Why do Jews say a blessing (bracha) over eating food? The most well-known Scriptural reference for this practice is found in this week’s parshah: “And you will eat and be sated (v’akhalta v’savata) and bless the Lord your God on the goodly land that the Lord has given you” (Deut. 8:10) According to the Talmud Bavli, this verse serves as the source for the obligation for the recitation of the blessing after eating a meal.
Another idea which circulated as an explanation for blessings over food proposed that the blessings served as a means of payment for services rendered: “One should not taste of anything until one has blessed, as it says: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalms 24:1) One who benefits from the world without a blessing steals (holy things), until it is permitted to him (through reciting a blessing) …” Tosefta Berachot 4:1, Lieberman ed. p.18 )
The sages uncovered another explanation for this practice in the second paragraph of Shma which is also found in this week’s parsha: “And I will give grass in your field to your beast, and you shall eat and be sated (v’akhalta v’savata). Watch yourself lest you be seduced and you swerve and worship other gods…” (Deut. 11:15-16) The juxtaposition of a verse recounting the blessing of having adequate food for following God’s commandments and a verse containing a stern warning against betraying loyalty to God inspired the following midrash from the period of the Mishnah: “He (Moshe) said to them, “Beware, lest you rebel against God , for one does not rebel against God except when one is sated,” as it is said, Lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built goodly houses, and dwelt in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, (and all that you have is multiplied) (8:12-13) ; and then what does Scripture say?—Then your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God (8:14).” (Adapted from Sifre Devarim 43 Finkelstein ed. p.92)
According to this midrash, we make a blessing over food to remind us that God is the source of our blessings since it often happens that when people have plenty, they forget to whom they owe their blessings. This midrash, however, approaches the idea of gratitude in a negative way and does not inspire a true sense of appreciation for God as the author of the creation. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, in his monumental drashot, Sfat Emet, fills in this gap by harvesting a positive message from this teaching. He urges us to see the blessings over food as a means for helping us recognize that food offers both physical and spiritual nourishment since the divine life force is to be found in all things that God has created. (adapted from Pashat Ekev 5649)
Saying a Bracha, then, is not just a mechanical means for paying off God for the “goods”. Brachot are a means for appreciating the wonder of God’s world and making sure the material world is not just a means for sating our animal selves. It is also a pathway for seeing the divine essence in all things. If we remember this then we will not lose a sense of the lofty even when we have plenty.