In Parshat Eikev we find the Biblical source for Grace after Meals. “And you will eat and be sated and bless the Lord your God on the goodly land that He has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10).” The verse clearly states that the obligation to bless God is only incumbent upon one who has eaten to the point of satiation (כדי שביעה). Yet rabbinic legislation imposed the obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon upon those who had consumed a mere olive’s-bulk (כזית) of bread (Mishnah Berakhot 7:2).
Why did the sages exponentially expand halakhah, saddling Jewry with a heavy burden of religious demands above and beyond the already weighty yoke of Biblical commandments? In some cases the sages utilized their legislative powers to advance a national or social agenda. Some enactments were intended to remind us of the Temple זכר למקדש (Mishnah Sukkah 3:12). Others were necessary to protect social justice תיקון עולם, in cases where Torah law alone proved to be insufficient (Mishnah Gittin 4:3). Other decrees were promulgated to maintain peaceful relations between people מפני דרכי שלום (Mishnah Gittin 5:8) or to avoid acrimony משום איבה (Semakhot 5:11).
It is generally assumed that most rabbinic laws serve as protective measures – that is, they constitute the proverbial “fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1). This is most evident in the very first Mishnah, studied upon the commencement of the 13th Daf Yomi cycle, which has just begun. The Mishnah states that the evening Shema may be recited as late as dawn. Yet the sages demanded the recitation of Shema no later than midnight, in order to distance man from sin להרחיק את האדם מן העבירה(Mishnah Berakhot 1:1). Why? After a difficult day of backbreaking physical labor in the fields, the Jew returning home at night might easily be inclined to eat and sleep prior to fulfilling his liturgical responsibilities. In that case, sleep might overtake him and the opportunity to perform the mitzvah before dawn would be lost. To prevent that possible scenario, the sages sharply shortened the permitted time frame (Berakhot 4b).
With respect to Birkat Hamazon, it is difficult to see why lowering the eating threshold from a full repast to a small portion of bread can serve as a safeguard. Satiation is a subjective criterion. It cannot be quantified, nor can it result in the creation of a uniform measurement for all people. Indeed, by increasing the number of meals (or even snacks) requiring the recitation of Birkat Hamazon, this rabbinic rule arguably makes it more likely, not less likely, that the individual Jew will violate halakhah.
Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that some other consideration must have motivated the sages to change the contours of the law governing Grace after Meals.
The popular notion that most rabbinic laws are protective measures is largely the result of the historical dominance of the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) over its counterpart, the Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi). In Tannaitic literature, we rarely find a statement that explicitly describes a rabbinic enactment as a safeguard distancing one from sin. The Mishnah Berakhot quoted above is, indeed, the only such example in the entire Six Orders of Mishnah. In the Babylonian Talmud the expression גזירה שמא “a decree lest…” appears 128 times. It never appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. The Bavli understood many rules to be part of the protective fence; the Yerushalmi understood those same rules to be expressions of piety.
The Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael viewed the lower threshold for Birkat Hamazon not as a protective measure, but as a praiseworthy standard of piety meriting divine beneficence. “The angels questioned God: It says in your Torah ‘God Who shows no favor and takes no bribe (Deuteronomy 10:17).’ But You do favor Israel, as it is written, ‘May the Lord lift up His face to you (Numbers 6:26).’ God responded: How could I not show them favor? I wrote in My Torah, “Eat and be sated and bless.’ And they are stringent upon themselves (מדקדקים על עצמם) to bless after an olive’s bulk or an egg’s-bulk (Berakhot 20b).” [The apparent contradiction between these verses was a source of difficulty for the sages with their gentile interlocutors (Rosh Hashanah 17b). Yet anyone familiar with Biblical Hebrew will recognize that, in fact, no contradiction exists. Deuteronomy 10:17 speaks of human faces, while Numbers 6:26 speaks of the divine Face. God promises to show Israel a peaceful countenance and not a wrathful one (Sifre Numbers 42; Tosfot Niddah 70b).]
Man’s most fervent prayer is for God to show him mercy to an extent beyond that which our actions merit (לפנים משורת הדין). Such was Rabbi Ishmael Kohen Gadol’s prayer as he stood directly before God in the Holy of Holies. The Talmud, venturing far into dangerous theological territory, attributes this prayer to God Himself (Berakhot 7a).
For man to be the beneficiary of God’s gratuitous beneficence, he must do something for God above and beyond the mere letter of the law. Reciting Grace after a less than satisfying meal is one way to do that. The hope is that the Almighty will then bless that small morsel of food so that it should fully satisfy our gustatory needs (Kli Yakar Nmbers 6:26).
The late Second Temple period saw many Jewish groups committed to extra-Biblical religious practices as a means of currying divine favor. Haberim ate mundane foods according to Levitical purity standards required for sanctified food (Tosefta Demai 2:2). The Dead Sea Sect (at Qumran) imposed upon its members many additional observances and lifestyle restrictions. The Hemerobaptists (טובלי שחרית) insisted upon ritual ablution every morning (Tosefta Yadayim 2:20). The eccentric piety of the “Seven Pharisees” made them the subject of derision (Mishnah Sotah 3:4; Sotah 22b). Extremists mourning the loss of Jerusalem turned to radical asceticism (Tosefta Sotah 15:11).
But does God prefer (a) unsolicited gestures of religious zeal or (b) steady commitment to expressly commanded dictates of His law? The answer is found in Samuel’s rebuke of Saul after the battle with Amalek and after Saul’s tragic decision to spare the flock for sacrifices. “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken better than the fat of rams (I Samuel 15:22).”
Rabbi Hanina succinctly and definitively concluded, “Greater is he who is commanded and fulfills the command than is he who fulfills it though not commanded גדול מצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה(Kiddushin 31a).” Tosfot explains that he who is commanded agonizes over the possibility of sin, while the voluntary pietist has no such qualms. Ritba notes that the evil inclination (שטן) tempts us to violate commandments, but plays no role in suppressing optional religious observances. These answers stray into the field of psychology. Ritba offers another explanation, however, that is purely theological. While God appreciates our spiritual enthusiasm and desire to serve Him, only those actions commanded by God are meritorious. The commandment has to have been delivered by God and binding on someone (even if the person performing the ritual is technically exempt). Any other action or refraining from acting – i.e., anything that does not reach the level of formal commandment – is not material.
While Rabbi Hanina’s dictum has become universally accepted in rabbinic Judaism, it was far from obvious to his contemporaries. Rav Yosef was blind. The Tannaitic debate as to whether or not blind people are obligated in mitzvoth had yet to be conclusively decided. Rav Yosef said, “At first I thought that if it were determined that blind people are exempt from commandments, I would make a party for the scholars; I would be exempt yet still fulfilling the mitzvoth. Now that I have heard the dictum of Rabbi Hanina, the opposite is true. I will make a party for the scholars if I find out that blind people are obligated (Baba Kamma 87a).”
Though the sages declared many pious acts to be obligatory for all Jews, there were limits on their legislative prerogatives. No decree could be issued if the majority of the community would be unable to adhere to it אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אא”כ רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה (Baba Bathra 60b). Since being required to recite Birkat Hamazon after small meals is not in that category, there was little barrier to the creation of that requirement.
Sometimes the public itself is the source of religious obligation extending beyond that demanded by the Torah or the Sages. Three examples: The daughters of Israel themselves imposed upon themselves the seven-clean-day waiting period after sighting even the smallest amount of menstrual blood (Niddah 66b). The lay people accepted upon themselves the obligation to recite the daily Evening Service (Kol Bo 28), and to take upon themselves all four commemorative fasts (Orach Chaim 550:1). Despite their having emanated from popular will and not formal religious authority, observances like these nevertheless have great standing in halakhah and cannot be easily undone or overturned.
Overloading the individual with religious demands is dangerous. The Talmud describes the process of conversion to Judaism, notably the interaction between the curious gentile and the rabbinic gatekeepers. The court is specifically warned not to be overly demanding of the prospective proselyte אין מרבין עליו ואין מדקדקין עליו, lest a quality candidate be scared off by the overwhelming burden of Judaic practices (Yebamoth 47b).
The perceived need to constantly raise the bar of one’s religious behavior, sometimes in competition with one’s neighbor, will often manifest itself in the realm of liturgy. The essential prayers mandated by halakhah are terse; not so the prayer service as actually recited in the synagogue – because of the many accretions that have crept into the Siddur (and Machzor) over the centuries. The Ba’al HaTurim recognized that some Jews were adding too many voluntary supplications and were sacrificing quality for quantity. He wrote, “It is better for less to be recited with concentration, than for more to be recited without concentration טוב מעט בכוונה מהרבות בהם שלא בכוונה (Orach Chaim 1).”
The desire to express our devotion to God through stringencies in our religious practice seems to be an unshakable tendency. It served as a strong motivator in the expansion of halakhah during the formative years of Rabbinic Judaism. Nevertheless, at this point in the development of Judaism, the desired path is to study assiduously in order to discern the critical distinction between self-imposed pseudo-mitzvoth not intrinsic in the Torah and/or Talmud, and explicit commandments from Hashem.
The true test of righteousness is not to be found in self-imposed customs but in our simple – and, therefore, powerful – obedience to God’s commands.