January 8, 2013

Va’eira: “Who Brings You Forth”

The blessings recited over most foods refer to God as the Borei, the Creator. Thus we say: “the Creator of fruits of the ground,” “the Creator of fruits of the tree,” “the Creator of fruits of the vine,” and so on.

Yet the blessing for bread — Hamotzi — does not fit this pattern. Before eating bread, we say “Who brings forth bread from the earth.”

Why do we not acknowledge God as the Creator of bread, as we do with other blessings?

Actually, the wording of this blessing appears to quote God’s announcement to Moses:

“You will know that I am the Lord your God, Who brings you forth (Hamotzi) from under the Egyptian subjugation.” (Ex. 6:7)
Is there some connection between bread and the Exodus from Egypt?

The Special Function of Bread

The earth contains a wide variety of nutrients and elements. Through various processes, these elements are formed into foods suitable for human consumption. With regard to foods that are not essential for human life, we cannot say that they attain their ultimate purpose when they are transformed into food. These basic elements performed certain functions while still in the ground. We cannot positively state that now, as a fruit or vegetable, they are more central to the functioning of the world.

Bread, on the other hand, is the staff of life. Bread is necessary for our physical and mental development. “A child will only call out ‘Father,’ ‘Mother’ after eating grain” (Berachot 40). Due to its importance in sustaining human life, bread differs from other foods. The elements that make up bread have achieved a significant role which they lacked while they were still buried inside the earth.

The Hamotzi blessing reflects this aspect of bread. “Who brings forth bread from the earth.” The act of ‘bringing out’ draws our attention to two stages: the elements’ preliminary state in the ground, and their final state as bread, suitable for supporting life. Unlike other blessings, Hamotzi stresses the value these elements have acquired by leaving the general environment (the earth) and becoming life-sustaining bread.

How does this connect with the Exodus from Egypt?

The basic components of bread started as part of the overall environment, and were then separated for their special function. So too, the Jewish people started out as part of humanity. Their unique character and potential holiness were developed and revealed when God brought them out from the land of Egypt. “I am the Eternal your God, Who brings you forth from under the Egyptian subjugation.” Like the blessing over bread, God’s declaration emphasizes two contrasting aspects: the connection of the Jewish people to the rest of the world; and their separation from it, for the sake of their special mission.

(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II)

Elsewhere, Rav Kook expands on the Talmudic discussion as to whether the word Hamotzi is completed or in completed action or a pronoun rather than a verb.

It was definitely the low point in Moses’ mission to free the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh responded to the demand for freedom by adding more oppressive measures, and the Israelites began to wish that Moses had never come. Even Moses had his doubts. In response, God commanded Moses to relay the following message to the Israelites:

“You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out (hamotzi) from under the Egyptian subjugation.” (Ex.

Hamotzi — Past or Future?

The tense of the verb hamotzi here is unclear. The Israelites have not yet been freed. Why say, ‘who brings you out’? The future tense, ‘who will bring you out,’ would make more sense.

The word hamotzi brings to mind the blessing recited before eating bread. The Talmud (Berachot 38a) records a debate regarding this blessing. Rabbi Nehemiah felt the blessing should read, “Blessed are You … Who brought forth (motzi) bread from the earth.” But the other sages argued that the blessing should be “the One Who brings forth (hamotzi) bread from the earth” — as in our verse.

What is the difference between motzi and hamotzi?

The Talmud explains that this disagreement in based on how the verse in Exodus should be understood. According to Rabbi Nehemiah, the word hamotzi implies the future. The Jews were still slaves in Egypt, and God assured them that He would take them out in the future. The future tense, however, is not appropriate for the blessing over bread. We recite this blessing in recognition of the wheat that has already come out of the earth. The word motzi, on the other hand, refers to the past, and is therefore more suitable.

Rabbi Nehemiah’s colleagues felt that the word hamotzi implies both the past and the future. They understood the verse as follows: the Israelites will be freed (in the future), after which they will recognize God as their Liberator (in the past). Since hamotzi also includes past events, it is also appropriate for the blessing over bread.

What is the essence of this disagreement? Is it simply an argument over Hebrew grammar? What is the significance of the blessing over bread being in the past or the future?

Contemplating God

There are two basic ways to attain love and awe of Heaven. The first approach is to contemplate God’s greatness by examining His works. Reflecting on His amazing creations allows one to appreciate God’s infinite wisdom and justice, and instills a tremendous longing to know God’s great Name (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:1).

The second approach maintains that intellectual reflection alone is insufficient. There must also be an emotional element. We need to awaken within ourselves love and awe for the Essence that creates these spectacular works.

Rabbi Nehemiah, by preferring the word motzi, concurred with the first approach. Before eating bread, we need to raise our intellectual awareness of the event that occurred: this bread was baked from wheat that God brought forth from the earth. The word motzi is a verb, referring to an event that has taken place. Rabbi Nehemiah stressed the importance of the past tense, since appreciation of God’s greatness is achieved by objectively analyzing God’s hand in history and past events.

The other scholars disagreed. The blessing should be hamotzi, “the One Who brings forth.” Hamotzi is not a verb but a descriptive phrase. We do not only observe the event itself, but we attempt to look beyond it to the Cause of the action. This is a supra-scientific, intuitive approach, relating to God according to His actions. The scholars held that the blessing over bread is not jut a way of contemplating the process of wheat growing out of the earth. We must concentrate on the Source of this process, and form a corresponding mental image of God.

Beyond Time

Since this opinion stresses not the event but the Cause of the event, the framework of time becomes irrelevant. Hamotzi thus implies both past and future. This changes our understanding of God’s promise to the Israelites, “You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out from under the Egyptian subjugation.” We now understand that the present tense is just as accurate as the past and the future. For all time, we will recognize God’s attribute of Hamotzi, the One who liberates us from slavery.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 176-7)


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