Friday, August 11, 2006


Note: in my exhuberance, I accidentially wrote about Birkat HaMazon (though did not print it) last week, as part of my D’var Torah on Vaetchanen. For more details on that boo-boo, check out that D’var Torah.

On to Birkat. Birkat Hamazon, for those not in the know (note to the reader: if you don’t know what birkat Hamazon is, I thank you for reading my Divrei Torah and hope you are understanding them, but that might be an issue for people who do know what it is… Sometimes even I don’t know what I’m talking about…) is formally known in English as Grace After Meals. I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong if there are any gentiles reading, that Christians say some sort of grace that is somewhat spontaneous before the meal thanking God for His bounty of which you are about to partake. In Judaism, prayer is largely formalized. Though things like the Amidah (officially the central prayer (actually a compilation of anywhere from 7 to 20 (or 26) prayers, depending on the day and the service… see the wikipedia article for further information), canonized for about 2,000 years have been . We are not to add or subtract from the mitzvoth. However, the Rabbis saw that things in the Torah may be hinting at things, rather than being literal sometimes. For example, “don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, recorded three times in the Torah, became practiced as three separate mitzvot of not mixing milk and meat. The Rabbis glean hints from the Torah and the rest of the Bible (Old Testament only; Like Godfather III, Jews never liked the sequel (oh snap)). After the destruction of the Second Temple, outside which sacrifices, then our only source of daily services, was forbidden, the Rabbis determined that prayer would replace the korbanot. As every great Tannaitic (Mishnah-era; 200 BCE – 200 CE) Rabbi does, they found sources from the Scriptures to back them up. They determined that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three Patriarchs, had respectively invented a service. Through various biblical sources, they derived that Abraham (who arose early in the morning and went to the place that God ), Isaac (who stood out in the field in the afternoon), and Jacob. I’m surprised that this bit of important information from the Talmud hasn’t made it onto the Wikipedia article. I must change that. There is another Talmudic theory that they correspond to the daily offerings, Shacharit and Mincha are for the morning and twilight Tamid offerings, Maariv is when they let the forbidden fat burn on the altar, and musaf is the additional sacrifice of special days.

Okay, on to Birkat HaMazon. Yes, we pray before we eat or drink anything, but these prayers tend to be very short. They also all are fixed and they vary depending on what we happen to be eating. What we eat also determines what sort of benediction we say following our consumption of the item or items in question. In Judaism, bread trumps all. Bread is the staff of life and in an agrarian culture, harvesting the grains and the process of making them into bread is the most important thing for survival, with the possible exception of water (which incidentially has its closing blessing as only 25 words, it’s opening 9, same as with meat and most other foods that aren’t fruit, vegetables, or grain.) , as “man cannot live on bread alone” (which is in next week’s parasha; I guess not everything is in this one…) Bread is a great source for simple carbohydrates and an important part of giving energy. People didn’t care about the Atkins and South Beach diets until very recently, and bread was the center of everyone’s diet.

The opening prayer for mamash bread is ten words (which makes it a minyan-counting favorite as you are forbidden to actually count people with numbers as one would count cattle. Some people in high school morbidly preferred the Ten Plagues as the quorum-counting mnemonic). The prayer for bread, as the highest form of edibles also acts as a blanket for all other food or drink eaten at the same meal. The Grace After Meals is considerably longer and has special editions for Shabbat, holidays, and other special situations. This is also the only food related prayer that changes with the amount of Bar Mitzvahed people present (ie: Jews above the age of 13 (12 for girls if you are into the whole egalitarian thing)), getting slightly longer with 3 people, one word added when a minyan of 10, and according to the Mishnah, another word added with 100, and a freakin’ novel added when there are 1,000. 10,000 will get you the length of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Okay, fine, what’s the source for this monstrously long prayer?
Actually, I accidentially did the wrong Torah portion by mistake. Oops. That’s actually in Ekev, next week’s parasha.

Okay, so that was from my mistake last week which is actually part of this week’s parasha. I want to comment on a little more that I didn’t get to when I realized my mistake. The reason for Bentchen (often mispronounced and mistaken as Benching) is because of the goodness of the land that God has given you. If you’ve ever eaten Israeli produce, you see that it is good. I was eating persimmons and passionfruit all the time. However, this section also gives a pecking-order to the “seven species” those seven types of produce that are considered, in ancient Israel, to be the produce for which Israel was famous: “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey”. The final thing mentioned, honey, is actually date honey, not bee honey. The world famous Israeli Dates, it has been pointed out to me by a tour guide in Beit Shean a couple of months ago, disappeared from Israel under the neglect of the inhabitants. A few decades ago, someone smuggled dates out of Iraq and planted them in Israel, and with the amazing patience of chalutzim that included David Ben-Gurion, we have caused the Negev desert to flourish more than any other desert in the world, in desert and volcanic soil we have caused irrigation and the greatest produce in the world to grow, not just the things that normally grow in a desert, but even our oranges are famous.

“You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless”. I don’t usually use any commentaries in order to write my divrei torah, and this is no exception. I therefore go out on a limb when I point out the fact that there is an etnachta (looks like a wishbone , the most powerful pause we have in trope besides the verse-ending Sof Pasuk, on the word “v’savata”, and therefore it could be rendered, You shall eat to satisfaction and THEN you shall bless God for the good land which he gave you. It is a requirement that when you eat, you eat to satiation, because when you are good and full, you are grateful. This is not to say it is an option whether to bentch or not when you aren’t full, but it is ideal to be full (this is also the point which you are supposed to eat the Afikomen at the end of the Passover meal).

There are four main benedictions in the Birkat HaMazon. I shall call them Mazon (sustenance), Aretz (land), Binyan Yerushalayim (building Jerusalem), and HaTov V’Hameytiv (the Good One who bestows good). Like the three daily services, these prayers each have some sort of historical significance, relating to the contemporary thing to be thankful for. Moses wrote the first one because God sustained the people with food. (The bracha on Manna, by the way, is HaMotzi Lechem Min HaShamayim: who draws bread out of the sky). Joshua, who was the first to inherit the land, wrote Al HaAretz V’Al HaMazon. Kings David and Solomon, who made Jerusalem the capital and built the Temple there, respectively, wrote the prayer about the building of Jerusalem. Normally one does not say amen to their own blessing, but an amen was placed here as a marker to indicate that the Birkat HaMazon usually ended here

The Birkat HaMazon apparently remained this way for 1000 years. It took a tragedy to change it. We all probably know what transpired at Masada, hundreds of Jews took their lives in the Herodian desert fortress rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. The people of Beitar (near Jerusalem), led by Bar Kochba, heroically fought to their deaths (an event identified with Tisha B’Av) . The evil Romans didn’t even allow the Jews to bury their dead. After many years and Rabban Gamliel giving all of his money to the Romans to make them change their minds, the Romans finally gave, on Tu B’av by the way, permission to bury the dead of Beitar. Rabban Gamliel praised God as HaTov, the Good One. However, miracle of miracles, when they approached the bodies that scientifically should have been in a late decaying and putrid stage, were miraculously whole and undisturbed. Hameytiv, the One who bestows good. Thus this became the fourth bracha in the Birkat HaMazon, another example of the goodness with which God bestows unto us. This prayer, composed by Rabban Gamliel, is also recited when one hears especially good news. The Birkat HaMazon officially ends here, but the Harachamans that follow are to show some extra thanks to God.

The beginning of this Torah Portion happens to be the Torah Reading chosen for Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which has taken on a sort of religious significance, especially within the state of Israel (which I commented on this past Independence Day) along with Sabbath-length Psukei D’Zimra, Full Hallel both at night and in the morning, and a Torah portion and Haftarah. I present what I believe is the reading from the JPS English Edition of the Bible from 1917, which predates Yom Haatzmaut (you can download for free this version of the bible by going to

Deuteronomy 7:12 And it shall come to pass, because ye hearken to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep with thee the covenant and the mercy which He swore unto thy fathers, 13 and He will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee; He will also bless the fruit of thy body and the fruit of thy land, thy corn and thy wine and thine oil, the increase of thy kine and the young of thy flock, in the land which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee. 14 Thou shalt be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. 15 And the LORD will take away from thee all sickness; and He will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee, but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. 16 And thou shalt consume all the peoples that the LORD thy God shall deliver unto thee; thine eye shall not pity them; neither shalt thou serve their gods; for that will be a snare unto thee. {S} 17 If thou shalt say in thy heart: 'These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?' 18 thou shalt not be afraid of them; thou shalt well remember what the LORD thy God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt: 19 the great trials which thine eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, whereby the LORD thy God brought thee out; so shall the LORD thy God do unto all the peoples of whom thou art afraid. 20 Moreover the LORD thy God will send the hornet among them, until they that are left, and they that hide themselves, perish from before thee. 21 Thou shalt not be affrighted at them; for the LORD thy God is in the midst of thee, a God great and awful. 22 And the LORD thy God will cast out those nations before thee by little and little; thou mayest not consume them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee. 23 But the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and shall discomfit them with a great discomfiture, until they be destroyed. 24 And He shall deliver their kings into thy hand, and thou shalt make their name to perish from under heaven; there shall no man be able to stand against thee, until thou have destroyed them. 25 The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire; thou shalt not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God. 26 And thou shalt not bring an abomination into thy house, and be accursed like unto it; thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a devoted thing. {P}
8:1 All the commandment which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers. 2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no. 3 And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. 4 Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years. 5 And thou shalt consider in thy heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the LORD thy God chasteneth thee. 6 And thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, to walk in His ways, and to fear Him. 7 For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; 9 a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass. 10 And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. 11 Beware lest thou forget the LORD thy God, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command thee this day; 12 lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; 13 and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; 14 then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; 15 who led thee through the great and dreadful wilderness, wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; 16 who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that He might afflict thee, and that He might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end; 17 and thou say in thy heart: 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.' 18 But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day. {P}

Perhaps cryptic, it tells us the ease and supernatural power with which we defeat those who were squatting on our land, just like in Biblical times in Canaan.

22 And the LORD thy God will cast out those nations before thee by little and little; thou mayest not consume them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee.
23 But the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and shall discomfit them with a great discomfiture, until they be destroyed.

Wait, it says that it’s not going to be easy, and we shouldn’t do it too quickly. But wait, while it took four hundred years to defeat the Ancient Canaanite kingdoms, we won the Six Day War in only seven days (kidding, six, duh) and the Yom Kippur War (which for some strange reason Egypt Celebrates as Victory Day) in only 20 days, soundly defeating those who sought to destroy us in such a little amount of time and increasing the borders of our land in the process. Could it be that we are on even better terms with God now. “Thou mayest not consume them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee?” Are our miraculously speedy victories the cause of the uncontrollable size of the stray cat population in Israel? (to this day cats are the only things that scare me in Israel. Not terrorism, not the mafia, not even walking on the sidewalk (you can get hit by CARS on the sidewalk!). You walk back from wherever at night and they jump out of the bushes, plus their plight makes me sad, though you never see mice or rats in Israel because the cats do such a good job of eradicating them). “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod (Gesher Tzar Meod, Gesher Tzar Me-o-o-o-od), V’HaIkar Lo L’Fached Klal”. The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is to not be afraid, reads one of the most famous Zmirot done in the tradition of the Conservative Movement (I’ve learned this same song in Japanese, by the way). God shall fight for us, God the Lord of Hosts. Even after these thousands of years of getting persecuted, robbed, expelled, and murdered, we have never lost our faith in God. Just as I have mentioned when something good happens to us, whenever anything bad has happened to us, we thank God for being “Dayan HaEmet”, “the True Judge” and now God has finally found in our favor and we have returned to the Good Land, the Land flowing with Milk and [Date] Honey. We need to stay the course and have faith in God and in his Political agents on Earth, the government of the State of Israel, and in His earthly army, the Israel Defense Forces. May we continue to receive and appreciate God’s blessings, vanquish evil, and be satisfied in the good land which God has bestowed upon us.

I will follow shortly with a commentary on the War.

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