Our Sages taught us that “from a man’s blessings it is known if he is a Talmid Hacham [a Torah-scholar] or not” (Berachot 50a), and yesterday's Torah reading, Parashat Eikev, contains some of the most important fundamentals of Jewish prayer.
Let us begin with Moshe’s depiction of the Land which he was preparing the Children of Israel to enter:
“Because Hashem your G-d is bringing you to a good Land, a Land of water-streams, of fountains and wells, flowing from the valleys and the mountains; a Land of wheat and barley, of grape-vine and figs and pomegranates, a Land of oil-olives and date-honey” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8).
The Targum Yonatan paraphrases, “Hashem your G-d is bringing you to a Land praised through its fruits…”
Though this reads like no more than a physical description of the Land of Israel, a description designed to arouse the yearning of a generation born and raised in the harsh desert, it actually instructs us on some of the correct Blessings for food.
Halakhah divides food and drink into 6 categories, each with its specific Blessing:
Bread (specifically bread synthesised from the five species of grain wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye), for which the Blessing is “Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth”.(Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Hamotzi lekhem min ha'aretz)
Other foods synthesised from those five grains (cakes, pasta, and the like), for which the Blessing is “Blessed…Who creates all kinds of sustenance”.(Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Borei miney mezonot)
Wine (specifically synthesised from grapes) and grape-juice, for which the Blessing is “Blessed…Who creates the fruit of the vine”. (Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Borey pri hagefen)
Fruits, for which the Blessing is “Blessed…Who creates the fruit of the tree”. (Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Borey pri ha'aytz)
Vegetables, for which the Blessing is “Blessed…Who creates the fruit of the ground”.(Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Borey pri ha'adama)
Everything else, for which the Blessing is “Blessed…that everything came into existence by His word”. (Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-henu melech haolam: Shehakol nihye bidvaro)
When our Sages composed these Blessings, they also composed the correct sequence in which to recite them, in the event that one eats a meal which contains more than one category (see the Talmud, Berachot 41a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Blessings Chapter 8; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 211).
(A convenient mnemonic to remember the correct sequence is מַגָּע אֵשׁ, “maga esh, a touch of fire”:
m=מ for מְזוֹנוֹת;
g=ג for גֶּפֶן;
a=ע for עֵץ;
a=א for אֲדָמָה;
sh=ש for שֶׁהַכֹּל.)
Why מְזוֹנוֹת, the Blessing for foods synthesised from grain, before גֶּפֶן, the Blessing for wine, and wine before עֵץ, the Blessing for fruit?
– This follows the order in our verse which depicts the Land of Israel:
אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן אֶרֶץ זֵית שֶׁמֶן וּדְבָשׁ:
“A Land of wheat and barley, of grape-vine and figs and pomegranates, a Land of oil-olives and date-honey”.
The first produce which the Torah mentions is “wheat and barley”, hence this Blessing takes precedence.
The next produce of the Land is which the Torah mentions is “grape-vine”, meaning wine synthesised from grapes.
The next produce of the Land is which the Torah mentions is fruit, and specifically the fruits which are indigenous to Israel and for which Israel is especially praised: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.
This is the reason that if one eats a variety of fruits, then one should ideally pronounce the Blessing “Blessed…Who creates the fruit of the tree” on one of these five fruits.
And if more than one are on the menu, then the Shulchan Aruch specifies over which to pronounce the Blessing:
“Whichever takes comes earlier in the verse ‘A Land of wheat and barley, of grape-vine and figs and pomegranates, a Land of oil-olives and date-honey’ takes precedence for the Blessing; and the second [mention of] ‘a Land’ divides this subject; thus whichever [fruit] is mentioned immediately after the second [Land] is [correspondingly] more important, and takes precedence over [the fruits] which appear after the first ‘Land’. Therefore dates come before grapes, since [dates] are the second [fruit mentioned] after the second ‘Land’, while [grapes] come third after the first ‘Land’” (Orach Chaim 211:4).
This is also the reason that after eating most foods, the After-Blessing is the brief Borei Nefashot:
“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, Who creates the great many souls and all that they lack, for everything that You have created to sustain the souls of all that lives; blessed is the Eternal Giver of Life”.
However after eating of the fruits which are indigenous to Israel, the After-Blessing is much longer and more detailed:
“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d for the trees and for the fruit of the trees, for the produce of the field, and for the desirable, good, and spacious Land which You favoured and which You bequeathed to our forefathers to eat of its fruits and to be satiated from its goodness; have mercy, O Hashem our G-d, on Israel Your nation, and on Jerusalem Your city, and on Zion the Abode of Your Glory, and on Your Altar, and on Your Holy Temple; and rebuild Jerusalem the Holy City speedily in our days, and bring us up into its midst, and gladden us with its rebuilding; and we will eat of its fruit, and will be satiated with its goodness, and we will bless You over it in sanctity and purity, because You, Hashem, are good and beneficent to all, thus we thank You for the Land and for its fruits; You are blessed, O Hashem, for the Land and for its fruits”.
(There are two minor differences if the fruit grew outside of Israel: the closing phrases then read “…for the Land and for the fruits” instead of “…for its fruits”.)
Thus every time a Jew eats fruit, the Blessings he recites both before and after infuse him with the centrality of the Land of Israel.
Immediately after this comes the Mitzvah to bless after eating a meal:
וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ, וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ:
“You will eat and will be satisfied, then you will bless Hashem your G-d for the good Land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). This Commandment to bless after eating bread is of course instantly familiar to most Jews precisely because it has been incorporated into Birkat ha-Mazzon (Grace after Meals).
The Talmud (Berachot 48b) understands this to command three Blessings after eating bread:
“‘You will eat and will be satisfied, then you will bless’ – this is the Blessing for nourishment;… ‘for the Land’ – this is the Blessing for the Land; ‘the good’ – this is the Building of Jerusalem”.
Birkat ha-Mazzon, said after meals, consists of four Blessings:
בִּרְכַּת הַזַּן, the Blessing for Nourishment, thanking G-d for His food and sustenance. The Talmud ascribes this first Blessing to Moshe, who composed it when the manna began falling for them.
בִּרְכַּת הָאָרֶץ, the Blessing for the Land, thanking G-d for bequeathing us the Land of Israel. The Talmud ascribes this second Blessing to Joshua, who composed it when they entered the Land.
בִּנְיַן יְרוּשָׁלַיִם, Rebuilding of Jerusalem, praying the G-d restore Jerusalem to its former glory. The Talmud ascribes this third Blessing to King David and his son King Solomon in its original form; the Sages altered the wording after the destruction of the Second Holy Temple to reflect the new reality.
הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב, He Who is good and beneficent. This fourth Blessing was composed in Yavneh several years after the Bar Kochba Revolt, and is the only one which is not Biblically commanded.
In 132, the Jews rose up in revolution against the Roman occupation of Israel, and achieved something which no nation in the entire Roman Empire ever managed: they kicked the Romans out of Israel, and re-established Jewish national independence.
For fully three years Israel was an independent sovereign state. The Emperor Hadrian, incensed and humiliated, brought his best general, Julius Severus, from Britannia to crush the Jewish rebellion. He needed seven full legions (when the entire Roman Imperial Army consisted of 28 Legions!), reinforced by cohorts from another 5 legions and 50 auxiliary units, to defeat the Jews.
The Jew’s final, desperate stronghold was Betar, the mighty city 10 kilometres (6 miles) south-west of Jerusalem, which the Romans finally destroyed on the 9th of Av 135.
The last Jewish revolt was over; and Hadrian, in his cruelty and humiliation, denied the Jews the opportunity to bury their dead. And so for fully 15 years, the bodies lay strewn over the rocks.
At last, Hadrian’s successor, the Emperor Antonius Pius, gave permission for the Jews to bury the dead of Betar. And miraculously, those bodies had not rotted in 15 years.
They were eventually buried on the 15th of Av, and it was in honour of those martyrs of Betar that this fourth Blessing of Birkat ha-Mazzon was composed:
“G-d is ‘הַטּוֹב’, the Good, that the bodies did not rot; ‘וְהַמֵּטִיב’, and the Beneficent, that they were given proper burial” (Berachot 48b).
So three of the four Blessings of Birkat ha-Mazzon are intimately bound up with the Land of Israel.
Later in Parashat Eikev comes the exhortation which has been incorporated as the second paragraph of the Shema:
“It will be, if you diligently hearken to My Mitzvot…to love Hashem your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul – then I will grant the rain of your Land in its appropriate season…so you will gather in your grain and your wine and your oil… Guard yourselves lest your hearts be seduced…and you perish swiftly from the good Land which Hashem gives you… You shall teach these to your children…so that your days and your children’s days be lengthened on the Land which Hashem swore to your fathers to give them…” (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
This, too, is inextricably intertwined with the Land of Israel: G-d promises “the rain of your Land in its appropriate season” – not the rain of Babylon, or of Spain, or of Poland, or of America, or any other country: “your Land”, specifically the Land of Israel.
Our reward for keeping the Torah is length of days “on the Land which Hashem swore to your fathers to give them” – not in exile, not even in the most cloistered Yeshivot of Flatbush and Monsey.
And then comes Moshe’s admonition:
“And now, O Israel – what does Hashem your G-d ask of you, other than to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul?” (10:12).
Our Sages understand this to be an admonition to pray:
“Rabbi Meir used to say: A person is obligated to say a hundred Blessings every day, as it says ‘And now, O Israel – what does Hashem your G-d ask of you?’” (Menachot 43b; compare Tanchuma, Korach 12).
This requires an explanation, as this verse does not seem to have any connexion whatsoever with saying 100 Blessings a day.
The word מָה, “what”, is homiletically read as מֵאָה, “hundred” (Rashi, commentary to Menachot 43b, s.v. מה ה' אלקיך; Tosafot, ibid. s.v. שואל מעמך; Ohr ha-Chayim, commentary to Deuteronomy 10:12 and Leviticus 26:11; Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the Alter Rebbe, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, in Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim, Laws of Morning Blessings 46:1).
Hence, “מָה, what does Hashem your G-d ask of you” homiletically connotes “מֵאָה, a hundred does Hashem your G-d ask of you”
This is the change that the [homiletic] addition of the letter א causes, which is standard halakhah in practice:
“A Jew is obligated to recite a hundred blessings in a day and a night...” (Rambam, Laws of Prayer and Priestly Blessing 7:14; also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 46:3).
So now it is appropriate to ask: Where did the idea of adding an א into the word מָה originate from?
– I suggest:
Towards the end of Parashat Eikev, Moshe lyrically depicts the Land of Israel:
“Because the Land to which you are coming to inherit – it is not like the land of Egypt from which you came out…forever Hashem your G-d’s eyes are on it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:11-12).
And here, speaking of how G-d Himself constantly watches over the Land of Israel, there is a peculiarity in the Torah:
The word “from the beginning” should be written מֵרֵאשִׁית. But it is actually written מֵרֵשִׁית, without the א! That is to say, the Torah here writes a word which doesn’t really exist, “מֵרֵשִׁית”, forcing us to add in the א to make the word “מֵרֵאשִׁית”, “from the beginning”.
And just as we add the א into the word “מֵרֵשִׁית” (which the Torah forces us to), so too our Sages add the א into the word מָה (what) to make it מֵאָה (hundred), giving us 100 reminders every day of G-d’s direct supervision over the Land of Israel, 100 or more reminders every day of the beauty of the Land of Israel with which this parashah, indeed the entire Book of Deuteronomy, is saturated.
This is the power of prayer: this continual content of the Jew’s life, the measurement of whether he is a Talmid Hacham or not, is intimately and intrinsically bound up with the Land of Israel. There is no prayer without Israel – and no Israel without prayer.
 This follows the Mitzvah-count of Mahara”m Hagiz (Rabbi Moshe Hagiz, Israel 1672-c.1751) in his Minyan ha-Mitzvot, the Rambam in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Rabbi Moshe ben Ya’akov of Kotzi in his Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, and others. It actually contains more than eight Mitzvot, but because most were given earlier, they were already counted in earlier Parashot.