Devarim, 8:10: “You will eat and you will be satisfied, and you will bless Hashem, your God, for the good Land that He gave you.”
Brachos, 48b: “From where do know that Grace after Meals is from the Torah? As it says, ‘and you will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless…”
The Torah instructs us to bless God after we eat to satiety. The Rabbis explain that this refers to when we have eaten a bread meal and are fully satisfied after the meal. The Talmud1 attempts to derive through kal v’chomer (the ‘all the more so’ argument) that there are two other situations where the Torah obligates a person to make a blessing. One is that the blessing before one eats a full bread meal should also be Torah mandated, and the second is that after one has finished learning Torah, there should be a Torah obligation to bless God. The Talmud’s conclusion is that one cannot derive a Torah obligation in either case.
The Meshech Chachma2 addresses what the Talmud’s initial thought was, and why it was ultimately rejected. We will address the two cases of blessing before a meal, and blessing after learning Torah, separately: With regard to making a blessing before a meal, the Meshech Chachma explains that the Talmud understood that the main purpose of making a blessing is in order to show gratitude to God for the food that He has given us. According to this understanding, a person who is hungry, feels more enhanced by food than when he is sated. This is because when one is sated, he is more likely to take for granted the great benefit of food, while before he has eaten, he will still have a great appreciation for the food that he is about to eat.
However, the Talmud concludes that this is not the only reason that the Torah would mandate a blessing. The other possible purpose of making a blessing is to offset feelings of complacency and haughtiness. Once a person’s needs are fulfilled, he tends to become self-assured and confident in his own powers, and there is the real risk that he will be distracted from the recognition that God is the source of all good.
Indeed, the verse that immediately follows the commandment of Grace after Meals warns us: “Beware, lest you forget Hashem your God3.” This forgetfulness comes about as a result of complacency when one is satiated. Accordingly, there was more of a necessity to mandate a blessing after one has eaten in order to offset this natural feeling of self-assurance. In contrast, before one has eaten, there was less of a need to be concerned with this attitude, because a hungry person is far less prone to such an attitude.
With regard to the attempt to prove that one should make a blessing after learning Torah, the Talmud originally reasons that if a person feels gratitude to God after eating food, which gives this-worldly benefit, then all the more so one should thank God after Torah learning, which gives spiritual gains.
However, the Talmud rejects this proof with the same line of reasoning as with regard to making a blessing before food, but applied in a different way. The focus is again on when a person is likely to forget Talmud, and so the blessing is necessary to remind him of the correct focus. The Meshech Chachma points out that there is a source to make a blessing before learning Torah4, because before one comes to learn, there is a great risk that he can have the wrong motives in learning. He may want to learn for self-aggrandizement or, even worse, to use it to take advantage of others. This is very dangerous, as our Sages tell us that when Torah is studied for the wrong reasons it becomes a death-potion, rather than a life-giving elixir5. Hence, the necessity of a blessing before learning Torah to connect the great gift of Torah with its source.
Indeed, this is of such importance that the Talmud tells us that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Temple was that they did not make a blessing before Torah study. The Meshech Chachma explains this to mean that they did not connect Torah with God.
The Meshech Chachma continues that all of this applies to before learning Torah, but after learning Torah he asserts that there is no such need. He explains that Torah is uplifting and edifying, and within the study session, a person is protected from retribution and from succumbing to the yetzer hora. On a deeper level, he writes that the Torah can be seen as a string of Names of God, and by clinging to Torah, a person attaches himself to the Name of God. Moreover, the soul of every Jew is sourced in the Torah. When Jews connect to it, they become as one entity through it. The outcome of all this is that the aftermath of a session of Torah is the polar opposite of a full meal. A person naturally moves closer to Hashem through it, rather than subconsciously moving away. Accordingly, there was no great necessity to require a blessing after Torah learning.
There are two important lessons that emerge from the words of the Meshech Chachma. Firstly, the purpose of a blessing is not simply to enable us to express our natural feelings of gratitude to God, rather it also comes to remind us, even in times of plenty, that our only source of sustenance is God. This reminds us in general to be wary of becoming too self-assured and complacent when things are going well, and to remember to turn to God in thanks.
Secondly, with regard to Torah learning, the Meshech Chachma took it for granted that after a person learns he naturally feels closer to God and therefore has no need to remind himself of God’s presence with a blessing. It follows that if a person does not feel this way after he has learnt Torah, then there may be something lacking in his approach to his learning. One possible reason for this may be that one may be prone to forgetting God before he comes to learn – having said the before-blessing many hours earlier – and during his learning. The Nefesh HaChaim, who was known to be against thinking lofty thoughts while learning Torah, nonetheless writes: “Whenever one prepares himself to learn, it is proper for him to spend at least a small amount of time contemplating a pure fear of G-d with a pure heart.”6 He even argues that at times one should take a small break during his learning to rekindle his awareness of God.7
May we merit to benefit in the intended ways in both our blessing and our Torah learning.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
- Brachot, 21a.
- Meshech Chachma, Devarim, 8;10.
- Devarim, 8:11.
- Devarim, 33:3.
- Shabbat, 88b.
- Nefesh HaChaim 4:6.
- Ibid. 4:7.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further.