Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 12
January 2, 2006
Mitzvah 13: Birkat HaMazon
It is a positive commandment to say the blessing of Birkat HaMazon after eating bread.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “and you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your G-d.” (Deut. 8:10) According to the Torah one does not have to say the blessing unless he has eaten his fill. But the Sages enacted the law to say that even if he has eaten an olive’s amount of bread he is duty-bound to say afterwards the Birkat HaMazon. We infer this by the logic (kal v’Homer) that if a person says a blessing when he is full, how much more should he bless G-d when he is hungry. It is in force everywhere and at every time, for men. For women, there is disagreement if they have the obligation to recite the Birkat HaMazon or not.
In Judaism, there is a blessing for everything, and as we see from the passage in Deuteronomy, we have to bless G-d when we have eaten our fill. This passage has been interpreted to mean that we should recite the Birkat HaMazon. It is not just recited at the end of a meal, but anytime that we eat more than just a few crumbs of bread.
Bread is the key to understanding how our Sages looked at food. There are blessings for almost every kind of food. For fruits, vegetables, nuts and most drinks. As we eat each food, we are supposed to say the proper blessing. The Sages understood, however, that bread was different. Bread is the key food that makes up most meals. Therefore it was determined that if one was eating bread and said HaMotzi, than that would also cover any other foods that were being consumed and of the three different blessings after the meal, the Birkat HaMazon was the only one required. In short, the eating of bread defines the meal and thus it trumps all the other foods that may also be served.
Birkat HaMazon consists of three blessings. “who sustains all life”; “for the land and for nourishment”; who in His mercy rebuilds Jerusalem”; and “our Father, our King, our Creator and our Redeemer…”. These four make up the core of the blessing. Other prayers have been added to acknowledge holidays and other special occasions. There is a special introduction to the blessing if there are three or more present at the meal. We also make an addition when there are ten present at the meal. The Birkat HaMazon should be recited at the table where you eat the meal. If you end your meal at a different table than where you started, if possible, you should return to the first table for the blessing. Since the table is considered an alter, there are some who will remove knives from the table (instruments of violence) before reciting the blessings.
While the Hafetz Hayim notes that there is a dispute as to whether or not women are obligated to recite the Birkat HaMazon, in reality the dispute is over whether or not this obligation is from the Torah or is it an enactment of the sages (Midioraita or Miderabbanan) almost everyone agrees today that women are obligated to say Birkat HaMazon. The issue over the source of that obligation determines the ability for a woman to lead the recitation of the Birkat HaMazon, especially the introductory passages when three or ten are present. If the obligation is from the Torah, than a woman can lead others in the Birkat HaMazon. If her obligation is from the Sages, than a woman could not lead men in the prayer who certainly have a different, higher obligation. Egalitarian Conservative Jews consider women equally obligated for Birkat HaMazon and women, in fact, do lead the prayer when a quorum of three or ten are present.
Next week: Mitzvah 14: The Obligation to Learn and Teach Torah