Jewish Prayers: Grace After Meals
The Torah, followed by the Talmud, prescribes a benediction after eating as well (Deut. 8:10; B. Ber. 35a). There are three forms of the Grace after meals:
- boreh nefashot (B. Ber. 37a).
- bracha achat meein shalosh (M. Ber. 6:8; B. Ber. 37a)
- birkat hamazon (ibid)
The first and simplest is baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech haolam boreh n'fashot rabot v'chesronan al kol ma shebarata l'hachayot bahem nefesh kol chai, baruch chat haolamim.
This benediction is recited over foods which are preceded by the benedictions boreh pri haetz, boreh pri ha'adamah or shehakol (O.H. 207:1).
The rabbis gave special consideration to seven species with which the Bible says the Land of Israel was blessed: "For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land. . . a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey" (Deut. 8:7-8).
Hence after eating these we recite the bracha achat meeyn shalosh, "one benediction which has the form of three," i.e., a shortened form of the longer Grace after meals (O.H. 208). It is recited after foods which are preceded by the benedictions boreh minei mezonot or boreh pri hagafen, and for the fruits enumerated among the seven species: rigs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (the honey referred to in this verse is not of bees but of dates).
The shortened form, also known as ah hamichyah, begins with the usual formula and then varies according to what was eaten: after wine, al hagefen v'al pri hagefen, after fruit, al haetz v'al pri haetz, after pastry, al hamichyah v'al hakalkalah. When two varieties have been eaten, a combination of the above is recited. Then follows a summary of the benedictions in the longer Grace after meals. Before the closing formula, there is an insertion for Sabbaths, Rosh Chodesh, or festivals. The closing sentence again indicates what food was eaten.
The full Birkat Hamazon is recited whenever the meal was preceded by hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.
Like the benediction before the meal, the Grace afterwards raises the satisfaction of a physical craving into the realm of the spirit. Through the Grace, the family table becomes the family altar. The prayer not only expresses gratefulness for the food, but also binds the participants to their people by expressing gratitude to God for past favors to the people as a whole and hope for its blessed future.
Before the actual Grace is recited an introductory psalm is said. On weekdays we recite Psalm 137, al naharot bavel, to express our mourning for the destruction of Zion, an event which should not be forgotten even during our meals. On Sabbaths and festivals we recite psalm 126. In place of the sorrowful remembrance of past tragedies, it is an optimistic vision of the future rebuilding of Zion.
When three or more adults have eaten together and each one has to recite the Grace after meals, a formal invitation to say Grace is said (M. Ber. 7:1; O.H. 192: 1), on the principle that before a sacred function is performed there should be an invitation to the participants to join. This helps establish the proper mood for the ritual. kol milei dik'dushah ba'ey hazmanah (Zohar, quoted in M.A. 1 on O.H. 192:1).
This quorum of three is called a mezuman from the name of the prayer, Birkat Zimun (from the verb z-m-n, "to invite"). The honor of leading the mezuman is accorded by the host to the most distinguished person present Sep. 47a). If a Kohen is present he should be given the honor (O.H. 201:2); otherwise it is given to a talmid hakham, a learned person, or to a guest (O.H. 201:1-2).
The leader calls the people together with rabotai n'varech, and they respond with yehi shem adonai m'voach meatah v'ad olam. The leader responds with birshut maranal v'rabanal v'rabotai n'varech sheachalnu mishelo asking the permission of those present to praise God. If ten or more adults are present the word eloheinu is added after n'varech. The people respond with baruch sheachalnu mishelo uv'tuvo chayinu. Again if there are ten or more adults present the word eloheinu is added after barukh.
Grace itself then follows. It has four benedictions, designated in the Talmud by specific names (13. Ber. 48b):
Birkat Hazan praises God for providing food for all. It represents a public thanksgiving for God's goodness to all humanity.
Birkat Ha'arets. This benediction has two paragraphs:
nodeh lecha offers thanks to God for all past favors granted to our people,
v'al hakol summarizes the preceding enumeration of blessings and concludes with a benediction. On Hanukkah and Purim the special prayer al hanisim assigned for these holidays is recited between the two paragraphs. The Rabbinical Assembly Weekly Prayer Book contains an al hanisim for Yom Ha'atsma'ut as well.
boneh yerushalayim. While the previous benedictions were expressions of gratitude for past favors, this is a prayer for the future flowering of Zion and Jerusalem and for the continued blessing of God. It concludes with u'vneh yerushalayim, a prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
On the Sabbath a special prayer, retzeh, is insetted before u'vneh. On Rosh Hodesh and on festivals ya'aleh v'yavo is inserted before u'vneh, making appropriate reference to the day.
hatov v'hameitiv. This benediction was added around 137 C.E. after the revolt of Bar Kokhba, According to the Talmud, it was instituted when the Roman authorities relented and granted permission to bury the "slain of Betar," the last Jewish stronghold, whose inhabitants were put to the sword (B. Ber. 48b).
The first paragraph of the Birkat
The conclusion of this benediction, l'olam al y'chasrenu, marks the end of the statutory Grace after meals. However, as with the other services, other prayers were added in time, such as the series of short prayers beginning with harachaman. The texts of these vary, but all versions contain a prayer for the host and for those present, a prayer for the coming of Elijah the prophet, and a prayer that we may be worthy to see the days of the Messiah.
This passage includes the words magdil y'shuot malko. On Sabbaths, festivals, and Rosh Hodesh, the word magdil is changed to migdol. Various explanations for this have been given (O.H. 189 in M.A. 1). The verse in question comes from Psalm 18:51, where magdil is used. However, in 2 Samuel 22:51, where Psalm 18 is repeated, the word migdol is read, It has been suggested that the original text of the Grace had magdil, but that someone added the parenthetical phrase
Since it was felt that the full Grace after meals was a bit too long, many prayer books have a shortened form alongside the full text, One of them is quoted in O.H. 192 in B.H. 1, and it contains all the essential elements required by the Talmud. The shortened Grace may be used when brevity is desired. The United Synagogue has adopted one, with additions in English, for general use in Conservative synagogues.
Alternative Grace after Meals
B'rich rahamana malka d'alma mareih d'hahy pita.
See the complete Birkat Hamazon [pdf]
Sources: Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. NY: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988. Reprinted here with permission.