I consider myself an Orthodox, practicing Jew. I try my best to keep the commandments relevant to me. Some come easier, even naturally, while others require some effort.
One of those Mitzvot that come a little easier is that of making a Bracha (blessing) on food before eating. It takes about a second or two and is as second nature as the expressions “please” and “thank you” are to me.
But catch me after I’ve eaten and ask me if I’ve said Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), and I might have to stop to think, or perhaps quickly ‘bentch’ — if my time hasn’t already run out.
I’m not sure what it is, but with the holiday of Thanksgiving upon us, it got me thinking about the notion of gratitude between man and G-d and man and each other…
Essentially, making a blessing before one eats is a rabbinic obligation, and not explicitly sourced in the Torah. Saying Grace After Meals, on the other hand, is clearly outlined in the book of, Devarim/Deuteronomy (8:10):
…וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
“And thou shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God…”
I’m not here to spark discussion as to the difference between biblical and rabbinic commandments, and which, if either, holds greater weight. That’s an intricate discussion and one that would best be had with — you guessed it — a rabbi.
I simply find inspiration in this difference and liken it somewhat to the difference between things in life that are clearcut law, fundamental expectations and matters of social norms, vis a vis that which can be categorized as being in the spirit of the law, matters of ‘mentschlichkeit’ and (social) sensibilities.
If I did not know it, but had to guess which was a biblical commandment, blessings before or blessings after a meal, I would likely guess blessings before. It goes without saying that before digging into the fruits of one’s labors we should thank them for sharing, how much more so must we thank Gd before partaking in the bounty of His earth?
The part that’s not so basic, then, is the “thank you” at the conclusion of the meal. After all, it’s not that long since we thanked and acknowledged His generosity before eating. Would it not seem redundant and perhaps even a little forced to launch into a declaration of thanks yet again?
The way I see it, the commandment to say thank you after a meal is likely there precisely because we might not deem it necessary, and because we are intrinsically wired (and hopefully raised) to anyway know to ask before taking. What may not come as second nature and common sense, then, is the importance of gratitude post factum, too. Saying thank you then can mean so much more. The blessing before the meal is thankful, yes, but in somewhat of a superficial and hopeful way. Sort of like when I thank someone for a dinner invitation. I do, in fact, appreciate the invitation, and even look forward to the experience, but I don’t really know how I will feel after it. Maybe I will have enjoyed the company but not the food, or vice versa. The same can apply to thanking someone for a gift before actually having opened, and then used it.
Have you noticed the length of the blessings before eating as opposed to the blessings after a meal? I don’t think the difference is so extensive in order to enable our digestion. (Not that I would put any and every such detail past the Torah..) It is the difference of a few seconds with several long minutes. It is the difference of “thank you for your kind invitation” with “this Shabbat dinner was such a beautiful experience; each dish was so delicious, the singing was really moving and I’m so thankful that you included me!” If anything, I take a direct message from the Biblical commandment of Birkat Hamazon/Grace After Meals and the difference in placement and length from the rabbinic blessings before eating. Birkat Hamazon is lengthy, poetic, and filled with expressive prose depicting a timeless admiration and gratitude. The thank you given after something is the most real thank you possible. It truly addresses our provider, and shows that we took the time out to stay and express appreciation even once our bodies were already satisfied. We could have just left, and many do. But by adding in that ‘extra’ expression of gratitude, instead of just the receiver feeling satisfied, the giver will too. If you’ve ever hosted a big meal or event for which you put in significant time and effort, you know just how much it means when soon after someone sends a card, makes a phone call, or (welcome to the 21st century…) sends a text message to express their satisfaction and gratitude.
It’s interesting to note that the Torah, in its infinite wisdom, also dictates exactly how and when we are obligated to say Birkat Hamazon. We are supposed to say it while sitting where we ate, and within 72 minutes since eating. I.e.; prior to the food we are thankful for being completely digested, and thereby perhaps forgotten. In a similar vein, the best time to thank a host is soon after the event, or if thanking someone for something such as help, soon after receiving it. That way the feeling of gratitude is still fresh and sincere, and the person we are thanking feels appreciated in a timely manner.
So next time you express appreciation at the onset of something, such as an invitation to a lavish Thanksgiving dinner, know that it’s par for the course. Bottle of wine and/or gift included. But when you take the time out afterwards to reiterate and expound upon how (much) you enjoyed it, then your gratitude is of biblical proportions, and no doubt will be taken that way, too!