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Birkat Hamazon, ( ), known in English as the Grace After Meals, ( ; translit. bentshn or "to bench"; Yinglish: Benching), is a set of Hebrew blessings that Jewish Law prescribes following a meal that includes bread or matzoh made from one or all of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt. It is a matter of rabbinic dispute whether Birkat Hamazon must be said after eating certain other bread-like foods such as pizza.

Though technically a series of blessings, Birkat Hamazon takes on the form of prayers which are typically read silently for ordinary meals, and often sung or chanted for special meals such as the Shabbat, festivals and special occasions. Although both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism expect observant Jews to recite these blessings after every meal containing the appropriate type of bread, many moderately observant Jews will not follow the practice at all meals but will do so at special times or on occasion.

Birkat Hamazon can be found in almost all Siddurim ("prayerbooks") and is often printed in a variety of artistic styles in a small booklet called a birchon (Hebrew) or, among Jews of Eastern European descent, a bentcher (Yiddish).

Source and text

The scriptural source for the requirement to say Birkat Hamazon is Deuteronomy 8:10 "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the your God for the good land which he gave you".

Birkat Hamazon is made up of four blessings:
  1. The first blessing, which is a blessing of thanks for the food was, according to tradition, composed by Moses in gratitude for the manna which the Jews ate in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egyptmarker.
  2. The second blessing, which is a blessing of thanks for the Land of Israel, is attributed to Joshua after he led the Jewish people into Israel.
  3. The third blessing, which concerns Jerusalemmarker, is ascribed to David (who established the capital to Jerusalem) and Solomon (who built the Temple in Jerusalemmarker). These three blessings are regarded as required by scriptural law.
  4. The fourth blessing, a blessing of thanks for God's goodness, was written by Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh. The obligation to recite this blessing is regarded as Rabbinic only.


After these four blessings, are a series of short prayers, each beginning with the word Harachaman ("The merciful one...") which ask for God's compassion.

Additional sections are added on special occasions. On Jewish holidays, the extra paragraph of Ya'aleh VeYavo is added and on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) there is an extra paragraph added known as Retzeh. On Hanukkah and Purim, the extra paragraph Al HaNissim ("for the miracles...") is added.

There are several known texts for Birkat Hamazon. The most widely available is the Ashkenazic. There are also Sephardic, Yemenite and Italian versions. All of these texts follow the same structure described above, but the wording varies. In particular, the Italian version preserves the ancient practice of commencing the paragraph inserted on Shabbat with Nachamenu.

Preliminary psalms

Widely practiced when Birkat Hamazon is recited on Shabbat and Jewish holidays and on days in which the penitential Tachanun is not recited, is the custom in some communities to first sing or recite as an introduction Psalm 126: Shir Hama'alot ("Song of Ascents") which expresses the hopes for the Jews' return to Zion following their final redemption. This is then frequently followed by reciting four additional single lines from four other Psalms (145:21; 115:18; 118:1; 106:2), known as Tehillat Hashem ("Praise of God").

Less common is the recitation on weekdays of Psalm 137 Al Naharot Bavel ("By the rivers of Babylonmarker) which describes the reactions of the Jews in exile as would have been expressed during the Babylonian captivity.

Zimmun

According to Halakha when a minimum of three eat bread as part of a meal together they are obligated to form a mezuman (a "prepared gathering") with the addition of a few extra opening words whereby one man "invites" the others to join him in birkat hamazon. (This invitation is called a zimmun). When those present at the meal form a minyan (a quorum of ten adult Jews - men, in strictly Orthodox circles, men or women in some Modern Orthodox circles, men and women elsewhere), there are further additions to the invitation. A Zimmun of 10 is called a Zimmun B'Shem.

Although the Talmud states that women are obligated to say Birkat Hamazon and that accordingly, three women can constitute a zimmun and lead it (Berachot 45b), later authorities, such as Maimonides and the Mishnah Berurah, held that women were exempt from leading a zimmun on grounds that women were not generally sufficiently educated to know how. A number of Modern Orthodox authorities have held that because of improvements in women's religious education women can now do so, and some say that they are now obligated to. Accordingly, women forming a zimmun and leading birkat hamazon has become increasingly common in Modern Orthodox circles. Such authorities disagree, however, on the appropriateness of women leading a zimmun in the presence of men (or of three men). A minority of Modern Orthodox authorities, citing earlier authorities including Meiri, Sefer HaMeorot and the Shiltei HaGibborim , also hold that 10 women can (or should) constitute a minyan for purposes of saying Zimmun B'Shem for birkat hamazon. Unlike in Conservative or Reform Judaism, even Orthodox authorities who hold that women can form a zimmun maintain that one cannot be formed from a combination of men and women.

Cup of Blessing

It is customary for the person leading the zimmun to recite the blessings over a cup of wine called the kos shel beracha (cup of blessing). Although sometimes done at ordinary meals, it is more commonly done on Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, and almost universally done at meals celebrating special events (below). At a Passover Seder, the cup of blessing is drunk by everyone present, and functions as the Third Cup. The practice of a cup of blessing is mentioned in the Talmud, e.g. at Pesachim 119a.

Mayim Acharonim

There is a practice in many Orthodox communities to wash the hands before reciting Birkat Hamazon. This practice is called mayim acharonim (final waters). It is held that this, though a chovah (duty), is not a mitzvah (a commandment), as the practice was instituted for health reasons (specifically, to avoid the danger of touching the eyes with harmful salts). A special ritual dispenser (also called a mayim acharonim) can be used to dispense the water. Although the practice is based on a ruling recorded in the Talmud, whether or not this ruling is still binding is a matter of dispute among various Orthodox communities, given that the practice of eating with knives and forks seems to remove the practical reason for it. Some practice it as a binding halachah, others as an optional custom, and others do not practice it at all. Among those who do practice mayim acharonim, the majority simply pour a small amount of water over their finger tips (note that according to the Mishna Berurah, this does not fulfill the terms of the obligation at all but according to the 'Kitzur Shulchon Oruch' by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfriend, one "need not wash the entire hand. It is sufficient to wash until the second joint of the fingers."), while a minority, usually Yemenite Jews or related groups, will wash up to the wrist (ahd ha'pereq) according to chapter 6 halakha 5 (4) of Hilkhoth Berakhoth in the Mishneh Torah. It is also written in the same chapter that one should not make a hefsek (separation) between doing mayim acharonim and saying Birkath haMazon, though few uphold this practice.

On Special Occasions

At Sheva Brachot

When Birkat Hamazon takes place at the Sheva Brachot ("Seven Blessings") following a traditional Jewish marriage, the standard introductory words recited by the one leading the blessings that precede the full blessings (the zimmun) get an added line and a small change in the other opening lines reflecting the joy of the occasion. The inserted introductory words begin with Devai Haser.

Once the Birkat Hamazon has been concluded then the seven special blessings (i.e. the Sheva Brachot) are recited.

At Brit milah

At Birkat Hamazon concluding the celebratory meal of a Brit milah ("ritual circumcision" of a male Jewish baby boy at eight days old) there are additional lines that are added to the introductory words that precede the Birkat Hamazon known as Nodeh Leshimcha ("We give thanks to Your Name"). These lines praise God and "request the permission" to proceed with the Birkat Hamazon of:

When the four main blessings (see above) are concluded, special Harachaman ("The Merciful One") prayers are then recited which prayerfully request that God:

  • Bless the parents of the baby, and help them raise him wisely.
  • The Sandak, (the one who held the baby during the ceremony) usually a well-respected member of the family or a noted rabbi or Talmudic scholar, whose deed deserves to be rewarded.
  • Bless the baby boy to have strength and grow up to trust in God and perceive Him three times a year.
  • Bless the Mohel (the "Ritual cirmucisor", usually a rabbi qualified to do so) for unhesitatingly performing: 1) Milah ("Circumcision") cutting away the foreskin; 2) Periah, "pulling down" the remaining skin on the foreskin completely; 3) Metzitzah, "sucking" out blood from the cut area.
  • Send the Jewish Messiah speedily in the merit of this mitzvah of cirmucision.
  • Send Elijah the prophet, known as "The Righteous Kohen", so that God's covenant can be fulfilled with the re-establishment of the throne of King David.


Large gatherings

According to the Talmud (Berakhot 49b), there are special versions of the Zimmun if Birkat Hamazon is said by at least one hundred, one thousand or ten thousand seated at one meal. When one hundred are present, the leader says "Blessed is HaShem our God, of Whose we have eaten and of Whose goodness we have lived", and the group responds "Blessed is HaShem our God, of Whose we have eaten, and of Whose goodness we have lived." When one thousand are present, the leader of the Zimmun says "Let us bless HaShem our God, the God of Israel, of Whose we have eaten, and of Whose goodness we have lived", and the crowd responds, "Blessed is the HaShem our God, the God of Israel, of Whose we have eaten, and of Whose goodness we have lived." When at least ten thousand are present, the leader of the Zimmun says "Let us bless Hashem our God, the God of Israel, who dwells among the cherubim, of Whose we have eaten, and of Whose goodness we have lived," and the multitude reaponds, "Blessed is Hashem our God, the God of Israel, who dwells among the cherubim, of Whose we have eaten, and of Whose goodness we have lived."

None of these variations is ever used in practice: the codes lay down that the only variation is the addition of eloheinu (our God) when the number reaches or exceeds ten.

At Seudat Chiyat HaMatim

The Rabbis of the Talmud say that there will be a Seudah (feast) for the righteous following the Chiyat Hamatim, the bodily Resurrection of the dead. According to Rav Avira, at the Birkat HaMazon following this feast, the Cup of Blessing will be passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses to Joshua, each of whom will cite some sin or imperfection and claim unworthiness to lead the blessing. The cup will then pass to King David, who will take it and lead the Birkat HaMazon. The Rabbis cite the verse "I shall raise the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord" (Psalms 16:13) as support. Talmud Pesachim 119b. This section of the Talmud does not report what King David will say. Belief in bodily resurrection is a tenet of Orthodox Judaism.

Abbreviated form

For private, everyday use, some Orthodox and Conservative Jews use an abbreviated form of the prayer, containing the four essential blessings in somewhat shortened form with fewer preliminaries and additions.

Many Sephardi Jews, especially Spanish and Portuguese Jews often sing a hymn in liturgical Ladino, called Bendigamos before or after Birkat Hamazon. Liturgical Ladino is a direct translation from Hebrew to Spanish.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews and some other Sephardi Jews also have an abbreviated form of Birkat Hamazon in Ladino, called Ya Comimos, which may be said after the recital of the formal prayer.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism requires Birkat HaMazon to be said on the same occasions, and uses the same liturgy, as Orthodox Judaism. The only change it has made is to permit a Zimmun to be formed by a combination of men and women (Orthodox Judaism requires either three men or three women).

Liberal Judaism

In Reform Judaism, Birkat HaMazon is not required but is often recited in communal settings and during the seder. When it is done, on occasions such as meals in youth movements, groups sometimes sing only the zimun, first paragraph, and one-line excerpts from other paragraphs. A variety of other "versions" are recited depending on the local custom of the synagogue or camp. Some Reform communities will sing the entire text while others may sing the zimun and the four statutory sections along with selected other paragraphs.

Some liberal branches of Judaism, especially Jewish Renewal, use entirely different texts for the blessing, often with the addition of English. Popular ones make use of the Biblical commandment to bless after eating ("ve'achalta, ve'savata, u'veratchta"), or the Talmudic formulation in Aramaic (intended for time-sensitive occasions): "brich rachamana malka d'alma ma'arey d'hai pita" ("blessed is the merciful one, ruler of the world, who created this bread").

Notes and references



See also



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