The Evolution of the Text of the Fourth Benediction of the Grace after Meals as reflected in the Cairo Genizah Fragments
Keywords:Grace after Meals, Cairo Genizah, Jewish Liturgy, Liturgical Benedictions, Birkat ha-Mazon
This paper follows the evolving textual variants of the fourth benediction of the Grace after Meals, on the backdrop of the limited information provided in Talmudic literature, and in light of the abundant materials available in the Cairo Genizah fragments. Scholars previously hypothesized that the early versions of the benediction included only the words “Blessed are You, LORD [our God, King of the Universe], who is good and beneficent,” but this hypothesis lacked substantiating evidence. As we demonstrate here, an analysis of the textual variants in the Cairo Genizah provides newfound support for this hypothesis. The integration of this short benediction into the Grace after Meals presumably led to a sense of disharmony vis-à-vis the other three extensive benedictions; this in turn spurred a series of developments and expansions, reflected in the many textual variants of the benediction in the Genizah fragments. However, as the benediction expanded, a further discord emerged between the fourth benediction and the others with regard to the introductory formula “Blessed are You…,” and with regard to the principle mandating the omission of this formula at the beginning of a benediction which immediately succeeds another benediction. The early Genizah versions of the benediction reveal hesitations regarding this introductory formula; some of these hesitations can in fact be identified in Talmudic pericopes which can now be properly understood in light of these Genizah fragments. Two primary approaches emerge from these sources: one entails the omission of the phrase “King of the Universe” from the introductory formula, while the other omits the introductory formula altogether and conjoins the benediction to the preceding text via alternate means. Ultimately, the fourth benediction was expanded until it became equal in length to the other benedictions of the Grace after Meals. At the same time, the attempts to omit the formulae “Blessed are You” and “King of the Universe” were rejected, resulting in a “long” benediction in practice, but a “short” one from a liturgical halakhic standpoint.