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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah | 5768

Ask the Rabbi

Question: It seems wrong that people decide not to wash (netillat yadayim) and eat bread at the beginning of a meal and thus not bentch (recite Birkat Hamazon). One who has a meal should bentch and if it takes eating a little bread, so be it. However, someone told me that if you eat only a little piece of bread, you have to make individual berachot throughout the meal. Is that so?
Answer: One is not required to eat bread at a meal, even if it means that he will not bentch (except on Shabbat and Yom Tov when one needs a meal including bread). Nevertheless, regularly avoiding eating bread because he doesn’t want to be bothered with bentching is regrettable.
 If one has the philosophy that you espouse to try to wash and bentch at every meal, he should be careful not to cause more halachic problems than it is worth. One issue involves netillat yadayim. Although it is good to be stringent and wash before eating any amount of bread (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 158:3), the obligation likely begins only with a k’zayit (size of an olive) and possibly even a k’beitza (size of an egg). Therefore, one may not make a beracha on netillat yadayim for less than that amount (ibid.:2) (the questions of one who eats in between a k’zayit  and a k’beitza and of how to calculate the sizes are beyond our present scope).
 Eating small amounts of bread in order to cover all the berachot under the umbrella of the meal’s berachot (Hamotzi and Birkat Hamazon) raises another problem. The gemara (Berachot 41b) says that wine exempts all other drinks from a beracha because of its importance and that bread exempts other foods that are eaten during the meal. However, according to the accepted opinion, Hamotzi can exempt foods only when they are subsumed under the meal. Based on this, the Magen Avraham (177:1) suggests that if one eats a little bread in order to exempt other foods, then the other foods do not revolve around the bread and the Hamotzi may not exempt them from their berachot. He counters that it is possible that the exemption was instituted across the board, regardless of one’s intention. However, according to the more accepted understanding of the Magen Avraham (see Machatzit Hashekel, ad loc.; Mishna Berura 177:3), one should not set up a situation where he is eating bread just in order to subsume other foods or presumably to set up a situation where he will have to bentch. Admittedly, some prominent authorities say that other foods are exempted even in that case (Even Ha’ozer 174:12; Aruch Hashulchan 177:2; Igrot Moshe OC IV, 41). However, this is hardly an optimal situation that we would suggest for one who would be happy not to eat bread at all. If one would eat bread for its own sake but would prefer not to “be bothered” with washing and bentching, it would be fine to convince him to regularly eat some bread and the Magen Avraham’s issue would not apply (see V’zot Haberacha, pg. 71).
 If one does not eat even a k’zayit of bread then although he still recites Hamotzi, almost all authorities say he must make all of the individual berachot. Furthermore, he will not be able to bentch in any case and will have to make the appropriate berachot after eating. One also has to eat the k’zayit within k’dei achilat pras (a contested amount of time, which is within the range of a single digit of minutes) (Mishna Berura 210:1).
 While we have not weighed all of the plusses and minuses (including the issue of one who eats bread-like foods during a full meal without bread- see Igrot Moshe, ibid.), we can fairly say that if a person is not interested in eating approximately a slice of bread, he should feel free to go without eating bread and “washing and bentching.” Whichever approach one takes, he should become familiar with the several halachic questions that arise in “bread meals” and “non-bread meals.”
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