Grace After Meals: FFOZ’s New Book, Pt. 2

I am reviewing a wonderful resource by FFOZ (ffoz.org) which a great learning aid for Grace After Meals (Birkhat HaMazon). As I mentioned last time, you can order a book about Grace After Meals (called Breaking Bread) as well as your own Grace After Meals prayer book (called We Thank You) and CD’s that give melodies for the Hebrew and even the English. I hope many Messianic families will grow into this part of Jewish life and that the FFOZ materials will helps us mature as a movement.

In today’s installment, I want to critically review the claim of the authors of Breaking Bread that Grace After Meals is a custom pre-dating Yeshua and that Yeshua himself quite likely followed this tradition.
……………………………………

The traditional commandment to pray Grace After Meals is based on Deuteronomy 8:10. It is enumerated in the 613 by the rabbinic sages as a commandment from the Torah. The command to bless God after meals is d’oraita (written) while the words of the prayer are d’rabbanan (rabbinic). That is, Deuteronomy 8:10 could be interpreted as a commandment to bless God after each meal while the actual words to say are a tradition.

In Breaking Bread, authors Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby suggest that the invitation to bless and the first three benedictions (out of four) in the Birkhat HaMazon were already in existence in Yeshua’s time (though wording was variable). They note that the first written form of the entire blessing is from 1000 C.E. Yet they list a number of evidences for an early date for this custom.

What I will do below is list the major evidence and give my own evaluative thoughts. How ancient is Birkhat HaMazon?

It is not that I believe we should only practice Jewish traditions that go back to Yeshua’s time. Not at all. I believe in the value of Jewish tradition and keeping Torah in solidarity with Israel. Yet it would be interesting to know if this custom was fixed in Yeshua’s time.

**Note: If you get bored with the details, skip to the summary at the end.**

An Early Parallel in Ben Sirach (c. 180 B.C.E.)
One reference that the authors use suggesting an early form of the Birkhat HaMazon is Sirach 36:12-14, 17-19 (this is from the Apocrypha and is also known as Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sira):

Have mercy, O Lord, upon the people called by thy name,
upon Israel, whom thou hast likened to a first-born son.
[13] Have pity on the city of thy sanctuary,
Jerusalem, the place of thy rest.
[14] Fill Zion with the celebration of thy wondrous deeds,
and thy temple with thy glory.
……

[17] Hearken, O Lord, to the prayer of thy servants,
according to the blessing of Aaron for thy people,
and all who are on the earth will know
that thou art the Lord, the God of the ages.

[18] The stomach will take any food,
yet one food is better than another.

[19] As the palate tastes the kinds of game,
so an intelligent mind detects false words.

This part of Ben Sirach was probably added during the Maccabean period (around 160 B.C.E.) and may not be original to the book. Still, current scholarship views Ben Sirach 36 as ancient, even if not original (Ben Sirach is from about 180 and this may have been added around 160).

It is important to note that nothing in the text of Ben Sirach identifies this as a prayer after meals. In the context, chapter 36 is a sort of prayer inserted into a wisdom text with no context before or after to give it a location in history or narrative. So why say this has anything to do with the early history of the Birkhat HaMazon? Because it has some striking similarities to the third blessing.

Does this text in Ben Sirach suggest that Birkhat HaMazon was already a custom in Israel? Or, vice-versa, did this text in Ben Sirach become a source for later tradition?

Another Early Parallel, Jubilees 22:6-10 (c. 150 B.C.E.)
This text does not contain any of the wording of the Birkhat HaMazon. Rather, it shows that the idea of blessing God after meals was around quite early.

Jubilees is a retelling and expansion of the stories from the book of Genesis. Jubilees 22 is a story about Abraham on his deathbed. Jacob brings him a meal and an offering to God. He does so with the intention of enabling his dying father to “eat and bless the Creator of all before he died.”

In other words, by 150 B.C.E., Judaism, or at least some segments of Judaism, understood blessing God after eating to be a biblical custom.

The Dubious Evidence from The Letter of Aristeas (c. 200 B.C.E.)
The authors cite the Letter of Aristeas as a possible indication of a “set custom and procedure for blessing.”

This reference shows little and adds little to their case. It involves a priest being called in by an Egyptian official in the court of Ptolemy II to make a blessing at a public event. The blessing was before the meal, not after, and the text does not indicate that the priest followed any set form. In my opinion, this reference adds nothing to the case the authors wished to make.

Evidence From Qumran
The Essenes at Qumran made table fellowship a major part of their religious practice. We should expect that, if a custom of Grace After Meals existed in Second Temple Judaism, we would find it at Qumran.

The authors cite 4Q434a (document #434 found in cave 4 at Qumran) as a parallel to Birkhat HaMazon. Biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld published an article suggesting this fragmentary prayer was a form of Grace After Meals specifically to be used in the house of a mourner. Weinfeld further argued that the Qumran text contains specific language from the rabbinic tradition applying Grace After Meals to the situation of a house in mourning.

This is significant because, if he is right, this would suggest that later Birkhat HaMazon customs may have already been well under way by the time the Qumran document was written. In other words, some of the current practices of Birkhat HaMazon may have been fixed quite early, possibly before the first century.

The Dubious Evidence From the Jerusalem Talmud
The Jerusalem Talmud (a.k.a. Palestinian Talmud or Yerushalmi, c. 400 C.E.) has some of the early rabbis discussing the regulations for Grace After Meals. The authors of Breaking Bread cite this as additional evidence for the early adoption of Birkhat HaMazon customs. While this evidence should be mentioned, it proves nothing. The Talmud is widely believed to take later customs and put them in the mouths of early rabbis. In fact, the Talmud claims that Abraham fully practiced all the rabbinic traditions!

The Dubious Evidence of 1 Cor. 10:16
The authors claim that “cup of blessing” in 1 Corinthians 10:16 is a technical term referring to holding a cup of wine while reciting Birkhat HaMazon. Again, this evidence is worth mentioning, but it is not hard to imagine that any religious community, applying any religious custom of praying while holding a cup of wine, might use the term “cup of blessing.” The most we can say is that the New Testament demonstrates that early believers said blessings over a cup of wine. In what context and for what specific ritual purpose they did so is unclear.

The Evidence of Mark 6:39-40
This is an interesting piece of evidence. I deem it inconclusive, but worth noting. When Yeshua gave instructions for the feeding of the five thousand, he instructed that they be seated in fifties and hundreds. David Instone-Brewer is one scholar who sees here a possible parallel to the regulations for reciting an invitation (Zimmun) to bless before the Birkhat HaMazon. The invitation to bless varies depending on the size of the group. And fifty and one hundred are breaking points for altering the version of the prayer.

Could Yeshua have followed an ancient custom of table fellowship regulations, perhaps from the Pharisaic khaverim or fellowship groups, when he arranged the five thousand to be fed? All I can say is that I don’t have a better suggestion for why he arranged them in fifties and hundreds. I would have to admit that this is a possible historical context from which to understand the story. The idea has merit but cannot be proved.
………………….

Summary
Is the custom of reciting a blessing after meals ancient and did it precede the life of Yeshua?

I think the evidence from Jubilees and Qumran does suggest that the idea of a blessing existed.

Was the ancient form of the prayer related to the current form?

Here we have much less to go on. The authors admit that the form of the prayer varied until it became fixed around 1000 C.E. Yet it could be that some of the wording was already in use in Second Temple Judaism. The problem is we have no direct evidence that this language was already in use.

For example, though the passage from Ben Sirach includes wording similar to the third blessing, we do not know if the anonymous writer of Ben Sirach chapter 36 was even praying Grace After Meals at all.

More convincing is the wording of Qumran document 4Q434a which follows some specifics of the rabbinic regulations for Grace After Meals in a house of mourning. This is at least some evidence of an early accumulation of wording that remained in the tradition.

I think we can say that there is too little evidence to determine if Judaism at that time had a widely used and somewhat fixed prayer for Grace After Meals. I believe the authors of Breaking Bread have overstated their case, but have provided us with a rich summary of evidence to ponder the possibility.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, FFOZ, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Prayer, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Grace After Meals: FFOZ’s New Book, Pt. 2

  1. ckinbar says:

    IMO, it is crucial to ask why it is important to know to what extent the Birkat Hamazon may have existed in the time of Yeshua and may have been practiced by him. That is, is it important only from an historical or academic perspective, or is there another reason to investigate this subject?

    Based on conversations I’ve had with FFOZ adherents, it seems they believe that IF Yeshua practiced something THEN it is intended to be practiced by all believers. For example, since Yeshua held a Passover Seder, the Seder is intended for all believers. If so, there is an understandable urgency to place the Birkat Hamazon in late Second Temple times.

    I see two fundamental flaws in this pursuit. First, Yeshua was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His death was for all, but his life clearly has divergent implications for Jews and non-Jews. Failure to deal with those implications is a profound weakness.

    Second, whatever practices adopted by Yeshua (whether the Passover Seder or the blessing after meals) have changed very significantly since the first century C.E. For example, we can clearly document the development of the Seder in the Mishnah and the Tosefta (both edited in the third century C.E), the Talmuds (edited circa the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.), and later Jewish tradition. Therefore, whatever Yeshua practiced, it was certainly not in the form we know it today.

    On what basis, then, do Jews, including Messianic Jews, practice these things today? Not because Yeshua may have practiced them in some early form, but because they are deeply embedding in ongoing Jewish tradition. They express Jewish communal commitments and values.

    Returning to the FFOZ booklet on the Birkat Hamazon: I would challenge FFOZ to get involved with non-FFOZ scholars who also research the same subjects. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t get the impression that they engage directly in forums such as the Society for Biblical Literature, the Association for Jewish Studies, or the Evangelical Theological Society. They should be presenting papers and getting critiqued.

    But if my impression is correct, readers of FFOZ material need to beware that this material has not passed through the normative scholarly process and is therefore not to be considered true scholarship.

  2. judeoxian says:

    As an FFOZ employee, I can tell you that we will readily admit that our materials represent our perspective. We do not claim to be scholars in the technical sense of the word (ie, presenting papers at scholarly conferences). This is a goal that may we have for future generations of FFOZ teachers, but as of now we are not regulars in the evangelical scholarly world.

    And whereas we have not engaged these theological circles, the growing FFOZ library utilizes resources from a wide range of theological perspectives, including scholarly books and journals from everything from Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Conservative Judaism, to Evangelical scholarship.
    A simple glance at our endnotes will show you some of the titles we have in our library. I don’t say this in any boastful way, but to simply make the point that we are engaging reputable sources.

    However, given this, we are nonetheless fully committed to opening up our work for critique and criticism to those circles that we are connected to. In fact, this is an integral part of our resource development. Not only to we have multiple staff teachers (and yes, we do disagree on things from time to time) that each leave their own “fingerprints” on every resource, but we also have a board of theological reviewers from different perspectives within the Messianic Jewish movement who review our material before it goes to press.

    Though we certainly see the value of scholarship, First Fruits remains primarily a teaching ministry that seeks for tangible change in the lives of believers. Our primary focus is not academics for the sake of academics. We teach with the purpose of encouraging people to be better disciples of the Master and to walk as he walked. Though the Master was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, he never turned away those Gentiles who sought after him. He himself commissioned his apostles to make disciples of all nations.

    Seth Dralle
    Assistant Teacher
    First Fruits of Zion

  3. Rabbi Carl:

    In FFOZ’s defense, while you may have known some FFOZ adherents in the past who believed in practicing only that Judaism which could be shown to exist in Yeshua’s time, I assure you that is not how FFOZ staff are living today. The FFOZ leadership that I am friends with are living a Jewish life with integrity and fully understand the concept of Judaism and the tradition of Israel. I have heard more than once one of the leaders saddened by the existence of silly, self-defined Torah observance (his words exactly).

    As for why anyone would want to know if a custom in Judaism existed in Yeshua’s time, I certainly would. I would be interested from the perspective of knowing and understanding the life of Yeshua. I want to know what sort of Judaism he practiced.

    Derek

  4. ckinbar says:

    Derek,

    I didn’t mean to imply that knowing these things accurately is not important. It just isn’t clear that’s the underlying impetus of the booklet you describe.

    Concerning Seth’s comment, I think that the first group of scholars they should engage with is those at the Association for Jewish Studies, primarily but not exclusively Jewish scholars.

    Also, Seth wrote, “Though we certainly see the value of scholarship, First Fruits remains primarily a teaching ministry that seeks for tangible change in the lives of believers.”

    But teaching that is not based on the best scholarship will be weaker than teaching that has a broader and deeper foundation. And the results in people’s lives will be questionable if the basis of the teaching is not sound. It would be far better for FFOZ to make itself vulnerable by presenting papers at these conferences and engaging in the process of communal scholarship before they spread teaching throughout the Body of Messiah.

    Carl

  5. mchuey says:

    The need for Messianic teachers and leaders to be engaged in some kind of larger theological discussion is not something unimportant. We do need to demontrate competence in knowing that we are reasoning with the proposals made in the world of Biblical Studies. But in the comments made above about the Breaking Break booklet, I assume that we are going to hold all Messianic teachers and leaders to the same standard?

    Does it not bother you that a David Stern, for example, wrote no introduction to each of the NT books in his Jewish New Testament Commentary? Does it not bother you, for example, that most Messianic leaders demonstrate some competency in Hebrew, but often no competency in Greek? Does it not bother you, for example, that most Messianic leaders have no idea what German higher criticism is and just run right into the arms of an historically disengaged Orthodox Judaism? Does it not bother you, for example, that many Messianic leaders have not even been to college–much less any graduate studies beyond college?

    Like all new religious movements, we have to move one step at a time ahead in a logical fashion. We are still in Chapter 1 of our development, whereas the things you have detailed are likely in Chapters 3 or 4! The very fact that we are “Messianic,” believing in Yeshua in a Jewish context, means that even if we were to all have Ph.Ds we could still be kept out of those organizations. Right now, our faith community is still in the “movement” stage, and some things have to wait until we arrive at the “force” stage. You look at the historical development of any new religious movement since the Reformation, and the Messianic movement is following such a pattern.

  6. boazm says:

    Derek,

    Thank you for presenting this on your blog, which I personally feel is one of the most well developed blogs in Messianic studies.

    In short, I agree with Carl about the need for accountability. First Fruits does have internal systems of accountability that demand that all of our works, writings, teachings go through an external collaboration process. Most recently our new book, Hallowed Be Thy Name: Sanctifying God’s Sacred Name, went through countless reviews by various Messianic and Christian leaders prior to it being published. The book, while only 61 pages went through our system of collaboration for two years. The topic, a simple one, teaches not use the holy Name of God. This convention while upheld in greater Judaism as basic and necessarily is, for the most part ignored in the academic worlds of the SBL, ETS, etc. In this case, and many others our accountability to these scholars comes via our heavy use, and knowledge of their writings. Which is why this short book has 12 pages of endnotes (150 in total).

    First Fruits is concerned about function. We want to see people embrace the commandments, properly, with balance and sincerity. Breaking Break is well sourced, well noted, well researched. It and its companion work, We Thank You (bencher), etc. are excellent examples of the strength of our teaching staff, their knowledge and their skills. I am very proud of the men that the Father enables me to work with each day. We have guys of staff with degrees in theology, guys that are fluent in original languages (yes even Greek) and are very knowledgeable in Jewish literature. They are all very good and solid teachers. But they are all concerned about actions and applications—to me this is their greatest credential.

    Scholarship at times gets caught up in various arguments and debates that sterilize God’s word. We (FFOZ) want to bring God’s word into action.

    Breaking Bread asks people to say grace after meals. It trains people to understand mealtime blessings, blessings for various foods, and gives them the tools to make this commandment a part of our daily lives.

    After you have eaten today–say a blessing.

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