This week's portion: callus
Jars of summertime

Brich rachamana

On my last day of ulpan, I got into conversation with a classmate about Birkat hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. The idea of making birkat hamazon is rooted in a verse from this week's portion: "And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. And you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land he has given you." (That's Deuteronomy 8:10.) Gella and I were talking, and I mentioned one of my favorite versions of the birkat hamazon, a one-liner in Aramaic: brich rachamana malka d'alma ma'arey d'hai pita ("blessed is the merciful one, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.")

The Babylonian Talmud (Brakhot 40b) describes how a shepherd named Benjamin coined the phrase after making a sandwich. It also describes the sages' conversation about that form of the blessing and whether it "counts." Intriguingly, although the Talmud records one opinion which says that anyone who alters the traditional formula of blessings has not fulfilled his obligation to bless the food, it devotes much more space to the opinion that one may make the blessing after food in any form: even if it's said without explicit mention of God's name, and even if it's said in secular language rather than the holy tongue.

The one-liner is often referred to as the minimum one may recite if one is strapped for time. (The example the Talmud gives is, what if one were being pursued by robbers on the highway and didn't have time to pray the whole grace after meals? I'm guessing that experience is a relative rarity for most of us in the modern world, but we can extrapolate.) Anyway, in this conversation about brich rachamana I mentioned that I know two tunes for it and I like both of them a lot. "Hm, I should learn those," Gella said. Oh, I'll record them for you, I promised. And then this week rolled around and I saw that the verse that sparked our practice is in this week's parsha, so I figured it was time to record the tunes.

So I did. And I'm going to append them to this post, in case anyone else wants to learn a couple of nifty melodies for a one-line grace after meals. (Even though there's a part of me that wonders whether making recordings of myself singing birkot hamazon and posting them on the internet is endearingly dorky or incredibly lame.) Okay, enough with the disclaimers; time for the tunes. The melody I first learned at Elat Chayyim was written by Hazzan Jack Kessler and Rabbi Shefa Gold, and it's a round. Here are two recordings: one of the round sung straight through, and another that attempts to show how the parts of the tune interlock:

Download brich.mp3

Download brichround.mp3

In more recent years, the ALEPH community has added another melody to our box of tunes. I've heard it called "the gospel melody," but I don't actually know its provenance. (ETA: And now I do! It's from a Shaker hymn called "Sanctuary," which I've sung before -- in English and Hebrew -- though I didn't realize that "O Lord prepare me / to be a sanctuary" etc. were the hymn's original words.)

Download gospelbrich.mp3

The "Sanctuary" one sounds strange to me solo; I'm so used to hearing it in a medley of voices, usually with multi-part harmony. (I tried singing harmony over the track, but got weird static; apparently my setup isn't quite sophisticated enough to handle that. Sorry, y'all.) I have some sweet memories of singing that one in Jerusalem with my housemates and friends. On my last night in Jerusalem, after dinner at the Village Green a small cluster of us stood outside and sang it quietly together. I suspect I'll always remember that when I sing that tune now.



2012 Edited to add: I've posted sheet music for both of these melodies in my post Brich Rachamana - now with sheet music!