Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Do We Bless Bread?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I’ve been asked to recite the blessing over the bread at a wedding and say a few words, but I am humbled to admit that I don’t know why we say a blessing over the bread. Could you help me out, please?
Bashfully Baffled B.
Darling Bashful,
Sometimes it is the most basic questions that are left unasked. Just because the question appears simple, doesn’t mean that everyone knows the answer!
First let us discuss briefly the purpose of prayer. The ancient rabbis (those slightly older than Tanta Golda dear) said that the purpose of prayer is to remind us of God’s presence at all times, and so that we don’t just take things for granted.
The Babylonian Talmud states: Whoever enjoys the fruit of this world without first saying a blessing has stolen from God. (B’rachot 35a) Goodness!
It is also stated in the Talmud that one should say 100 blessings - a day! Well if you have time to attend three daily services and throw in a few more blessings throughout the day for food, etc, you can easily get to 100, but really… 
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher said that there are three types of blessings: Those recited prior to eating, drinking, or smelling nice things - Birchot Hanehenin, blessings recited before performing a mitzvot - Birchot Hamitzvot, and blessings that express praise of God, give thanks, as well as those that ask for things - Birchot Hodaah.
There are two main ‘formulas’ for prayers. The vast majority begin with the same six words: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam… Praised are You, Adonai our God Ruler of the universe…
The second important formula is the one recited for ritual acts that are mitzvot-things we are commanded to do. These have a ten word opening: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvoav v’tzivanu… Praised are You, Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to…
The blessing that we recite over bread is one of the Birchot Hanehenin, so begins with the six word opening: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Now to your question regarding the specific reason why we say a blessing over bread. Bread has always been seen as a symbol of life. In the Bible there are many examples of guests being offered bread to eat. (As you remember, Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality.) In fact, bread is so important that this one blessing said at the beginning of the meal covers ALL the food to be eaten during the meal!
In other words, bread sustains us, and community sustains us, so we give thanks.
Keep your questions coming, whether basic or complex!  Love TG