The Gemara (Talmud) teaches:
“תנו רבנן: מנין לברכת המזון מן התורה? שנאמר: ואכלת ושבעת וברכת – זו ברכת הזן, את ה’ אלהיך – זו ברכת הזמון, על הארץ – זו ברכת הארץ, הטובה – זו בונה ירושלים”
Our Rabbis taught: Where is the Grace After Meals found in the Torah? In the verse, “And you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good Land He has given you.” [Deuteronomy 8:10] “You shall bless” -indicates the blessing of “Who feeds;” “’The Lord your God”- indicates the blessing of zimmun; “For the Land” – indicates the blessing of the Land; “The good” – indicates the blessing “Who builds Jerusalem.”
[Gemara Berachot 48b]
Thus, Chazal (our Sages) make it clear that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is a significant and central component of Bircat Hamazon (the Grace After Meals).
The central question is why it is necessary to mention the Eretz Yisrael when we thank God, Who provides our daily food. How is eating connected to appreciation of the Land?
We must first analyze the broad topics of food and eating in the Torah in order to resolve our question.
The Connection Between Eating and Eretz Yisrael
The Heritage of Yaacov
Eretz Yisrael is referred to as “The heritage of Yaacov,” as the posuk (verse) states:
“אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל יְקֹוָק וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל במותי בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ כִּי פִּי יְקֹוָק דִּבֵּר”
Then, you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Yaakov your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Eretz Yisrael was divided among the tribes of Israel, each receiving its own portion. Yaakov’s status as the first-born, and hence his rights to the Eretz Yisrael, was acquired through food. In order to receive his father Yitzchak’s blessing of the Land, Yaakov was required to prepare a meal for him. [Bereishit (Genesis) 27:1ff.]
The verse from Isaiah indicates the special connection of Yaakov to Eretz Yisrael.
Yaakov was the first person to demonstrate the ability to achieve a synthesis of the spiritual and the mundane. Thus, after Yaakov wrestled with an angel, his name was changed to “Yisrael,” “כי שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל” (“Because you have struggled with (an angel of) God and with men, and you have prevailed”) [Bereishit 32:29] Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook z”tl explains that Yaakov, who was called “Yisrael” is the ladder moored on the earth which reaches heaven, [Bereishit 28:12] and therefore he is “the choicest of the Forefathers” [Midrash Sechel Tov Breishit 33:17] and the commencement of the communal Israel which is composed of heaven and earth. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda adds that this connection between heaven and earth appears in Yaakov’s dream of the ladder.
The “Sin of the Land”
The “sin of the land” as well indicates a connection between food and the Land. In the story of creation we read:
(יא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן:
(יב) וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע לְמִינֵהוּ וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי טוֹב:
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth.” And the earth gave forth vegetation, seed yielding herbs according to its kind, and trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found, according to its kind. [Bereishit (Genesis) 1:11-12]
Chazal (Our Sages) note the sin of the land: based upon the Divine decree, the trees themselves should have had the taste of their fruit (“fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind”), while in practice this was not the case (“and trees producing fruit”). Why is this “sin” so grave? Apparently the sole issue involved is the taste of the trees themselves.
Realizing the Ideal of Land – Exclusively in Eretz Yisrael
Rabbi Avraham Yitzḥak Kook z”tl, in his work Orot haTeshuva, offers an insightful explanation of the sin of the Land. Ideally, both means and end should be equally important (symbolized by the tree, the means, having the same taste as its fruit, the end), but in practice, in our world the means is less important than the end. Food is a means, not an end. However, in Eretz Yisrael we can achieve the ideal of combining the means and the end; eating can be a spiritual experience. This is the rectification of the sin of the land, which can be achieved when the world is in a harmonious state and that state requires Israel to be within its Land.
Eating – the Force Which Maintains Man
First, we may point out the common denominator – Eretz Yisrael sustains Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) just as food sustains all people. Even on a simple physical level, Am Yisrael is suited to the Land, as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (Sichot Eretz Yisrael, Amud 17 Paragraph 4) notes, there is a variety of diseases which occur frequently among Jews and indicate that the climate of Eretz Yisrael is best suited for the nation. Similar to food, the Land is a basic and indispensible need for the existence of the nation.
It is significant that matters related to eating have a prominent place in Torah and Halacha. The late Lubavitcher Rebbi offers a beautiful explanation of the fact that it is the mother who determines whether a child is Jewish or not. The mother carries the flesh and blood, the basic elements out of which the body develops. The mother’s food reaches the fetus and allows it to develop. The food with which the mother nurtures her baby in utero is of great significance, and therefore it is the mother who determines Jewishness of the child.
The Halacha is filled with laws concerning kashrut (literally “fitness”), since food maintains a person, and therefore the food which a Jew eats must be kasher (fitting).
We return to our question: What is the connection between food, and especially bread, “the staff of life” and Eretz Yisrael?
First, we can note that which is shared by the Land and food: just as food sustains us on the physical level, so the Land sustains us on the spiritual level. Both food and the Land are essential needs for the existence of the Jewish people.
On another plane, the connection is in the influence of the Land on eating. Eating is necessary to maintain life, but the relevant question is what kind of life is maintained? For a Jew, ideally, eating is not merely for the purpose of physical survival, but to allow spiritual development as well. Thus, eating contains a spiritual aspect, and as such can be seen as part of one’s Divine service. Indeed, great rabbis and halachic authorities have related to eating as a time of service of God and an opportunity to improve one’s spiritual traits, each in accordance with his personal level.
Eretz Yisrael is a tangible place which carries within it great spiritual powers. This is the unique and special nature of the Land – the ability to create a bridge between the mundane and the spiritual and the holy.
In this sense, the Land and food are “two inseparable friends.” The ability to turn the physical act of eating into a spiritual act, to combine the means and the end, is unique to Eretz Yisrael. It is specifically within the Land that the spiritual aspect which is within the mundane can be revealed.
Years ago, while Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu z”tl was abroad, his hosts praised the delicious fruits of their land, encouraging him to partake of the fruit. When Rabbi Eliyahu commented that the fruit appeared special and asked where it is from, his hosts assured him that it was domestically grown. Rabbi Eliyahu was not satisfied, and his inspection revealed that the fruit was imported from Israel. This story indicates that a person who possesses spiritual powers can feel the sanctity which is inherent in the fruit of the Land.
The combination of spiritual and tangible aspects which can be articulated through eating finds expression in the Mishna Berurah which quotes Magen Avraham [6:6]:
“…ובכוונת כתוב דהנשמה נהנית מרוחניות המאכל והגוף נהנה מגשמיות המאכל ומכח זה קשורים זה בזה ע”י המאכל “
For the soul benefits from the spiritual aspect within food and the body benefits from the physical aspect; in this way body and soul are connected through eating
We learned of the deep connection between the act of eating – apparently a mundane act – and Eretz Yisrael. We answered the question of why the Land is a central motif in Bircat Hamazon (the Grace After Meals). The Grace is an expression of thanks for the food we eat, which was given us by God, and the act of eating is incomplete if it lacks a spiritual aspect. Ideally, eating is not solely for the purpose of maintaining our physical selves, but to do so in order to allow spiritual development. This combination of spirit and matter can be achieved most easily and fully in the Land. Hence, when we thank God for the food He gave us in His goodness, we mention the great role the Land has in realizing what is the ideal purpose of eating – combining the mundane and the spiritual.