This thorough excerpt from “Friday Night and Beyond” by Lori Palatnik includes spiritual explanations for many of the customs surrounding the HaMotzi ritual and personal reflections from people about what the blessing means to them. It also provides a clear step-by-step guide explaining how to perform the ritual according to Orthodox Ashkenazic custom, with both an audio recording and the text of the blessing in Hebrew, English, and transliteration. Lori Palatnik is a writer, Jewish educator and the Founding Director of The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an international initiative that brings thousands of women to Israel for inspirational trips.
HaMotzi Blessing for Bread
At each Shabbat meal, we place two whole loaves of bread on the table, covered with a cloth. This is called lechem mishneh (two breads). What is their significance?
When God brought the Jewish people out of Egypt, they spent 40 years in the desert on their way to the Land of Israel. Their survival during this time was totally from the Almighty. He provided a constant source of water (from Miriam’s well) and protection (Clouds of Glory and a wall of fire). And for food there was manna, a crystal-like substance that fell from the heavens each day.
The Jews simply had to scoop it up and eat it, and it is said that it had the taste of whatever the person desired. On Friday a double portion of manna fell, so we wouldn’t have to work to collect it on Shabbat. We commemorate this miracle by blessing two loaves of challah at the Shabbat meals.
This is where we come from. Go back enough generations, and your ancestors and mine were wandering the desert, readying themselves to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. And they were receiving God’s goodness each day as He provided manna for each person; double portions every Shabbat.
All this took place in the desert, a place of emptiness. At each Shabbat meal, we, too, begin with a sense of emptiness. Not the emptiness of having nothing, but the emptiness of being ready to receive everything — food for physical sustenance and wisdom for spiritual fulfillment.
On Shabbat we try to make each moment, each word, each thought the finest possible — in order to fill the desert, to see our personal deserts bloom.
And where are we going?
During the six days of the week we are involved with the physical world, and our sense of future security is often manifested in the physical, in things that are temporal.
Shabbat is a day detached from the physical (as an end). It is a day attached to eternity, to permanence… to God.
And just as we had to trust that God would provide for us in the desert at Sinai, today we have to learn to trust again. We have to know that God provides for us every day — and our futures are also in His hands.
And why do we cover the challahs atop a challah board? Because, in the desert, the manna fell with a covering of dew, on top and below. The dew was a sort of preservative, as well as insurance that the freshness remains intact, keeping the taste new and stimulating.
The three meals on Shabbat are each special, each able to achieve something unique. When we make ha-motzi with the challah cover draped over the two loaves, we remind ourselves to instill into our consciousness a sense of wonder and freshness that the morning dew represents.
Enjoy the special hush that falls over the table as the covered challahs are lifted, the blessing is recited, and once again, the physical and spiritual are one.
1. Everyone, having washed for bread, is now seated at the table. Just as in kiddush, the leader, and all those at the table, should have in mind that the leader is making the blessing for all those listening.
2. If you do not have two challahs, two whole “loaves” of anything can be used. For example, you could use a bagel, matzah, etc.
3. The challahs on the table should be covered on top and below (for example, challah board on bottom, challah cover on top).
4. The leader picks up both challahs, with the bottom one slightly closer to him. Some leave the challah cover on during the blessing, while others remove it at this point. The bottom challah is grazed lightly with the knife.
5. The following blessing is recited. Upon saying God’s name (Adonai), the challahs are raised slightly, to emphasize the bounty that He provides.
Ha-motzi Blessing for Bread
6. Cut or tear the challah into pieces. Each piece should be equivalent to about one full slice of regular bread.
7. The person who recited the blessing should take a slice first, dip it in some salt, take a bite, dip the other slices in salt, and pass them around for others to follow.
8. Just as in kiddush, we do not speak until we swallow a bite of bread, so there is no interruption between the blessing and what the blessing was intended for.
9. One should eat at least the equivalent of one slice of bread in order to be able to say the Grace After Meals.
Why do we dip the bread in salt?
Your Shabbat table is considered as your own personal altar. And, just as the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem was used for offerings to God, so too we laden our table with the finest in honor of God’s presence. And just as the offerings were salted before being eaten, we dip our bread in salt on Shabbat. (The only exception is during the weeks from Rosh Hashana to the end of Sukkot, when the bread is dipped in honey, for a sweet New Year.)
When I am at the head of the table making ha-motzi, I try and concentrate on gratefulness — that God is providing this food for me and my family. I will be able to eat and be full, and it’s all from Him.
* * *
I was raised as a Christian, so I didn’t see the ha-motzi ceremony until I was an adult attending a Jewish simcha. It reminded me of a more physical manifestation of “grace.” It didn’t seem out of context, for even a secular humanist has regard for food on the table.
Years later I was privileged to be at a Friday night table of a teacher of mine. There was a whole ceremony leading up to the ha-motzi, with everyone washing, saying a blessing, and staying quiet until the challahs were passed around and eaten.
I liked having that time during the process of preparation. It allowed me to take the whole thing seriously.
And when it was time for ha-motzi, my teacher lifted the two covered challahs, closed his eyes, and paused. That moment of concentration said it all. This was not just something ceremonial, this was something that held great meaning.
After my conversion, making ha-motzi at my table helped me to really connect. Images fly through my head as I utter the blessing — God’s hand leading us out of the desert to freedom… my Shabbat table, where I have the freedom to live and express myself as a Jew… the sanctity of Shabbat where God is total Provider.
* * *
When my husband is making ha-motzi I always think about my guests. How do they feel? I always hope that the fact that I made homemade challah will make them feel warm and cozy, taken care of, like a taste of home. That’s how it makes me feel, and I hope everyone else will feel the same.
* * *
When I started becoming observant, I decided to spend Shabbat at home with my family and show them what I had learned.
When I sang, they sang. When I stood up to make kiddush, they stood up. When I washed, they washed. When I didn’t talk, they didn’t talk. When I ate challah, they ate challah. Then I coughed, and my brother coughed. I scratched my head, my brother scratched his head…
Then we all laughed, together.
* * *
What do I think about when I make ha-motzi? That I’m blessed.
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