The Blessing for Bread

Ideally, Jews say two sets of blessings with every meal. Before the meal, we acknowledge that our food comes from God. After the meal, we say another set of blessings, the Blessing for Satisfaction, called the Birkat Hamazon. (Learn more about the Birkat Hamazon, and see a video of a rabbi chanting it, by clicking the link.)

If there is some form of bread on the table, we say only the blessing for bread, and it covers all the food on the table. This is the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, hamotzi lekhem min ha-aretz.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who brings forth bread from the earth.

The first part of the blessing is the standard formula: “Blessed are You,” etc. The second part has a subtle message built into it. Taken literally, one might get the idea that we think loaves of bread are pulled from the earth like potatoes!

But look deeper: the wording of the prayer stimulates a question in our minds. The prayer engages us with a puzzle: how did the bread get to the table? That offers us the opportunity to appreciate not only the goodness of the Holy One, but the effort of the person who planted the seeds, and nurtured the plants. It reminds us that someone harvested the grain, and ground it into flour. Someone brought the flour to market and yet another person baked the loaf. Thus a whole cascade of figures come to mind, briefly present at our table, as we say the words, break the loaf, and eat.

Does this happen every time? Of course not. But the words are there, waiting for us, when we are ready to be reminded that we are not alone, that we are interdependent with people we do not know and will never meet. No human being stands alone.

Image: A loaf of bread. Photo by Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay.

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Thanks for Life and Breath

Image: Girl blowing a bubble. Photo by AdinaVoicu / Pixabay.

Mornings are tough for me. I’m a night person by nature, jittery in the morning, and now age and arthritis have added a new edge to rising in the morning. I have written in the past about my reworking of the Asher Yatzar, the blessing for bodily function, which is one of the morning prayers. Now I’d like to look at another of the morning prayers, the one that gets me moving. Specifically, this prayer gets me breathing properly and directs my attention outside myself, which prepares me for everything else.

 

  1. The soul that You have given me, O God, is pure!
  2. You created and formed it, breathed it into me,
  3. And within me You sustain it.
  4. So long as I have breath, therefore,
  5. I will give thanks to you. – Mishkan Tefilah, p 292.

This is not the whole prayer. I say it in Hebrew, but it is fine to say it in English. The key to this prayer is that the word for soul in Hebrew, neshamah, is also the word for breath. So one can say this prayer in thanks and gratitude for breath. In fact, we can combine the words of the prayer with breath:

  • Inhale during lines 1 and 2.
  • Hold the breath, and appreciate it, during line 3.
  • Exhale during lines 4 and 5.
  • Pause for a moment, then repeat.

After a few repetitions of that prayer, I’m ready to move. I am less focused on aches and pains and energized by the oxygen in my system. My attention is outward, towards God and creation, rather than inward towards my own thoughts. I’m ready.

I wish you peaceful sleep, and an energetic awakening!

The Blessing for Earthquakes

Image: Kenemetrics Seismograph recording a quake. Photo by Yamaguchi, some rights reserved.

At 12:50 last night a small earthquake shook my neighborhood. Given that I live not far from the Hayward Fault in California, it was not a huge surprise except that it woke me up. I fumbled for my cell phone, to check the time and to check Twitter to see if it was an #earthquake or merely a dream. Nope, #earthquake.

Then I tried to remember the blessing for earthquakes. That one wasn’t so easy – I remembered seeing it in Tractate Berakhot [Blessings] of the Talmud but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it. Finally I had to get up and look it up:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

Whew! Having settled that, I could go back to sleep!

quakemap

An Interfaith Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Heart of the Universe,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day.
Grant us the love and patience with which to respect,
indeed, to appreciate our differences,
and to seek common ground for this festive meal.

Grant us mindfulness about this food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the brilliant cooks in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we have received.

Amen.

 

I posted a slightly different version of this blessing last year; this one is modified to be useful for interfaith families.

How Can I Bless, After a Stroke?

A regular reader asked: “Rabbi, I want to say a blessing before eating, but since my stroke it is hard for me to remember the words of all the blessings. Is there a “one size fits all” blessing which I could say?

First of all, good for you! Saying blessings before eating is a wonderful practice.

Because language provides many different challenges to people, here are several suggestions. Choose whichever you think might be helpful in your case.

  • You can say blessings in English if that would be easier for you. That is a perfectly valid option and not “cheating.”
  • For blessings over food, consider printing them out and putting the paper or card near where you eat. This page from MyJewishLearning.com would work nicely for that purpose.
  • The CCAR Press offers a nice app you can have as close as your smartphone or tablet: An App for Blessings
  • There is no official “one size fits all” food blessing, but you could try using these two if you like:
    • For a meal that includes any wheat product, the blessing hamotzi (follow link to the text) covers the entire meal, except for wine.
    • For a snack or meal that does not include bread, you could use the shehakol blessing (again, linked.) Some readers may point out that that isn’t quite traditional, but the literal words of the blessing seem to me to cover the subject sufficiently – definitely better than no blessing at all.
  • If you are sitting and looking at the food and can’t recall what to say, and your cue sheet isn’t nearby, here’s what you can do. Say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who provides [name the food] for me.”
  • If there are other Jews present who know the blessing, invite them to bless, then say “Amen.”

Let’s take this one step farther, in case someone with aphasia searches this question and reads this. Let’s say speech is very difficult, or recalling words is difficult. You are ready to eat, and the blessing just isn’t there, or isn’t going to come out of your mouth. In such a case, I suggest you look at the food. Let the intention of the blessing enter your heart: appreciate God’s creation and this gift to you, God’s creature. Now eat. God knows what you just said with your heart.

Most of all, remember that this is not a contest. There’s a very famous story that applies here. I’m going to quote Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, since she tells it so well:

The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”

May our blessings, however fragmentary we feel them to be, speak our truths to the Holy One of Blessing. May the act of blessing itself bless us and our communities, near and far.

A Blessing for the Images from Pluto

Today the NASA spaceship New Horizons will fly past Pluto and snap the closest images ever taken of that heavenly body. I thought some of you might like to learn the appropriate blessing for seeing natural wonders.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’Olam, she’ka’kha lo b’olamo.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has such creations in Your world.

(The image featured with this article is in the public domain. It was taken by the New Horizons ship on its approach.)

The Blessing for Study

A lovely and traditional way to begin a study session is the blessing for the study of Torah:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך
הָעולָם

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
.וְצִוָּנוּ
לַעֲסק  בְּדִבְרֵי-תורָה

Ba-ruch a-tah A-doh-nai

Eh-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-O-lam

Ah-sher kid-e-shah-nu b’mitz-voh-tav

Vi-tsi-va-nu la’a-sok b’div-ray To-rah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One,

Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space:

Who sanctifies us with commandments

And commands us to engage in the words of Torah.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!

“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.

I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.”  The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.

“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment?  How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?