Call me old-fashioned, but one of the things I find most meaningful about Judaism is its emphasis on blessings and rituals. There is a blessing (and often an attendant ritual) for almost anything. It can seem a little daunting and cumbersome to feel compelled to recite a blessing before any action, but there are very good reasons why we do it, and why new blessings are created as social conventions and cultural modes change.
Let's start by going back to the land of Israel at the beginning of the Common Era, around the middle of the first century. This was when the Temple - the center of Israelite religious life - was destroyed for a second and final time. In the absence of this central element of worship, festivals, and pilgrimage, the Israelites turned to what had been a growing practice of developing educated communal leaders to carry out the duties of the priests and other religious leaders in far-flung communities. These leaders were the predecessors of what we now know as rabbis.
As Rabbinic Judaism developed, it codified two forms of Torah (which means "teaching" or "instruction" in Hebrew). They are the written Torah (the five books of Moses) and the oral Torah, what was written down as the Mishnah. The Mishnah makes up the first part of the Talmud and focuses on legal topics. It is followed by the Gemara, which adds more commentary and discussion to the Mishnah and Torah.
When speaking of the Talmud, people are generally referring to the Gemara, though it can also refer to both the Mishnah and the Gemara. These two volumes comprise the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis recorded over many hundreds of years. Subjects of the Talmud include Halakha (Jewish law), ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore, etc. An example of how we might understand the role and importance of the Talmud today: The holiday of Chanukah is not mentioned in the Tanakh - the Jewish Bible that includes the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets - but was instead created by the Sages in recognition of the destruction of the Temple. Its history and the customs associated with the holiday come from the Talmud.
Now, what does this have to do with the subject of this post, the HaMotzi blessing? Well, as we just learned, the Sages developed the customs, rituals, and blessings we use today in the Talmud, including those we say over food. They believed that "one should not derive benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing."
I was taught that when we recite a blessing in Judaism, we are asking God's permission to access it, understanding and respecting that, to paraphrase Psalms 24:1, "[...] the world and everything in it is God's." We use the Hebrew word "kadosh," which literally means "sacred" or "holy". But in this context, we have to see its larger meaning: To separate this thing from all others and designate it for a specific purpose. We are imbuing the mundane task of eating, in this case, with a spiritual awareness and appreciation. That's deep.
Taking this concept to the next step, we can apply it to pretty much anything we do in our daily lives. But for the purposes of this project and in keeping with its theme, we're going to focus on the blessings we recite before eating and drinking, starting with HaMotzi, or the blessing recited over bread.
First, let's look at the blessing itself:
Now, when we think of bread, we think of a loaf of challah, or a French boule, or a baguette. And that is the type of bread this blessing refers to. When we enter a bakery, there will always be bread ... But more often than not there are also pastries and other confections. Believe it or not, the Sages determined we would need a different blessing for those items, which we will discuss at another time.
HaMotzi refers to bread made from the five species of grains identified by the Sages: Wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oat. During Passover, we recognize and abstain from these grains and foods made with them, collectively known as chametz. This is why you will not say or hear HaMotzi during Passover. In addition to the use of these five grains, to be considered bread the product must have water as its primary liquid ingredient, and it must also be baked. Dough that is fried or cooked, however, such as pasta, is not considered bread.
Part of the ritual associated with HaMotzi is washing our hands before reciting the blessing and partaking of the bread. Eating a piece of the bread is also an important part of the ritual, as it is the completion of the act. If you attend Shabbat services on a Friday night, usually the rabbi or cantor will lead those assembled in reciting HaMotzi over the challah that will be shared at the oneg.
If bread is present in a meal, we can recite HaMotzi, which will "cover" all of the foods in the meal, except for dessert and wine, which receive their own special blessings. If you forget to say HaMotzi over a meal with bread before partaking, you can recite the after-meal Grace, which will "cover" everything that has been eaten. The Grace consists of four separate blessings, composed by different people at different times.
For other foods, there are other blessings, which we will learn about at another time.
So, how does all of this tie together? How do we get from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the Sages and the Talmud to the challah at your table on Friday night? How are they connected?
As Jews, we recognize Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, as the highest of the holidays. Many Jews today cannot be in Jerusalem or Israel for Shabbat. Many people do not attend services regularly, where they can partake in the ritual as part of a group led by a rabbi. If we are at home, celebrating Shabbat around our own tables, then we have to turn our tables into altars. We still have to be able to offer our best to God. This is what the Sages accomplished when they created the custom of reciting HaMotzi before a meal.
Understanding this history is part of what makes the ritual, and the blessing, so meaningful to me personally. It's part of what inspires my love of Judaism.
This Friday evening, wherever you are, wash your hands, recite HaMotzi, sprinkle some (kosher) salt on your challah, and savor the blessing of Shabbat.