“You will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land that he gave you.”

(Devarim 8:10) The Talmud (Brachot 21a and 48b) derives from this verse a scriptural obligaon to recite birkat hamazon, Grace a+er Meals. This is the only blessing that is explicitly mentioned by the Torah. All of the other blessings – for food, scent, performance of mitzvoth, natural phenomena and gratitude – were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple Era. The blessing before studying Torah (ibid 21a) is hinted to later in Devarim (32:3) but it is nowhere as clear as the verse regarding the Grace. The fact that this blessing, or, more precisely, set of three blessings (with a fourth one added in the post-Temple era), is mandated by the Torah indicates its importance and primacy in Jewish life.

The concepts included in the birkat hamazon are fundamental to our belief system:
God sustains the world (first blessing); He gifted us with a beautiful homeland, brought us out of Egypt, sealed His covenant in our flesh and taught us His Torah (second blessing); He established the House of David to rule as kings in the city of Jerusalem, which He will rebuild speedily in our days (third blessing) and He perpetually bestows good upon us “with grace and with kindness and with mercy..”(fourth blessing). Although these concepts should be basic knowledge to all Jews, we can o+en forget them because they are so familiar (see introduction to Messilat Yesharim). Hence Hashem desired that whenever we sit down to a meal that contains bread, we bless Him for the food we have enjoyed and we recall these concepts so that they become engraved upon our hearts. The recitation of birkat hamazon also has the power to bring people closer to God and Judaism.

Rabbi Osher Weiss, the renowned posek (expert on Jewish Law) in Jerusalem, posed a question to the rabbis of Cape Town on a visit in 2019. In the second mishna of Pirkei Avot, Shimon HaTzaddik teaches, “The world stands upon three things: the study of Torah, the service of God [in the Temple or through prayer] and the performance of kind deeds.” Rabbi Weiss noted that these three pillars correspond to the three patriarchs (see, for example, the commentary Mirkevet HaMishna by Rabbi Yosef al-Ashkar, Spain, 15th century). Torah corresponds to Yaakov who is described (Bereishit 25:27) as “a guileless man, dwelling in tents.” He spent hisme in the tents of the scholars Shem and Ever studying Torah in its early form. Service of God corresponds to Yitzchak; about whom it is written (ibid 24:63) “He went out to converse [with God] in the field.” Moreover, Yitzchak was prepared to sacrifice himself to Hashem when his father brought him as an offering on Mt Moriah. Performance of kind deeds corresponds to Avraham about whom the prophet (Micah 7:20) said, “You will give truth to Yaakov and kindness to Avraham.” Avraham’s kindness was legendary – the way in which he hosted the three angels who visited his home a+er he underwent brit milah is an example of how he extended chesed to all and sundry. This all makes good sense – each father excelled in one of the three pillars that support the world. However, asked Rabbi Weiss, the order is wrong. In the mishna Torah is mentioned first, then service of God and only then kind deeds. If kind deeds correspond to Avraham, should that not be mentioned first, considering that Avraham was the first of the patriarchs?

Rabbi Weiss suggested the following solution. There is no doubt that Avraham wanted to establish a place of learning to teach people the Torah he had learned (see Yoma 28b). But the people he came into contact with had no concepton of such a place. Avraham was like a great Torah scholar who takes up a position in a far-away community that has never had a yeshiva in its midst. He was faced with an enormous challenge: how could he introduce people to something that was completely foreign to them?

Avraham had to take a step back. First he had to introduce people to God before he could introduce them to His Torah. Thus we find (Bereishit 21:33), “He set up an eishel in Beersheba, and he proclaimed there the name of the Lord, God of the Universe.” Rashi cites the views of the Talmudic sages Rav and Shmuel regarding the identity of the eishel of Avraham. One said that it was an orchard and one said it was an inn. Either way, Avraham set up a facility where wayfarers received refreshment. But how did this lead him to “proclaim there the name of the Lord”? Rashi explains that a+er he had served his guests food and drink he would ask them to express gratitude to the provider of the nourishment. Naturally they thought he was referring to the host but Avraham would correct them and say, “Do you think it is from me that you have received nourishment? No! It is from the One who spoke and the world came into being!” He would then engage them in a discussion about God. Thus the name of the Lord would be proclaimed through the kindness of Avraham. The author of the mishna is therefore correct: Torah comes first because this was Avraham’s goal and top priority. But to reach the point at which he could teach Torah, Avraham had to first engage in acts of kindness. This does not mean that Avraham’s kindness was not for altruistic purposes or that he had a hidden agenda. On the contrary, Avraham would have extended hospitality regardless. But he realized that in order to spread knowledge of the spiritual world he would first have to provide his potential disciples with what they required on a physical level: food, drink and accommodation. An empty stomach cannot learn and a closed heart cannot appreciate wisdom.

Rabbi Weiss illustrated his point with a story that he tells o+en. It once happened that three of the greatest rabbinical leaders of Lithuania were gathered together. These were Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein of Navardok (1829-1908), the author of the great halachic work, Aruch HaShulchan; Rabbi Yitzchak (‘Itzele’) Rabinovitch of Ponovez (1854-1919) and the illustrious Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchick (1853-1918) of Brisk. Their discussion included the question of what the main task of a rabbi is. Rabbi Epstein stated that, first and foremost, a rabbi must know how to rule on issues of Jewish Law. Rabbi Rabinovitch was of the opinion that the main job of a rabbi is to teach and disseminate Torah. ‘Rav Chaim’, as he was affectionately known, disagreed with his learned colleagues. Even though he was perhaps the greatest Talmudic genius of his generaon, he believed that a rabbi’s primary duty was not to answer questions or teach Torah but to be “the father and mother of the community”, to see to it that all the needs of the congregants were taken care of, from food to accommodation to health to employment. Without ensuring that their physical needs are taken care of, how can a rabbi ever hope to impart to his flock’s spiritual messages?

Good Shabbos, Rabbi Liebenberg

The link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for this week is: https://youtu.be/BS2s1GEXm5M

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1 Comment
  • Felicity Goussard

    I enjoyed the above, clear but instructive and to the point
    My husband and I have recently moved here from Durban and would like to attend synagogue this evening
    I think because it’s already Friday I’ll contact the rabbi’s office by phone

    September 2, 2022

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