© Music and recording: Alexander Massey June 2012
Birchat hamazon – blessing after the meal
Brich rachamana malka d’alma marei d’hai pita. (Talmud, Brachot 40b)
A Fountain of Blessings is the Compassionate One, Ruler of Eternity and the concealed and revealed Universe, Master of this Bread. (Translation-interpretation)
The origin of this blessing is recorded in the Talmud with the following story:
“Benjamin the shepherd made a sandwich [literally, a ‘doubled (wrapped) loaf’] and said, Blessed be the Master of this bread [brich marei d’hai pita], and Rab [the rabbi] said that he had performed his obligation. But Rab has laid down that any benediction in which God’s name is not mentioned is no benediction. We must suppose he said, Blessed be the All-Merciful [rachamana], the Master of this bread.”
Benjamin spoke the blessing in Aramaic, which means that it belongs with a handful of prayers and blessings that the 2nd century Rabbis of the Talmud said did not have to be said in Hebrew, but could be said in any language. The other prayers include the Shema, and the Amidah (the main daily prayer). The Rabbis taught that Brich rachamana was the shortest version one could do of a blessing after a meal. This was for those who may be in a hurry (originally because they might be in danger, for example), but it also meant that children who did not yet know the full version could learn to give thanks after a meal.
The translation-interpretation that I have given at the beginning of this commentary tells us something about the roots of the words used. Brich relates to the Hebrew baruch ‘blessed’, which, in turn, is related to bareich, meaning a fountain or pool. Rachamana relates to the Hebrew word rechem, a ‘womb’, which represents the compassionate aspect of God. Malka is the Hebrew melech, ‘king’. Alma is olam, which means eternity as well as the world, or universe; the latter is the ‘revealed’ aspect of God, but, intriguingly, olam also means ‘concealed’, as God also has to remain ‘hidden’ within Creation in order not to overwhelm it or us. The Creator of the bread is also the Master of it. Great spiritual potency is packed into the few words of this blessing!
It is written: “And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied [v’achal’ta v’sava’ta]. And you shall bless YHVH, your God, for the good land he has given you.” (Deut 8:10, Parshat Eikev) This text has been the origin of the Rabbinic teaching that we should always give thanks for our food. But the verse could also be understood as three quite distinct and un-related events: blessing God, being satisfied, and eating. In this formulation, faith becomes unconditional, and not a ‘fair weather’ sentiment. So in this context, ‘being satisfied’ would be not just a spontaneous emotional reaction to something received, but also – much more profoundly – an attitude freely chosen (and perhaps hard won): it would be the act of being present non-judgmentally, non-dually, peacefully, to the Source of All Life, to the Presence. Satisfaction, or gratitude towards the Source of Life, does not have to be conditional on our getting what we want, but could be simply a heart-opening response of gratitude in the direct ‘I-You’ encounter with the Source. The three parts of the round can represent the three distinct ideas: brich rachamana (blessing God), malka d’alma (being present to Creation and the Creator), marei d’hai pita (acknowledging that we are nourished).
This piece was composed for the first T’fillah (Prayer) Leaders Retreat of EAJL (European Academy for Jewish Liturgy). We sang it after breakfast on Shabbat morning. My tune is based on the Adonai Malach (lit. ‘God Reigns’) mode, which is used for services that need a majestic feel, such as Friday evening and Saturday morning, blessing the new month at Rosh Chodesh, and at moments in the High Holidays. (If you like it, please feel free to sing it at any time!)