In parashat Eikev we read, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.”1 This phrase is the basis for Birkat HaMazon, the prayer we recite after a meal. Birkat HaMazon, referred to in Yiddish as benching, is made of up four blessings.
The first blessing is birkat hazan, which praises God for sustaining life and providing food for all creatures. The second blessing is birkat ha’aretz, which thanks God for being compassionate and nourishing the Jewish people, both with food and with Torah. The third blessing is birkat Yerushalayim, which asks God to be merciful and continue to support the Jewish people. And the fourth and final blessing is birkat hatov v’hameitiv, which stresses the various positive manifestations of the relationship between the Jewish people and God. These can be preceded by recitations of psalms, and followed by specific requests all beginning with the phrase harachaman, ‘may the compassionate one…’
The melodies and structures of birkat hamazon vary by communities and have become popularized in the Reform Movement due to their use at our URJ Summer Camps. At camp, the campers have added over the years, a number of hand movements and responses, some of which are more appropriate than others.
No matter the minor or major differences, there lingers the question asked by many, “why thank God after a meal?” As Rabbi Artson states, “It makes a certain kind of sense to pray before a meal, when we have a need to be met. But afterward, we are already satisfied. And God surely does not need our prayers or gratitude. The prayer after eating … moreover, scarcely seems the appropriate time to make a request.
But there is more to prayer than simply focusing on our own needs. The act of praying has a larger purpose; it sensitizes us to the greatest marvel of all: that we exist, and that we are conscious of our existence.
Jewish prayer should shock us into an awareness that life itself is miraculous.”2
The underlying premise behind Birkat HaMazon, as Rabbi Artson states, is a demonstration for gratitude for all that we have. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is sometimes overwhelming sadness and frustration for all that we have lost from friends and family, to a diminishment to goods and services, to jobs and opportunities, to a connection to our community. Yet at the same time, we are still here. We are alive and our lives are, nonetheless, filled with blessings.
It can be hard to count our blessings in such times, and yet, as our tradition is reminding us, we must. Even in sorrow, gratitude can help us move ever forward. We more than simply exist. We are beings and a community capable of growing and loving. And for this, hopefully, we can find our ability to be grateful as well.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Deuteronomy 8:10
2 Artson, Rabbi Bradley Shavit, The Bedside Torah, Contemporary Books, 2001, pg. 300.