Guest Author - Lauren Tuchman
The Birkat HaMazon, or grace after the meal, is said after eating a meal at which one has consumed bread. The reason Birkat HaMazon is recited only after eating bread is because Jewish law considers the eating of bread to constitute a meal in and of itself. Birkat HaMazon is also known as benching, a derivative of the Yiddish word meaning to bless. Birkat HaMazon contains four brachot (blessings), but only the first three are required by Torah law. The imperative to say Birkat HaMazon comes directly from the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:10) in which we are commanded that, once we have eaten and are satisfied, we are to bless G-d for the land that he has given us. A much abbreviated text of the Birkat HaMazon we have today was first written down in tractate Brachot of the Talmud. According to Jewish tradition, each of the four blessings of Birkat HaMazon is attributed to a different Jewish leader. The first blessing is attributed to Moses, the second to Joshua, the third to Kings David and Solomon and the fourth to the rabbis at Yavneh, which is where Torah continued to be studied and the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible was codified after the destruction of the second temple in the year 70 of the Common Era.
A person who has consumed at least an olive-sized portion of bread is commanded to say Birkat HaMazon, whether or not he/she is eating alone or in a group. Jewish law requires that when a group of three or more Jewish adults enjoy a meal together, they are to create a mezuman. This is most often known as simply a zimun or invitation. This involves the person chosen to lead the group in the recitation of Birkat HaMazon formally inviting the others to join them in doing so. Traditionally, a zimun may only be formed when at least three men are present. In more liberal circles, however, women are also included in the zimun. There are some within Orthodoxy who do permit women to form a zimun, as women are obligated to say Birkat HaMazon. Whereas in non-Orthodox circles, a zimun may include both men and women, in Orthodoxy, the zimun must be single-sex. When ten or more are present at a meal, the name of G-d is added to the zimun. This kind of zimun is called a zimun b’shem.
Prior to the formal zimun, a psalm is said or sung by those at the meal. On Shabbat, Jewish holidays and other celebratory occasions, such as weddings, psalm 126 “shir ha’ma’a lot” is said, in which G-d’s promise to return the people of Israel to their homeland is recalled. On weekdays, it is customary to recite psalm 137 “al naharot Bavel”, which is a psalm which mourns the fact that the Jewish People have gone into exile. There are many melodies used for psalm 126 and indeed, when recited communally, Birkat HaMazon is often filled with singing.
The four blessings of Birkat HaMazon
Birkat HaMazon is made up of four blessings. The first blessing is for the food that we have just consumed. Most often in a communal setting, the group sings this blessing together. This blessing is most often called birkat hazan.
In the second blessing, birkat ha’aretz, we thank G-d for all the good he has done for the Jewish people, from taking us out of Egypt to giving us his Torah on Mt. Sinai. We are grateful to G-d for giving us food at all times, in all seasons and at all hours. We also thank G-d for nourishing us spiritually with Torah.
There are many additional paragraphs which are added to Birkat HaMazon on special occasions. On Chanukah and Purim, we add an additional paragraph during this blessing. The paragraphs added recount the miracles and events that occurred on the holiday that we are celebrating. Although this is not a universal practice, many will also add a paragraph recounting the events that occurred on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
The third blessing of Birkat HaMazon is called Binyan Yerushalayim and focuses on Jerusalem, including our hope that it will be speedily rebuilt. This blessing also includes a prayer that G-d will continue to nurture and sustain the Jewish people into the future. On Shabbat, a paragraph, beginning with the word r’tzeh is added here. In this paragraph, we express our wish that our Shabbat rest is pleasing to G-d. We also pray that we suffer no sorrow on Shabbat. On Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new Jewish lunar month), Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year), Sukkot (feast of booths), Hoshanah Raba (seventh day of Sukkot), Shemini Atzeret (eighth day of assembly immediately following Sukkot), Simchat Torah (joy of the Torah, on which we complete and start anew the annual Torah reading cycle), Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (feast of weeks), the “Ya’aleh v’yavo” paragraph, in which we ask that G-d remember us with particular favor on these days is added here. When in a house of mourning, there are several paragraphs that are added to this blessing which ask G-d to comfort the mourner.
The fourth and final blessing is called birkat hatov v’hameitiv. This blessing focuses on all of the positive and uplifting aspects of our collective relationship with G-d. After this blessing has formally been concluded, a series of short supplications is recited. When at a meal with others, it is customary that the leader of Birkat HaMazon recites each of these supplications, to which the others respond “Amen”. Each of these supplications begins with the word harachaman “may the merciful or compassionate One”. Many of these harachamans, as they are often referred to are standard while others are relatively new and innovative. Over the past several years, the number of such innovative harachamans has proliferated. These new additions are by no means universally recited.
The text of Birkat HaMazon may be found in most siddurim (Jewish prayer books) as well as in benchers, which are small booklets containing the text of Birkat HaMazon as well as Shabbat songs and other blessings. Although the text of Birkat HaMazon that you are most likely to encounter is the Ashkenazic text, there are multiple versions of Birkat HaMazon. In addition to the Ashkenazic text, reflecting the practices of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, there is a Sephardic text, reflecting the practices of Jews originally from Spain, Portugal and North Africa, in addition to a Yemenite text and an Italian text.