The Meaning of a Bracha
The Jewish day is punctuated with the recital of a variety of blessings (in Hebrew, Bracha; plural brachot). These blessings serve a variety of spiritual purposes:
- praise of God as the source of all goodness1
- saying "thank you" to God for the things we enjoy2
- bringing God's blessing upon the world3
Brachot generally begin with the phrase "Baruch Ata Adonoy" – "Blessed are You, God." We are expressing our desire that God should be blessed. Of course, philosophically we need to understand how a human can bestow blessing upon God, Who is lacking nothing, created all existence, and has infinite ability and power!
The answer is that God chose not to have the world function independently, but rather to make the world's sustenance dependent on man's spiritual efforts. God did so because He wanted man to realize his constant dependence on God – that he must constantly pray for His needs. As a result man would feel close to God and dependent upon His ongoing beneficence.4
This being the case, in a sense it is man's job to "bless God," prompting God, so to speak, to bring blessing into the world. "Baruch Ata Adonoy" thus means: May You, God, allow Yourself to exercise Your power of goodness toward mankind.5
Another word that shares a common root with Bracha is "breicha," which means wellspring. This alludes to the fact that reciting a Bracha opens up the breicha, the wellspring of blessing from Heaven. In this way, man becomes a partner with God in sustaining the world.6
This same theme is hinted to in the root letters of the word "Bracha" – bet, reish, chaf – whose numerical value are 2, 20 and 200. While the number one signifies the minimal amount of anything, two begins the series of multiplicity. The word Bracha is made up of all the "two's," hinting to the power of a Bracha to bring additional good into the world.7
Other commentators explain that "Baruch Ata Adonoy" is a statement of recognition: "You, God, are the source of all blessing." A Bracha serves as a humbling reminder that our food, other pleasures and even challenges are not solely the result of our own human choices, but rather everything is the gift of a loving God.8
This concept is reflected in the word "Bracha" which is related to the word berech, meaning "knee." In reciting a Bracha, we "bend our knees," so to speak, bowing in recognition of God's central role in providing our sustenance.9
Saying Brachot make us God's partners in bringing out the holiness of creation. Before biting an apple, we thank God for making the apple, thus making the mundane act of eating into a holy act.10
Mechanics of the Bracha
Anyone who has ever tried to pray has encountered the challenge of how and when to address God. The Talmud states that any praise we say about God is an understatement,11 like praising a billionaire for one of his dollars! The Sages of the Great Assembly resolved this problem by composing a standard set of Brachot (mat'beya shel tefilla).
Understanding the meaning behind Brachot and the power they possess can transform a monotonous habit into a deeply meaningful ritual.
There are four basic components to every bracha:
- the word "baruch"
- the name of God
- a reference to God's kingship over the world
- the subject of the particular Bracha
As long as these four are included, the Bracha is valid even if some of the words are missing. If any one of these four elements is missing, however, the Bracha is invalid.12
It is important to understand the names of God that appear in the brachot:
- YHVH (which is written, but not pronounced) refers to God's transcendence of any limitations, including time and space
- Adonoy refers to God as Master of all creation
- Eloheinu refers to God as the Source of all power13
It is prohibited to say God's name in vain. This is a serious offense that is listed in the Ten Commandments.14 Thus one should not say a Bracha in an inappropriate time or manner, or if it serves no purpose (Bracha levatala).15
You may say a Bracha in any language, but the original Hebrew text is preferred.16 If you hear someone else saying a Bracha, it is proper to answer, "Amen." This is an affirmation of the blessing as a praise of God.17
The majority of blessings said during the course of a day are in the context of prayer services. For example, the Amidah's 19 blessings are said three times daily. For details, see Daily Living – Prayer.
The blessings on washing hands and using the restroom are in Daily Living – Starting the Day.
The blessing upon hearing of the death of a relative are in Daily Living – Mourning (Post-Burial).
Beyond this, there are special blessings for observing natural phenomenon like lightning, earthquakes and the ocean, and a blessing said upon safely emerging from a dangerous situation. These are discussed in Daily Living – Travel.
There are other blessings to be said upon smelling various natural fragrances. These are discussed in Daily Living – The Jewish Garden.
This class will focus specifically on Brachot recited before and after eating food.
Blessings Prior to Eating Food
The Talmud states that the entire world belongs to God, Who created everything, and partaking in His creation without consent would be tantamount to stealing.18 When we acknowledge that our food comes from God, He grants us permission to partake in the world's pleasures. Thus we say a blessing before eating any food.
The blessing that one says before eating or drinking is known as a Bracha rishona (literally, "first blessing").19 The Sages grouped all foods and drink into six different categories, and assigned each of these categories its own specific Bracha rishona.
The basic text of these Brachot begins the same way: "Baruch Ata Adonoy, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam" – "Blessed are you, God, our Master, King of the world." This phrase is then followed by the subject of the Bracha, i.e. which of the six categories the food falls into.20
The obligation to say a Bracha applies when any amount of food or drink is consumed.21
What if you want to taste the food, but not swallow? Then no Bracha is required.22
One should not make any interruption between reciting the Bracha and eating a bit of the food.23
Washing Hands for Bread
Before eating bread (i.e. saying the "hamotzee" blessing), one is required to first do a ritual washing of the hands, along with the blessing "al netilat yadayim."24
Some Details of Brachot
NOTE: The following laws are presented in their briefest form. Please do not derive practical halacha from this essay alone. To study this topic in depth, see our 30-part Pathways course on Blessings.
If a person wishes to eat a variety of foods that have the same Bracha (e.g. an apple and a pear), it is sufficient to say the Bracha only once.25
If a person wishes to eat a variety of foods with different Brachot, there is an order of priority which blessing should be first, second, etc.26
What if a single dish consists of a combination of foods, which require two different Brachot? In many cases, making a Bracha on one food will obviate the need to say a Bracha on the other category of food. For example, lasagna is made of noodles, sauce and cheese. According to the laws of Brachot, the noodles are primary, and the sauce and cheese are secondary. So you would only say a blessing on the noodles ("borei minei mezonot"), which would "cover" the sauce and cheese, too.27
An extension of this rule is if one begins a meal by making the Bracha "hamotzee" on bread, one need not say a Bracha on other foods in that meal. (There are some exceptions to this case, for example, wine or fruits eaten during the meal require their own Bracha.)28
If two people wish to eat the same food (or at least foods that share the same Bracha), it is acceptable for one person to recite the blessing, and for the other person(s) to answer "Amen" and eat as well. Prior to the Bracha being recited, both parties should have intention that the Bracha will exempt the second person as well.29
The food on which you recite a Bracha must have a good taste or a satisfying quality. If the food tastes bad (e.g. bitter medicine) or is damaging, no Bracha is said. Medicine that actually has an enjoyable taste – as is sometimes the case with children's medicine – does require a Bracha.30
As long as you have not taken your mind off further eating/drinking, you do not need to say a Bracha again, even if there are intervals in between.31 If one has left the location where one began eating, that usually requires saying a new Bracha.32
One does not say a Bracha on food that is prohibited by the Torah.33 (It's like defying God by saying, "Blessed are you God, for I am about to break one of your commandments!").34
Further, a Bracha is not said on something that is not normally eaten. The Guiness Book of World Records claims that someone once ate an entire bicycle over a period of months. If he was Jewish, he would not have needed to say any Brachot over the bicycle.35
Blessings after Eating Food
Once we have been satiated, we again bless God, expressing our appreciation for what He has given us. The blessing that one recites after eating or drinking is known as a "Bracha acharona" (literally, "after-blessing").36
The Midrash37 relates that Abraham's tent was pitched in the middle of an intercity highway, and open on all four sides so that any traveler was welcome to a royal feast. Inevitably, at the end of the meal, the grateful guests would want to thank Abraham. "It's not me who you should be thanking," Abraham replied. "God provides our food, and sustains us moment by moment. To Him we should give thanks!" Those who balked at the idea of thanking God were offered an alternative: Pay full price for the meal. Now considering the high price for a fabulous meal in the desert, Abraham succeeded in inspiring even the skeptics to "give God a try."
While most of the food blessings were instituted by the Sages, one food-related blessing is a Torah-level obligation: Grace After Meals (Birkat Hamazon). The obligation is based on Deut. 8:10: "You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless."
"Grace After Meals" is said only after eating a meal that included bread.38 If the meal did not include bread, then the rules are as follows:
The "Three-Faceted Blessing" (Bracha Me'ein Shalosh) is said if you ate a minimum quantity of either:
- one of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, rye)39
- one of the fruits of Israel (grapes, olives, dates, figs, pomegranates)40
- wine or grape juice41
For all other foods, the following after-bracha is said:42
To be required to say an after-bracha, you must have eaten at least a kezayit of food, approximately 28 grams.43 The blessing must be said within 72 minutes of having finished eating.44
The story is told of a chassidic rebbe who took an apple in his hand, and his student took an apple as well. Each of the men said a Bracha and began to eat. When they were finished, the rebbe said to his student:
"Do you know the difference between you and me? You were hungry and wanted to eat an apple. But to do so, you first needed to say a Bracha. In my case, I looked around at the beauty of our world and desperately wanted to call out in praise of God. Since our Sages made Brachot the context to praise God, I needed to take an apple. In other words, you said a Bracha to eat the apple, and I ate the apple to say a Bracha!"
On a variety of levels, Brachot are a tremendous opportunity to "touch base" with God dozens of times a day.
- Midrash Shochar Tov 9
- Psalms 100 with Radak and Malbim
- Rabbeinu Bachya (Deut. 8:10)
- Ramban (Deut. 32:27)
- This helps us understand a perplexing Talmudic passage: Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest was once in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, when He heard God say, "Yishmael, my son, bless Me." Rabbi Yishmael responded, "May it be Your will that Your attribute of mercy will suppress Your anger, and Your mercy should prevail over Your other attributes..." Certainly, God could have acted without Rabbi Yishmael's request. But it is God's desire that His kindness be prompted by man. Therefore, He said, "Bless Me!" (Talmud – Brachot 7a, with Chiddushei Aggadot Rashba)
- Rabbeinu Bachya (Deut. 8:10)
- Maharal (Tifferet Yisrael 34)
- Abudraham (Seder HaTefilla Shel Chol)
- Sefer HaBahir (Ot Dalet)
- Nefesh HaChaim 2:4
- Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 1:7)
- Orach Chaim 214:1, with Mishnah Berurah
- Orach Chaim 5:1
- Exodus 20:7
- Orach Chaim 215:4
- Orach Chaim 62:2, with Mishnah Berurah 3
- Orach Chaim 198:1
- Talmud – Brachot 35b
- Orach Chaim 172:1
- Orach Chaim 214:1
- Orach Chaim 210:1, with Mishnah Berurah 19
- Orach Chaim 210:2
- Orach Chaim 206:3
- Orach Chaim 158:1
- Orach Chaim 178:3
- Orach Chaim 211
- Orach Chaim 168:6-7; 212:1
- Orach Chaim 174:8; 177:1-2
- Orach Chaim 167:2; 213:1
- Orach Chaim 204:8, with Mishnah Berurah 43, 55
- Orach Chaim 179:1; 217:1; Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2:57)
- Orach Chaim 178:1, with introduction of Mishnah Berurah
- Though in a life-threatening situation, when such food is permissible, a bracha would be recited (Orach Chaim 204:9). Similarly, on a fast day like Yom Kippur, a sick person under doctor’s orders to eat would make a bracha (Mishnah Berurah 204:46), but someone who is violating the fast would not (Orach Chaim 196:1).
- Talmud – Baba Kama 94a; Mishnah Berurah 196:3
- Orach Chaim 202:2, with Mishnah Berurah 19
- Orach Chaim 207:1
- Midrash Aggada (Genesis 21:33); see also Talmud – Sotah 10b; Midrash Tanchuma (Lech Lecha 12); Midrash Rabba (Genesis 54); Midrash Shochar Tov (Tehillim 110).
- OC. 168:6
- Orach Chaim 208:2
- Orach Chaim 208:1
- Orach Chaim 208:11
- Orach Chaim 307:1
- Orach Chaim 210:1
- Mishnah Berurah 184:20