goal.
Why did the Torah see fit to outline a structure for blessing after eating, but not for prayer? I believe the reason to be based on the very distinction between these two activities: Blessing after eating, which praises God's continued providence, is a blessing over that which God does for man. Therefore, the Torah must define what are those goods performed by God on our behalf. Prayer, however, is man's approach to God. Perhaps the Torah’s omission of a structure for prayer alludes to the fact that prayer is an activity initiated by man. Man must be the one who comes before God with his own structured supplications.