This is an exploration of the mitzvah "V'Akhalta" (and you shall engage in Jewish eating!) and goes beyond seeing Deuteronomy 8:10 as the source of the mitzvot of blessing before and after our meals. Usually we just focus on the verb: U'veirakhta "and you shall bless" to learn a separate mitzvah. However, the verb, "to eat" in and of itself holds great, holy meaning for us.
Eating Jewishly and with a Torah mindset is different and puts us in touch with the Divine, as well as our deepest respect for our bodies. And with blessings, shouldn't we, if we are filled with more gratitude when we eat dessert, say more?! The sources at the end answer that sweet question!
I believe that we are getting closer to understanding the p'shat (the simple, straightforward, holy sense) of the Torah verse that says - "you shall eat, become satisfied, and so you shall bless." (Deuteronomy 8:10) There's a mitzvah at the beginning of that phrase and not just the end with "you should bless." However, we do not often explore "you shall eat" as a mitzvah unto itself. Despite the many meals we are commanded to make at holiday times and for joyous occasions, and for breaking fasts, our understanding of this verse from Parshat Ekev (8:10) is that we learn to bless both BEFORE and AFTER our meals. But what about what and how we eat? What of the knowledge about nutrition and food and science that has exploded in our time? Are there deeper considerations in food preparation (yes, of kosher food) that make the process and procedures more Jewish?
Another mitzvah, separately and distinctly, is "you shall eat. While it is not on the Rambam's or Ramban's list of mitzvot that does not stop us from engaging their framework of thinking about mitzvot of the Torah. We are discovering new ways to live Torah in every generation! I believe deeply that the Torah is saying discover more and more about how to eat in the best way, the healthiest way and the holiest way - beyond just standard kashrut.
Read the verse and consider the various verbs. Though this study does not explore the middle verb "and you shall be satisfied" think about that phrase, too, as teaching about the practice of eating, how we approach satisfying our desires for food, taste and time spent at meals - are we truly satisfied with how and what and when we are eating?
Focus, too, on the eating part. How is "and you shall eat" a mitzvah? What would the Code of Jewish Eating, as a spiritual practice, look like if you were to write it out like a law code? What story or stories might you include in that textual exploration?
Mazel tov to our friend, Nancy Wolfson Moche, on her new spiritual, delightfully green (beyond) cookbook, Vegetables for Breakfast from A to Z. Consider Nancy's take on eating as a spiritual practice and understanding it from a Torah perspective:
Today, in 2020, we Jews are either alone or among few with the tradition of blessing both before and after we eat. It is traditional in many cultures to say a blessing of gratitude and acknowledgment before eating: we thank G-d for both providing and for partnering with us as an agricultural people. In this blessing before eating we acknowledge the miracles that had to occur in order for the food to have made its way to our plate. A plant food started as a seed in the darkness of the soil; that seed needed just the right amount of water and sunlight in order to sprout; once sprouted, it needed protection from the elements, from the predators (creatures willing to eat it at whatever developmental stage they encountered it). Once harvested, it was protected from any of the possible ways it may have been discarded or lost.
So, after we have expressed our gratitude for the food, then we eat it. That is the v’akhalta part. The Torah tells us more about HOW to eat than WHAT to eat. In parashah Beshallach, we are told to take only our portion (not more, not less), acknowledging that everyone’s portion will be different, in accordance with their needs. Once we move out of the desert and beyond the manna-eating stage (only after we have eaten manna do we merit receiving the Torah), we need to have an everchanging/constantly renewed awareness of our body’s everchanging/constantly renewed needs. So we must eat with awareness. We are told not to overeat, so we must be present and embodied (connected/in tune with our body) as we eat. No mindless munching.
In the parashah we are told “[Hu]Man does not live by bread alone.” Sfat Ehmet teaches (sorry I can’t cite the exact passage as I don’t have the book with me, but it is in Art Green’s The Language of Truth) that the manna is coming to teach us that life comes not solely from the bread but from the word of G-d that is connected to the bread. All nourishment is connected/intertwined with the illumination from G-d that is mixed in with the bread: ie all food has G-d’s energy in it, and is sacred. We need to treat it as such. We need to eat with that awareness and with the intention of embodying it (preparing/ receiving/chewing) with holiness.
This is G-d’s way of showing us that once we leave the desert and no longer eat the manna, our nourishment must also contain G-d’s energy (man-made super-processed food DOES NOT!) and be sacred. How can we do this? By preparing real food with an awareness and respect for its miracles, and by preparing it with mindfulness about what we learned through eating the manna: to eat at regular times each day; to take just what we need: no more, no less; and not to hoard food because G-d is giving us life each day, and we must trust that. In the desert we were being trained to be in daily relationship with G-d in life. We were learning to chew and digest (transform/renew) the food this way. (There is a midrash that says the manna didn’t need to go through the digestive system because the body absorbed it all and didn’t need to eliminate any part of it.) Only those who ate the manna and understood this merited receiving Torah.
The Rambam tells us we need to chew the food well to absorb its nourishment. Selecting, preparing and chewing our food are the parts of the digestive process that we can control, so we need to do each of them with kavanah and awareness. Absent that, we will not be satisfied (v’savata) and should not merit to bless (u’veirakhta).
Here is the classic take on what OUR VERSE (Deuteronomy 8:10) teaches us:
The spiritual practice, the mitzvah, of expressing gratitude after our meals was one of the Jewish traditions that brought me back to the Jewish fold. More than synagogue, when I was younger, stopping to bless my food at every meal - before and after - was a way for me to increase my gratitude. I grew my thankfulness not only for the food I ate but for the time I spent preparing meals with friends and family, and that led me to develop a deeper connection to God and keeping kosher.
And sometimes I offered my blessings through the English translations of the books I started to learn, because a teacher of mine showed me this passage from the Talmud:
And the Rambam adds, in terms of how much one needs to eat to require a blessing:
And that gets us thinking about what it means to be satisfied by our food. Is it just about how much we eat, or does our satisfaction derive from other aspects of the preparation and meal experience? What kind of eating experiences should we be seeking in our lives, on a daily basis, at every meal?
The Sforno (16th C. Italy) suggests that a person could use meal time to always remember God's gift of the Land of Israel:
And the Ramban suggests that food is a gateway to reviewing inspirational history!
And the Talmud introduces us to the origin stories of the standard blessings in our Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals!
In summary, about blessing, a modern book that reviews Jewish law states it like this (notice, there is not a lot about eating as a mitzvah or spiritual practice in this entry).
What could we add, in short form, about the holy practice, the mitzvah of eating as a Jew?
הלחם הוא עיקר מזונו של האדם, וכן מצינו אצל יעקב אבינו, בבורחו מפני עשו אחיו, שהתפלל על הלחם, שנאמר (בראשית כח, כ): "וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר: אִם יִהְיֶה אֱלוֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ". וכן מצינו בעת הרעב במצרים, כאשר פנו המצרים אל יוסף אמרו (בראשית מז, טו): "הָבָה לָּנוּ לֶחֶם וְלָמָּה נָמוּת נֶגְדֶּךָ", והיו מוכנים למכור את כל אשר להם בלחם...
הרי שכלל מאכלו של האדם נקרא לחם, לפיכך ברכת 'המוציא' פוטרת את כל המאכלים שנאכלים בסעודה, כגון בשר, דגים, תפוחי אדמה, אורז, עדשים, גבינות, סלט ירקות, סלטים מבושלים וכדומה. ואף אם אוכלם לבדם, בלא לחם, ברכת 'המוציא' פוטרתם. שברכת 'המוציא' אינה מכוונת רק כלפי הלחם ומה שנאכל ממש עמו, אלא על כל המאכלים שנועדו להשביע. כי עיקר מגמת הלחם להשביע, ולכן כל מה שנאכל לשם שביעה נחשב כטפל ללחם ונפטר בברכתו. ...
אולם מאכלים שנועדו לקינוח, היינו אותם המאכלים שאדם רגיל לאכול מפני טעמם הטוב ולא כדי לשבוע, כגון תמרים, ענבים, אבטיח וכיוצא בהם, אינם נפטרים בברכת 'המוציא'. מפני שברכת 'המוציא' חלה רק על מאכלים שנועדו לשביעה, שהם עיקר הסעודה, אבל הקינוחים שנאכלים כדי להוסיף טעם טוב, שאותם רגילים לאכול בסוף הארוחות או ביניהן, הם תוספת על הסעודה, ועליהם צריך לברך בנפרד.
לכן האוכל מפירות האילן בסעודתו מברך 'העץ', והאוכל אבטיח מברך 'האדמה', והאוכל גלידה או פודינג מברך 'שהכל'. ...
גם משקים שאדם רגיל לשתות בתוך סעודתו, כגון מים, מיץ ומשקאות חריפים, נפטרים בברכת 'המוציא'. וכן קפה ותה שרגילים לשתות לאחר האוכל, נחשבים בכלל הסעודה ונפטרים בברכת 'המוציא'. אבל יין, מפני חשיבותו אינו נפטר בברכת 'המוציא' (להלן ז, ג).
לגבי משקאות חריפים ששותים לאחר האוכל, אם מגמת שתייתם לסייע לעיכול ולהרגשה הטובה של הסעודה, ברכת 'המוציא' פוטרתם. אבל כשהם נועדים לקינוח וטעם טוב, צריך לברך עליהם 'שהכל'.
Peninei Halakhah, R. Yitzchak Ginzburg
Bread is human's being's main form of sustenance, and thus we find that when Jacob fled from Esau, he prayed for bread, as it is written, "And Jacob took an oath, 'If God will be with me, and guard me on the way I am going and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear." And so too during the famine in Egypt, when the Egyptians turned to Joseph they said, "Give us bread, for why should we die in your presence." And they were willing to sell all they owned for bread. ...
Thus a person's food is called "bread" and therefore "Hamotzi" exempts all foods eaten during a meal, such as meat, fish, potatoes, rice, lentils, cheese, vegetable salad, cooked vegetables etc. And even if these are eaten without bread, hamotzi exempts them. For Hamotzi is stated not only in reference to bread and that which is eaten explicitly with it, but rather for all foods which satiate. For the main purpose of bread is to satiate, and therefore anything eaten for satiation is considered ancillary to bread, and is exempted by its blessing.
However, food served as dessert, that is food that people eat for its good taste and not to satiate, such as dates, grapes, watermelon, etc. are not exempted by Hamotzi. For Hamotzi refers only to foods meant to satiate, that are the main part of the meal. But desserts eaten at the end of the meal, for their good taste, that are usually eaten at the end of the meal or during the meal, are an addition to the meal, and must be blessed on separately.
Therefore, one who eats fruits of the tree during the meal would say "Ha'etz" and one who eats watermelon would say, "Ha'adamah", and one who eats ice cream or pudding would say, "Shehakol." ....
So too when it comes to drinks that one normally drinks during the meal, such as water, juice or hard alcohol, these are exempted through hamotzi. So too coffee and tea that are usually drunk after the meal are considered part of the meal and are exempted by "Hamotzi."
But wine, because of its importance, is not exempted by "Hamotzi."
When it comes to alcohol drunk after the meal--if the point is to aid in digestion and to feel good after the meal, then "Hamotzi" exempts them. But if the point is for dessert and a good taste, they too must have a blessing before, "Shehakol."
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. What reason does the text give for the requirement to say Birkat HaMazon?
2. In what other ways do you think bread makes a meal?
3. How would you define what counts as a meal? How do you relate differently to a meal rather than a snack?
4. What shall we add about eating as a mitzvah and holy practice?
5. Why do you think, classically, the commentators did not pay specific attention to the verb "v'akhalta" for the purpose of exploring the practice of eating/food preparation?
6. How does science and nutrition education help us understand the verb "V'akhalta" in a deeper way than past generations?
Look at the verses below to put our verse (8:10) in more context:
What is your favorite Israeli food? Which cookbooks do you own that bring Israeli cuisine into your kitchen and meal experiences? Check out the many options on-line!\
AND NOW, ABOUT DESSERT!
We don't use that formula today, Boirei Minei Kisnin. This text shows, though, that the Sages developed our system of blessings before and after the meal during the Rabbinic era.
And from stories and tales sometimes we learn the practices we desire to integrate into our lives:
What a great story about dessert! It all gets codified in later sources in the Middle Ages.
Any which way, putting a little holiness into our eating, our concept of mealtime and being satisfied by our food, and blessing and expressing gratitude brings Torah to our tables.
Or, to end, listen to this story about a traveller on his way who, of course, had to stop and eat!
What is the language of our eating? Are we conscious of the Torah's commandments when we approach our food preparation, presentation, ingestion, and menu planning? Are we, as Nancy Wolfson-Moche presents, that we can eat healthier and become holier alef to tav, A to Z?
In our time, we understand ever more about the notion that we are what we eat, we become what we eat and that eating, being satisfied with our portion and gathering our gratitude all make for a richer Jewish life.