The new short way to bensch

By Nathan Jeffay, August 22, 2008

There is a constant stream of media interest in the ever-shrinking lunch break and its effect on health and worker productivity. But what about the religious ramifications?

The Shiloh Institute, an Orthodox research institute, "found that many people were not bensching, or avoiding bread altogether so that they did not need to bensch", said one of its scholars, Rabbi Yehoshua Buch.

As the "lunch is for wimps" culture has made desk-dining the norm in recent years, mealtimes have shrunk. But bensching or grace after meals, required whenever bread is eaten, has not.

Last month, however, the Jerusalem-based Shiloh Institute released a mere 153-word version of bensching on handy wallet-sized cards. And unlike the so-called "shortened form of grace" found in siddurim - which is supposed to be used only in emergencies and special cases of urgency - this formula can be used in any circumstances.

It represents a purported revival of the very earliest form of bensching, lost over time - which was used in and around the Land of Israel from the time of the destruction of the Temple and largely dropped out of use by the 12th century. It is grace in the native nusach of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.

Nusach is the liturgical tradition used by a particular community. Extant nusachim include Ashkenazi, Sephardi and several others, but not the native tradition of the Eretz Israel, which became extinct.
As a result, given Israel's diverse population, every surviving nusach is in use. But Rabbi Buch says, "It is not good that so many practices exist. If we are one nation, we should have one halachic way."

The Shiloh Institute believes that the Jewish return to Israel "must be complemented by a return to the authentic teachings and religious practices of Eretz Israel in order to ‘renew our days as of old'". But while the Jewish people have "physically returned to Eretz Israel," says Rabbi Buch, "they have not yet returned to the Torah of Eretz Israel."

The institute is working on a siddur that uses nusach Eretz Israel, the liturgy of the Land of Israel and the bensching has been excerpted as a kind of first preview.

Working out how people would have prayed many centuries ago is not simple. No comprehensive record of nusach Eretz Israel survived. The best clues come from the Cairo Geniza, the treasure trove of historic documents found in a Cairo synagogue in the late 19th century - as Egypt was one of the last places where the nusach survived.

For every prayer they try to reconstruct, Shiloh researchers piece together Geniza fragments and factor in clues from the Jerusalem Talmud (as opposed to the Babylonian Talmud, which shaped most liturgy in use today) and various halachic writings.

But if the newly-released bensching is a chance for Jews in Israel to return to local roots, must UK Jews still plough through the longer version? Rabbi Buch says not. "Historically, nusach Eretz Israel was used outside of Israel and given that the return to Israel has made it the largest Jewish community in the world, its entirely right that it should be used everywhere."

Last updated: 4:32pm, September 9 2008