My practice of blessing before the meals began not as an act of theology but of desperation. As the mother of two young children, I was struggling to limit mealtime chaos. In my mind, meals were meant to be episodes of calm and connection and not the free-for-all they often became. I wanted my children to appreciate the food in front of them, not just complain and make demands for substitute foodstuffs. Looking for an alternative to coaxing and pleading (and occasionally yelling) for more focus, I considered the possibility of the blessings before food. I reasoned that making a blessing at the beginning of the meal might serve as a means of drawing our attention together as a family and maybe make us more aware of how fortunate we are.
In many ways, it has worked. My daughter, now 8, will often scold her brother if he tucks into the food before we gather together to bless. My son, 11, once in the thankful mindset will often take an extra moment to thank the person who prepared the food. Though I have abandoned the idea of achieving the idyllic vision I once cherished for family meals, the blessings do provide a moment of focus in the hustle and bustle. And as tradition would have it, alongside the desires for fancy sneakers or dolls, there is also gratitude at our table.
I am pleased with these outcomes. I would recommend the practice not only to parents but to anyone who is looking to slow down or center their experience of eating. But though this practice took root in my family for primarily practical purposes, it is important not to overlook the theological implications of blessing food. Beyond a momentary calm, the blessings said before and after eating not only offer us the opportunity to deepen our awareness of God but also provide a sense of how we might understand our relationship to God.
In Judaism, we are meant to bless before we eat. Given the frequency with which we eat, blessings before food consumption have the potential to draw our attention to God many times daily. There are different blessings to be said, depending on the food that is about to be consumed. Yet the blessing has no impact on the food itself. An apple eaten with a blessing is no more or less sacred than an apple eaten without a blessing. As is common in the exchange of gifts, we give the gift of praise and recognition and in return receive the gift of food that we consume. The opening of these pre-food blessings relies on the familiar formula found in most short Jewish blessings, “Blessed are you Adonai, Ruler of the Universe” — words that recognize God’s presence in the world. Whatever role we have played in bringing this food forth for consumption, whether growing it ourselves, or simply waiting for it to arrive on our plate, we acknowledge God’s role in the process. Ours is a religion that sees a world infused with divinity. Nothing, not even a small grape could be if it were not for God.
The blessings before food, however, take back seat to the Blessing of Food, Birkat Hamazon, said after a full meal is consumed and commonly known in English as the Grace After Meals. This postprandial custom draws from Exodus 8:10, “You will eat, you will be satisfied and you will bless.” In this satiated state we envision a hands-on God, loving and personal, who “opens hands and satisfies the needs of every living creature.” But our ability to embrace and praise God is stretched as the blessing presses forward. The final paragraph includes a verse from Psalm 37, “I have been young and now I am old, but never have I see the innocent abandoned, their children wanting bread.” In the 18th century, this particular phrase bothered the Rabbi Elijah HaGaon of Vilna so much that he had it printed in small type in his prayer book and many contemporary Jews lower their voices when singing these words in an attempt to downplay the dissonance between this idyllic image and the reality of poverty and hunger.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, my colleague at Hebrew Union College, suggests that this phrase is one of many indicators that the Grace After Meals is a vision of the messianic time that will come, when God’s hand will be open and no one will go hungry. The Birkat HaMazon, Rabbi Hoffman argues, must be read together with the blessing over bread, for the full Grace After Meals is only said when a meal begins with the intake of bread. The blessing for bread, known commonly as the motzi starts like all other food blessings, but ends the praise of God as the one “who brings forth bread from the earth.” Bread of course does not simply grow from the ground. Pondering the meaning of this phrase, the rabbis of the Talmud suggested that the motzi calls forth an understanding of a future when God will simply make bread appear from the earth. Book-ended by messianic visions, every meal — those times we are full and satisfied — we are experiencing a piece of the world to come.
The power of bread as a symbol of perfection in the world to come derives in no small part from the role it plays in the world of the here and now. Bread held a special place in ancient Judaism. Not unlike our colloquial use of bread and dough as slang for money, in several places in the Bible, the Hebrew word for bread, lekhem is equated with livelihood. Bread is much more than a foodstuff; it is that which sustains us completely. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, bread held a special place among the foodstuffs brought as sacrifices, supplying the priests with a continually fresh source of sustenance. After the Temple was destroyed, and the rabbis declared the home a minor temple and the table upon which we dine its altar, bread continued its theological role. For the most part, the rabbis transformed sacrificial service into worship through prayer. But the sacrificial tithing of bread as a gift to the priests, derived from the biblical injunction (Number 15) to set aside a portion of the dough. The act of removing dough when baking bread endures to this day as a reminder of the sacrificial worship that took place in the Temple.
Long before we say the motzi, the bread is pregnant with messages about our connection with God. It is bread that begins a full meal because bread, like God, has the power to sustain. In the ancient world, bread was one of the most complex and difficult foodstuffs to produce. Even today hard work and patience go into planting, tending and harvesting grain. Milling and grinding transform grain into flour, and only then can we begin to contemplate the shaping of loaves. Bread does not emerge miraculously from the ground as suggested by the motzi blessing; it is the product of human hands. Yet, even as we take ownership of the dough that we fashion, we recognize that humans do not have full control over this process. We are partners with God in the creation of this miraculous source of sustenance.
A satisfying meal is a taste of the world to come, but it is also a recipe for how to bring about that world. The blessing of the motzi sets apart a meal from a snack. The presence of bread in rabbinic, not dietetic terms, is the indicator that what is about to be consumed will be satisfying and fulfill our bodily needs, that fulfillment comes from bread, which arrives at the table as a result of our partnership with God. In the world to come, all will have the opportunity to eat and be satisfied and praise God’s generosity without irony or reservation. Those who have the privilege to participate in a full meal get a sense of how wonderful a time the messianic era will be. In the meantime, the motzi focuses our attention on the bread and reminds us that in order to make it possible for all who are hungry to be fed, we have to enter into partnership with God and do the hard work of feeding the world.
Despite the success in my household of implementing the practice of blessing before eating, I do not want to exaggerate its impact. Often the blessings before food are akin to a yellow light, only temporarily slowing us down before we dig into our meal. I know that the larger theological frameworks from which the practice of blessing emerges is largely lost on my children. Yet my own understanding of this theology is an ongoing inspiration to me. It is a reminder that while messianic perfection might be elusive, by partnering with God I do have the power to slow down the chaos and create glimpses of what is possible in the world to come.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder received a doctorate from Yale on the subject of 19th century Jewish food traditions and is the national director of continuing alumni education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
PQ: ‘Book-ended by messianic visions, every meal — those times we are full and satisfied — we are experiencing a piece of the world to come.’