By Lawrence F. Layfer, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
My rabbi, William Frankel, of blessed memory, told the story of an argument he witnessed between his grandmother and his mother. As a child, he had just finished a piece of chocolate cake and milk, and got up from the table to play. His grandmother berated his mother for having raised a child who did not know to say the blessing after meals (Birkat Ha Mazon) after such a feast. His mother responded that the child had only eaten a piece of cake, a snack, and the Birkat was not required except for after a meal. His grandmother responded that the Birkat was required, as the verse in this week’s Torah portion states, “when you have eaten and are satisfied,” and meal or not, the boy had eaten two pieces, and was certainly satisfied!
It is from this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, that we derive the commandment to say the grace after meals, as the verse states: “and you will eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your G-d (Deuteronomy 8:10).” The verse delineates two conditions that must be met before the blessing is done: to eat, and to be satisfied. The Rabbi’s define any amount of food more than the size of an olive as requiring the blessing. But how does one decide when a meal has been satisfying enough to qualify? How can such satisfaction be measured? As the unknown author of the Sefer Ha Chincuh (the Book of Education) suggests: “Now, for this satiety, there is no single uniform measure for every person, but everyone knows his own satiety.”
The Talmud attempts to supply a practical way of measuring satisfaction. In the Tractate Sanhedrin (92A) Rabbi Elazar notes “whoever does not leave over bread on his table (demonstrating gratitude to G-d for providing an abundance of food) will never see a blessing.” The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, further emphasizes this when it states “the tablecloth and the bread must remain on the table when the blessing is recited, to indicate the abundance of food which the Lord has supplied us, in that He gives enough to eat and some to spare.” Thus the concept seems to be that we demonstrate our satisfaction with what we have eaten by leaving some of the food uneaten at the end of the meal. In his commentary on the verse in Sanhedrin, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes a more practical explanation for leaving some bread on the table after eating, namely that so if a pauper enters at the end of a meal, the pauper will be able to eat immediately.
The concept of proving your satisfaction with what you have to give to others carries over into other areas, such as the giving of charity. In the Tractate Gittin (7B) Mar Zutra notes that “even a poor man who himself subsists on charity should give charity.” The verse implies that those who depend totally on what they receive from others, still must give some of what they receive in charity to the general community charity fund. Why should this be? It would seem again that a person demonstrates his satisfaction, both to himself and to G-d, by giving a portion to others. Thus a poor person, if he gives away some, demonstrates his satisfaction with what G-d has given him, and that in his mind he has enough. Certainly no one would give away any of his food before he felt he had enough to adequately care for his family and their needs. Similarly, a rich man who cannot give anything away demonstrates that no matter how much he has, it is not enough, for he fears the loss of even a little.
So from the above we can glean two fundamental principles the Torah wants us to consider: be grateful for what you have, and then give some away. Be grateful: sensitize yourself to the hidden blessings of daily life. Pirke Avot teaches that the secret of happiness is to be satisfied with your lot. To do this the Talmud suggests “a person should say 100 blessings daily (Tractate Menachot 43b).” What can easily be taken for granted, through the recital of a blessing becomes cause to pause and reflect that each occurrence of the day can be thought of as a gift. It exposes us to a certain joy that may have gone unnoticed and unappreciated.
And give some away: it proves by deed that you understand what was given to you was not for your needs alone but also for the needs of others. In assessing our requirements it is good to remember what Jacob asks of G-d as he faces is future in exile: bread to eat, clothes to put on, and a peaceful home to live in. After that, with some recognition to the more complicated situations our modern world presents, and some concession to the enjoyment a bit of extra resources can offer, share some of what you have. In what way, and in what amount, each of shares, depends on our own individual assessment of current and future needs. To help us, Pirke Avot teaches that “what is mine is mine,” until my needs are meet, and then after that “what is mine is yours,” to help with your needs.
Rabbi Frankel always seemed to have a story, usually personal, humorous, and self-deprecating, to help clarify a complicated concept. When he finished sharing the episode noted above, and led a discussion on the concepts in this article, I asked him who he thought was correct in the discussion between his mother and his grandmother. He responded that as he was focused on how to get a third piece of cake, he did not pay attention to either of their arguments.
Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.