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Birkat Ha-Mazon (1)

Rav David Brofsky
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This week, we begin our study of the laws of Birkat Ha-Mazon. The Torah teaches: “And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you (Devarim 8:10). The Talmud (Berakhot 48b) derives from this verse that there is a Biblical commandment to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon after eating. The Rishonim (Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 19; Sefer Ha-Chinukh 430) count Birkat Ha-Mazon as one of the 613 mitzvot.

It is important to note the uniqueness of this blessing. Seemingly, this is the only blessing of Biblical origin (see, however, the Ramban’s comments to the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, mitzva 15, regarding Birkot Ha-Torah). This point raises numerous questions. Beyond determining which foods, and what quantity of them, generate an obligation to say Birkat Ha-Mazon, what are the characteristics of the Biiblical mitzva and how did one fulfill this mitzva before the Rabbis formulated the text of Birkat Ha-Mazon? In the upcoming shiurim, we will attempt to relate to these questions.

Over Which Foods Does One Say Birkat Ha-Mazon?

The Talmud cites a difference of opinion regarding whether Birkat Ha-Mazon, referred to by the mishna as the “three blessings” (see below), is said after eating bread or other foods. The mishna teaches:

If one has eaten grapes, figs, or pomegranates, he says a grace of three blessings (Birkat Ha-Mazon) after them; so says Rabban Gamliel. The Chakhamim, however, say: One blessing which includes three (Al Ha-Michya). R. Akiva says: If one ate only boiled vegetables, and that is his meal, he says after it Birkat Ha-Mazon.

While Rabban Gamliel maintains that Birkat Ha-Mazon should be said after eating any of the seven species (see Berakhot 37b) and R. Akiva believes that it should be said after any “meal,” regardless of its content, the Chakhamim rule that Birkat Ha-Mazon should only be said after eating bread.

This debate may highlight the nature of Birkat Ha-Mazon. According to Rabban Gamliel, Birkat Ha-Mazon is said after eating “the seven species with which the land of Israel is praised.” The gemara (ibid.) explains:

What is the reason of Rabban Gamliel? Because it is written, “A land of wheat and barley…” (Devarim 8:8), and it is also written, “A land wherein you shall eat bread without scarceness” (ibid. 8:9), and it is written, “And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God” (ibid. 8:10).

Rabban Gamliel apparently maintains that the blessing referred to in verse 10 modifies the previous two verses, which speak of the seven species with which the Land of Israel was blessed. Indeed, the verse continues that the blessing is recited “for the good land which He has given you.” Although one might suggest that R. Akiva and the Chakhamim view Birkat Ha-Mazon as a blessing said upon eating a meal (of bread or other foods), this verse, the text of the second and third blessings, as well as certain halakhot related to Birkat Ha-Mazon (see Berakhot 48b regarding mentioning the land of Israel and Yerushalayim; see also Rashi, Berakhot 20b, s.v. o derabannan) indicate that Birkat Ha-Mazon is fundamentally a blessing over the Land of Israel..

            The halakha is in accordance with the view of the Chakhamim. As the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Berakhot 3:11; see also Yerushalmi, Berakhot 6:1): “Upon whatever one says the blessing of Ha-Motzi before [eating], one says afterwards Birkat Ha-Mazon.”

The Quantity and Time for Birkat Ha-Mazon

            Although the Talmud assumes, based upon the verse cited above (Devarim 8:10), that Birkat Ha-Mazon is of Biblical origin, the gemara teaches that one becomes obligated only under certain conditions.

            The mishna (Berakhot 45a) cites a debate regarding the amount that one must each in order to incur an obligation to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon:

How much [must one have eaten] to count? As much as an olive (ke-zayit). R. Yehuda says: As much as an egg (ke-beitza).

The Talmud explains:

This would seem to show that R. Meir's standard is an olive and R. Yehuda's an egg … R. Meir holds that “you shall eat” refers to eating and “you shall be satisfied” to drinking, and the standard of eating is an olive. R. Yehuda holds that “and you shall eat and be satisfied” signifies an eating that gives satisfaction, and this must be as much as an egg.

R. Meir maintains that if one has “eaten,” which is define as having eaten the equivalent of the size of an olive, one must say Birkat Ha-Mazon, whereas according to R. Yehuda, one must also be “satisfied,” which we can assume occurs after eating an egg-size quantity of bread.

The Rishonim point out that the Talmud implies elsewhere (Berakhot 20b) that the shiurim of ke-beitza and ke-zayit are Rabbinic:

R. Avira discoursed – sometimes in the name of R. Ammi, and sometimes in the name of R. Assi – as follows: The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, it is written in your law, “Who does not regard persons and does not take bribes” (Devarim 10:17). But do you not regard the people of Israel? As it says, “The Lord lift up His countenance upon you” (Bamidbar 6:26). He replied to them: Should I not lift up My countenance for Israel. For I wrote for them in the Torah, “And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God” (Devarim 8:10), and they are particular [to say the grace] if the quantity is but an olive or an egg!

This source implies that one becomes obligation to say Birkat Ha-Mazon only after eating a large quantity, which “satisfies.” The Jewish People, however, choose to say Birkat Ha-Mazon after eating even smaller quantities of a ke-zayit or a ke-beitza.

            How, then, are we to understand the debate in the mishna?

Some Rishonim (Tosafot 49b, s.v. rabbi; Rosh 7:24; see also Rambam 1:1) explain that one incurs a Biblical obligation to say Birkat Ha-Mazon only after eating enough food to be fully satiated. The debate cited above refers to the Rabbinic obligation, which one incurs after eating either a ke-zayit or a ke-beitza. In contrast, the Ra’avad (Hasagot to Rif 12a; see also comments to Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 5:15) and Ramban (Milchamot Hashem 12a) explain that R, Yehuda and R. Meir debate the Biblical obligation of Birkat Ha-Mazon, while the other gemara (Berakhot 20b) is not accepted by these opinions.

This debate is crucial to understanding two other Talmudic passages.

In one place (Berakhot 48a), the gemara cites R. Yochanan, who rules that one who eats even a kezayit of bread can say the Birkat Ha-Mazon for others. This is somewhat perplexing in light of another passage (Berakhot 20b) that states that one who is obligated in a mitzva mi-derabannan may not fulfill the obligation of one who is obligated mi-de’oraita.

Tosafot, the Rosh, and Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 35b, s.v. u-veha) explain that as long as a person may theoretically incur a Biblical obligation, he may fulfill the obligation of another person even if technically his obligation is only mi-derabannan, such as the man who ate only a kezayit of bread. However, one who can only be obligated mi-derabannan, such as a child and possibly a woman (see below), may not fulfill the obligation of another who is obligated mi-de’oraita

The Ra’avad and Ramban disagree and explain that this passage is in accordance with the view of R. Meir, who believes that one who eats a kezayit of bread is Biblically obligated to say Birkat Ha-Mazon. Similarly, they derive from another passage (Berakhot 20b), which says that a woman may say Birkat Ha-Mazon for her husband, that women are Biblically obligated to say Birkat Ha-Mazon (see below).

            The Shulchan Arukh (186:2), following the view of Tosafot, rules that one who eats only a ke-zayit of bread is Rabbinically obligated to say Birkat Ha-Mazon. The Rema cites the Mordekhai (Berakhot 177), who maintains that one who did not drink is also only obligated mi-derabannan, and therefore one who says Birkat Ha-Mazon for other should drink as well.

            The Shulchan Arukh (184:4) adds that therefore, if one is in doubt if he said Birkat Ha-Mazon, he should say it, as this constitutes a safek de’oraita., a doubt regarding a Biblical commandment. The Mishna Berura (15) notes that this is true only if one is “satiated,” as if one ate a smaller amount, the obligation is only Rabbinic, and safek derabannan le-kula.

The Talmud teaches in numerous contexts that in order to violate certain prohibitions or in order to fulfill certain mitzvot that require “akhila” (eating), one must eat a specific amount (shi’ur), most often a ke-zayit (the size of an olive), in a certain amount of time. This amount of time is generally referred to “kedei akhilat peras,” the amount of time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread. This amount of time is relevant in the context of eating prohibited foods (see Keritut 12b), as well as when fulfilling mitzvot, such as matza (Berakhot 37b) and marror (Pesachim 114b). This amount of time is also relevant in the context of eating of Yom Kippur (see Tosefta, Yoma 4:3), although the shi’ur of eating on Yom Kippur is a ka-kotevet (the size of a date).

The Acharonim (see, for example, Magen Avraham 210:1; Panim Me’irot 2:27) question whether this shi’ur applies to Birkat Ha-Mazon. Some suggest that since Birkat Ha-Mazon is dependent upon “satisfaction” (sevi’a), as the verse states, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” (Devarim 8:10), and not “eating,” even one who eats the minimum amount over a longer period than kedei akhilat peras should be required to say Birkat Ha-Mazon. This is not the accepted view.

            Elsewhere, we discussed the measurements of a ke-zayit and ke-baitza, as well as the time period known as bi-kidei akhilat peras.

Women and Birkat Ha-Mazon

The gemara (Berakhot 20b) asks whether a woman’s obligation to say Birkat Ha-Mazon is mi-de’oraita or mi-derabannan. The Rishonim discuss this question and the conclusion of the gemara.

Why might one believe that women would not be obligated mi-de’oraita in Birkat Ha-Mazon? Birkat Ha-Mazon is not a mitzvat asei she’ha-zeman gerama, a time-bound mitzva, from which women are generally exempt. Rashi (s.v. de-rabannan) explains, based upon the verse “for the good land which He has given you,” that since the land is not divided among women, they are exempt from Birkat Ha-Mazon. Tosafot (s.v. nashim) disagrees and notes that the land of Israel is also not distributed to kohanim! Rather, since one must mention “berit ve-Torah” in Birkat Ha-Mazon, and women are technically exempt from both, they are not Biblically obligated.

Regarding the conclusion of the gemara, the Rif (see Rambam 12a), as well as the Ra’avad and Rashba (s.v. ela) rule that women are equally obligated in Birkat Ha-Mazon. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 5:1) writes that the gemara’s question was left unresolved.

The Shulchan Arukh (186:1) rules:

Women are obligated in Birkat Ha-Mazon. There is a doubt as to whether they are obligated Biblically and therefore exempt men, or if they are only obligated Rabinically and only exempt others who are only obligated Rabinically.

Based on our discussion above, what should a woman, who ate enough to be satiated, but is unsure whether she said Birkat Ha-Mazon, do? The Acharonim discuss this question at length (see, for example, Sha;are Teshuva 186:6 and Mishna Berura 199:3), as it touches upon broader legal principle as well, including the definition of “sefeik sefeika” (a ‘double doubt’, here being whether the woman is obligated in Birkat Ha-Mazon from the Torah, and whether or not she said Birkat Ha-Mazon). This question remains unresolved, as some (see, for example, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 44:11) rule that she should not repeat the Birkat Ha-Mazon, and some (see Sha’ar Efraim 11, Chayyei Adam 47:2) insist that she should say Birkat Ha-Mazon. The Mishna Berura (ibid.) concludes that one who wishes to rely upon the Sha’ar Efraim may do so.

We mentioned previously that the Sefer Ha-Michtam (Berakhot 45a) and R. Yehonatan of Luneil (Hilkhot He-Rif, Berakhot 45a) claim that this is why men and women cannot join together to form a zimun, as they may bear different levels of obligation. Other Rishonim offer different explanations.

            Next week, we will discuss the text of Birkat Ha-Mazon.


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