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.
 Have pity on the city of thy sanctuary,
Jerusalem, the place of thy rest.
 Fill Zion with the celebration of thy wondrous deeds,
and thy temple with thy glory.
 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.
 The stomach will take any food,
yet one food is better than another.
 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.
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.