The Magical Power of Birkat Hamazon – and the Birkon that Can Help You Access It

0
128

By Chana Nestlebaum and Mozelle Forman

The Talmud (Pesahim 118a) teaches that parnasah – earning a livelihood – is as difficult as the miracle of the splitting of the sea. The hardships entailed in earning a living are well-known to virtually all of us – not only those who struggle to make ends meet, but also those who have secured a livelihood through the investment of a great deal of time and effort.

The challenges of parnasah can be traced back to Gan Eden, where Adam and Havah ate from the forbidden tree, on account of which Gd pronounced, “Beze’at apecha tochal lehem – With the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (Beresheet 3:19). Ever since then, human beings have had to exert effort to obtain their material needs.

However, in His infinite compassion, Hashem has given us, His beloved nation, the solution, a means of easing the process of parnasah.

In the Book of Devarim (8:10), the Torah commands, “Ve’achalta vesavata uverachta et Hashem Elokecha – You shall eat and be satiated, and you shall bless Hashem your Gd.” This verse introduces the well-known mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon – blessing Gd after meals. Less known, however, is that this mitzvah is the key that opens the doors to our parnasah.

Turning On the Ignition

Imagine a man gets into his car, in a rush to get somewhere. He adjusts the headlights, fiddles with the sound system, sets the temperature, and puts his destination into his GPS. And then he wonders: “Why am I not getting anywhere?”

The reason, of course, is that he hasn’t ignited the engine.

In their effort to earn a parnasah and enjoy Hashem’s blessings, people can be very much like this man. They focus on their meetings, their deals and their paychecks, but they forget to ignite the “engine” that will bring them where they want to go. Birkat Hamazon is the key that turns on the engine.

Many sources in Torah literature note the powerful connection between reciting Birkat Hamazon with kavanah (concentration), and success in parnasah.  The anonymous Medieval work Sefer Hahinuch (mitzvah 430), for example, writes: I have a tradition from my teachers, may Hashem protect them, that whoever is meticulous regarding Birkat Hamazon will have his parnasah available for him in a dignified manner all his life.” The Maharal of Prague (Rav Yehuda Loew, d. 1609), in Netivot Olam (chapter 18), comments:

Our sages taught that it is more difficult to obtain one’s livelihood than it is to bring redemption for the nation. This being the case, it makes sense that we must bless Gd for it with all our hearts. Birkat Hamazon is the most important of all blessings. The greatest praise to Gd is to recognize that He provides sustenance.

Rav Haim Vital (1543-1620), in Shaareh Kedushah (vol. 1), says the following about Birkat Hamazon: “In reward for fulfilling this mitzvah, He will open His treasure-trove of bounty for you, and you will always be sustained through His generous hand.”

Birkat Hamazon impacts not only an individual’s parnasah, but also the parnasah of the entire Jewish Nation. We read in Megilat Rut (3:7), “After Boaz ate and drank, he gladdened his heart.” Rav Moshe Alshich (1508-1593) raises the question of why Boaz is described here as having “gladdened his heart.” He explains that Boaz experienced joy through the recitation of Birkat Hamazon after his meal. His heart was gladdened because now that he had blessed Gd for his food, the entire nation would receive sustenance in his merit, as though he had distributed to each member of the nation his individual share of the food. Indeed, the Zohar states that all Am Yisrael receive their sustenance through the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon. (See Sifteh Kohen, Parashat Vayeshev.)

Beyond providing us the key to parnasah, the rabbis teach, reciting Birkat Hamazon from a birkon (written text of Birkat Hamazon) and focusing on the meaning of the words protects us from harm, brings long life, is a segulah to have children, and increases blessing in everything we do.

Gratitude – The Essence of Our Relationship with Gd

What makes Birkat Hamazon so powerful?  Why is it the key to parnasah?

The secret to Birkat HaMazon is that it expresses our gratitude to Hashem – especially when we say it with concentration – and gratitude is the essence of our relationship with Hashem. In fact, the origin of our name as Jews is Yehudi, a name that originates from Leah’s exclamation of gratitude when naming her fourth son, Yehudah: “Hapa’am odeh et Hashem – This time I thank Hashem” (Beresheet 29:35). Gratitude is the channel through which we connect to Hashem, and through which He delivers His bounty to us. As the Zohar teaches, “If one blesses Hashem with joy and benevolence, blessings will be granted to him with joy and benevolence.”

But why, from all the gifts and blessings with which we’re surrounded, is receiving food the centerpiece of our exercise in gratitude?

Food represents Hashem’s love for us. The Zohar (Parashat Terumah) asks why Hashem created food as our sustenance. Why not sunlight and water, or air? The Zohar answers that Hashem wants us to know, on a daily basis, that He loves us. He wants to show us in a tangible way that He sustains us, just as He provided us mann in the wilderness, and just as a mother lovingly feeds her children. For good reason, then, it is specifically after eating, the greatest manifestation of Hashem’s love for us, that we express our gratitude to Him.

“Slowly, One Word at a Time”

Ironically, despite the explicit teaching of our rabbis pointing to Birkat Hamazon as the most powerful key to parnasah, many of us neglect this recitation, feeling that it takes too long.

Talk about a bad business practice! We cannot even imagine what we miss when we mindlessly run through Birkat Hamazon, or just skip it.

Why do we do this? What prevents us from accessing this amazing opportunity in the best way possible – with care and kavanah?

In his introduction to his book Birkat Hamazon Bechavanah, Rabbi Yisrael Bitan posits:

The mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon is taken lightly due to everyone’s familiarity with it. We’re trained to recite it from our earliest youth, and we tend to fulfill this mitzvah in our adulthood with no more thought than we did as little children…mumbling the words under their breath without giving a thought to their meaning…swallowing them along with their dessert.

Coming at the end of the meal, Rabbi Bitan writes, Birkat Hamazon is often “one more thing to get done” before moving onto the “real” agenda of the day. Therefore, it’s often recited in a rush. But in so doing, we forfeit the abundance of blessing that this precious mitzvah offers us.

The proper way to recite Birkat Hamazon is taught to us by the great kabbalist Rav Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1587), in his work Reshit Hochmah (chapter 15):

We should recite the blessing slowly, one word at a time, showing that we mean to praise Him for each of His gifts. We should recite these blessings out loud so that our family members will hear us. Saying the words out loud is a key strategy for keeping our minds on the meaning of the words we utter. It was the practice of Harav Moshe Cordovero to read Birkat Hamazon from a written text to aid in concentrating on the words’ meaning.

Rabbi Bitan writes: “We should take care to recite it from a prayer book so that we will be less distracted by extraneous thoughts. When we gaze at the holy letters, especially those of Hashem’s name, it inspires us to recite the words enthusiastically and with concentration.”

In fact, Rav Elazar Shach (1899-2001) would advise those who approached him for a blessing to recite Birkat Hamazon from a birkon, explaining that this is one of the greatest ways to bring blessing into one’s life.

A “Life-Changing” Impact

To help Jews everywhere gain access to the blessings that result from the proper recitation of Birkat Hamazon, and at the request of community members, the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation has produced a Sephardic version of its acclaimed and beloved Illuminated Birkat Hamazon. This masterpiece offers meaning, inspiration, and tools to help every Jew fulfill the precious mitzvah of Birkat HaMazon at the very highest standard.  The project is sponsored by Sandy and Judi Saka of Miami Beach, Florida, in loving memory of their dear parents, Joseph and Becky Saka, a”h. Their hope is that community members will recognize the golden opportunity they are given every day to bring parnasah and blessing into their lives, and capitalize on this opportunity to its fullest.

Those of us familiar with the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation associate it with its mission to spread awareness of the mitzvot of ahavat Yisrael (love for one’s fellow Jew) and shemirat halashon (avoiding forbidden speech). The Foundation has published numerous books based on the teachings of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the “Chofetz Chaim” (1839-1933), including A Daily Companion; Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day; Positive Word Power, Master Your Words, Master Your Life; and many more. Additionally, the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation is well-known for its annual, worldwide Tisha B’Av event. Furthermore, over 100,000 people a week use the Foundation’s materials to grow in their shemirat halashon and middot (character).

What inspired this renowned organization, which focuses its work on the area of purity of speech, to publish an illuminated birkon?  How does this project fit into the Foundation’s mission?

One of the directors of the foundation explained: “Once we have improved our power of speech, we are able to use that speech to express our gratitude to Hashem with joy and a pure heart when reciting Birkat Hamazon, and the impact this will have on people is life-changing.”

Many might be wondering; do we really need yet another birkon? After all, most of us already have a drawer full of birkonim which were collected over the years from semahot. I can attest that when I have company, and I bring out birkonim for all my guests, a lively game of Jewish geography ensues: “Whose son is this?”; “Wow, that couple is already married 27 years?” (Yes, I have “mature” birkonim…); “Remember what a beautiful wedding that was?” So, who needs another birkon?

The answer is that this birkon is needed by each and every one of us who wants to improve his kavanah during birkat hamazon and reap the benefits of observing the mitzvah properly.

Each page of the Illuminated Birkat Hamazon features a beautiful photograph that captures the essence of the berachah, along with a clear translation and side notes that elucidate the meaning. The birkon begins with an inspiring overview of why we recite Birkat HaMazon and what it accomplishes. But most importantly, the Hebrew words are large, with just a few set on each line, and with the English translation right underneath it to help one understand what he is saying. This helps ensure that Birkat Hamazon is recited slowly and with kavanah. The birkon thus offers anyone who seeks a more meaningful connection to Hashem all the tools he needs to build this connection every day.

An Experience, Rather Than a Ritual

Don’t take our word for it. Here are some of the reactions that the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation has received from those who have used the Ashkenazic Illuminated Birkat Hamazon:

“Using the bencher has uplifted my recitation of Birkat Hamazon from barely pronouncing the words correctly, to actually understanding what I’m saying and making me slow down and have kavana.”

“Its beauty and visual appeal remind me when I begin that what I’m about to do is IMPORTANT.  Reciting Birkat Hamazon isn’t a task to just get over with anymore. It has become part of my day’s itinerary.”  

“Your birkon helps Birkat Hamazon become an experience rather than a ritual.”

“Absolutely beautiful, inspiring to use – illuminating and soul-stirring.”

This special birkon, which has already helped thousands to access the great benefits of saying Birkat Hamazon with sincere feeling and focus, is available in bookstores or on the CCHF website cchfgobal.org/shop. It is also available in a beautiful Lucite case featuring six birkonim for your table or as a gift. You can also customize it with gold stamping for weddings and other occasions.

Having used this uniquely inspiring and educational edition, we encourage everyone to add it to their home’s collection, so that it will enhance the observance of this lofty mitzvah and unlock the countless blessings that it offers.