Appreciation brings joy. When someone gives you a present, the more knowledge you have about the source of the gift, the more it can be appreciated and the more joy it will bring.
And that is why, in Judaism, we take the time to say blessings. Baruch atah ... is the familiar start to the many blessings that we say. Baruch is Hebrew for "blessed," so it seems that we are continually blessing God. Does God really need our blessings?
Baruch is from the same root as bereichah, which means spring, where water comes from. Their connection is that they are both about "source." When we say a bracha, a blessing, we are acknowledging that everything has a source, and that source is God. We thank Him as the source of everything.
When we recite Grace After Meals (also referred to as bentching, meaning "to bless"), we are appreciating that this food came from God -- and that gives the enjoyment of the meal a whole new meaning. We recognize that we are truly blessed and give thanks. This appreciation brings joy.
God does not need our blessings. We need our blessings, for they get us back in touch with the root of it all. A good meal now becomes a connection to the Eternal.
On Shabbat and Yom Tov, and other occasions of celebration, we begin with the singing of Shir Ha-ma'a lot just before the bentching (Grace After Meals). This psalm was composed by King David and speaks of the Jewish people's return from exile to the Land of Israel.
There are many tunes to Shir Ha-ma'alot, and if you're not familiar with them, try your own. It's one of those songs that works with just about any tune.
There is also a traditional tune for the rest of the bentching that helps people familiarize themselves with the Hebrew. But remember, although Hebrew is preferred, God understands English and all languages. So feel free to express your thanks in the language in which you feel most comfortable.
Mayim Acharonim - "Final Waters"
Before saying Grace After Meals, we clean our fingertips. This is a small ceremony called Mayim Acharonim, which literally means "final waters," or, as some call it, the "Jewish fingerbowl."
Before we handle anything physically precious -- a silver goblet, a newborn baby, a priceless artifact, we make sure our hands are clean. It is a recognition that physical objects can have tremendous value. Mayim Acharonim recognizes that before we approach God and thank Him, we clean our hands.
After the singing of Shir Ha-maalot, one of the hosts will go to the kitchen and fill a small container with water. There are beautiful sets that can be purchased for this purpose, coming in a wide variety of styles -- a wishing well with the water held in a little bucket ... silver cup and saucer sets ... those made of brass ...
But all that is really needed is a simple cup and small bowl.
1. Fill the cup with water, set it in a small bowl and bring it to the table.
2. Pass it around to those present, with each person pouring a little of water over their fingertips (from the middle knuckle down), over the bowl.
3. When everyone has washed, remove the cup and bowl from the table before bentching.
When I was a little girl growing up, I remember my grandmother used to go and sit to one side after the meal and sing the bentching to herself.
I didn't even know she was bentching until I grew up and started experiencing traditional Judaism as an adult. After the Friday night meal where I was a guest, people passed around little books (bentchers), and began singing that familiar tune. That's what she had been doing all those years ago!
But why didn't she tell me? Why didn't she teach it to me? Perhaps she knew that I wouldn't appreciate it or embrace it. Not then... but now.
How wise she was. I know somewhere in heaven she is listening with great nachas every time I sing that song of thanks.
* * *
I love bentching at the Shabbat table because it always evokes an emotion in me, as memories of my first Shabbat come flooding back.
There was a particular father that would teach his children the importance of bentching after the meal, by always sing the bentching out loud, slowly, so that everyone could follow.
It was such a warm feeling, seeing him take his little daughter onto his lap, swaying with her as he bentched, all of the kids joining in.
Now I watch as my own husband holds our littlest one, carefully singing each word clearly, so that all our little girls can keep up and learn it properly.
* * *
I find that bentching has two qualities -- physical and spiritual. The spiritual aspect has to do with the words themselves. I find that just saying them has an effect, as if the Hebrew is magical and can bring holiness to your table.
But hey -- after a big meal, you feel full, and you don't always feel like thanking God. Sometimes you just want to get into your pj's and go to bed. That's where the physical stuff comes in. It's the time you have to go that extra mile, even if you're not in the mood. It's called discipline. And it's good for me.
* * *
I was studying in Israel when my parents asked me to meet them in Turkey, as they were traveling together for business.
I hadn't been keeping Shabbat for very long, but there were some basic components that I was determined to keep, and one was bentching.
In Turkey, you don't exactly advertise that you are Jewish, so I kept my head covered with a baseball cap, and let's just say that I bentched quietly. Very quietly.
* * *
At one of my first Shabbat meals, I saw a cup being passed around, somewhere way down the table. Before I knew it, someone was passing it to me. I figured this must be another kind of after-meal kiddush, so I went to pick it up and drink.
Before I had barely lifted it off the table, the guy next to me grabbed my arm and motioned for me to just pass it on.
Later, I realized that this was Mayim Acharonim -- water to wash your fingertips with -- and that the guy next to me had just saved me from tremendous embarrassment.
We became instant friends, and to this day I will always be grateful to him for "showing me the ropes."
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik (Jason Aronson Pub.)