Rav Yisrael Salanter was once in a hotel in France. He went into the restaurant and asked for a glass of water. As he was ready to leave, the waiter gave him a bill for 50 francs. Rav Yisrael was surprised, and told the waiter that he had only had water. The waiter explained that the bill included the overhead, the art, the music, the ambiance of the restaurant, etc. Rav Salanter paid the bill and even left a tip. He wrote a letter to his students, saying that now he knew why we recite “…shehakol nihyeh bidvaro,” that everything came to be through His word. We are not making a bracha just on the water; we are making a bracha on everything! (Rabbi Label Lam on parshas Eikev, torahanytime.com)
“Ve’atah mah Hashem Elokecha sho’el mei’imach ki im leyir’ah es Hashem – And now, what does Hashem ask of you, only to fear Hashem…” This verse in parshas Eikev (Devarim 10:12) is used as a source for two important statements. First: “Hakol biyedei Shamayim chutz miyiras Shamayim – Everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven.” Hashem asks us “only” to fear Him; that is our input into our relationship with Hashem and the world. The second statement, brought in the name of Rav Meir, in Menachos 43b, is that a person is required to make 100 blessings a day. The most common understanding of the derivation of this requirement from the verse is that the word mah (what) should be read as mei’ah (100). Hashem asks 100 (blessings) from us.
Tosafos provides two other reasons that are brought in the Ba’al HaTurim. First, the verse contains 100 letters. The second interpretation in Tosafos relies on the gematria strategy of “atbash,” where one substitutes for each letter a different letter that is as far from the end of the alef beis as the original letter is from the start of the alef beis. In atbash, the letter mem becomes yud, and the letter heh becomes tzadi. Yud is 10, and tzadi is 90, so the sum gives 100. (Parenthetically, a recently publicized nutritional study suggests that people should take 100 bites of food a day, since an average bite has 17 calories.)
A significant question remains, though. I would think that saying brachos would fall into the category of loving Hashem, not fearing Him. After all, we are saying we are grateful for everything He has given us. Rav Dessler in his Essay on Lovingkindness says that by saying brachos we convert ourselves from grasping “takers” to gracious “receivers,” who can give back to Hashem in terms of blessing Him, thus conveying our love to Him. What do brachos have to do with fearing Hashem?
I think an answer to this lies in a famous analysis of Chanukah by Rav Hutner. He talks about hoda’ah, being grateful to, or thanking, as coming from the same root as vidui, admission or confession. Thanking someone implies you are indebted to him, that you needed something from someone else, that someone else perhaps is in a more elevated place than you. Thanking someone is admitting that you cannot do everything yourself.
I think this same analysis applies to a bracha. On the one hand, we thank Hashem for His great kindness to us; at the same time, we admit that everything comes from Him, that there is nothing besides Him. So a bracha can increase our love for Hashem and instill in us greater yiras Shamayim as well.
The bracha before eating is rabbinic, while the bracha after eating is from the Torah (mi’d’Oraisa). It is natural to want to thank Hashem when you are hungry and anticipating eating something delicious and satisfying. What is not as natural is to hold onto the feeling of thanksgiving after you eat. Bentching or saying a bracha acharona (concluding blessing) is a message, then, that our love for and awe of Hashem is intact and will accompany us during the rest of our day.
But brachos after eating are not so straightforward for people who eat compulsively. First of all, you may not feel satisfied after eating. More problematic is how to decide when you are truly “done” eating. If you take one thing, then another, then another, is there ever a time you can say a bracha acharona? By not defining when one has had enough, one cannot acknowledge the special gifts that Hashem has provided for us, and cannot move forward to a new part of the day.
So, think about the bracha after eating. It may change your relationship to food, and enhance your relationship with Hashem.
Janet Sunness is medical director of the Richard E. Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She gives lectures on Tanach, Judaism and women, and other topics in the Baltimore area. She welcomes your feedback (email@example.com).
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press.