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HaTov v'HaMeitiv II

    As you might recall, a few weeks ago in this column, we discussed the bracha of “hatov v’hameitiv”.  We described it as the one bracha that is uniquely suited to express our gratitude to God for the veritable bounty of good that He constantly bestows upon us. The bracha praises “the One who is good and who does good”, and is typically recited at a meal where more than one wine is being served.  What we didn’t get into last time was some of the finer points of the situation where it’s appropriate to say “hatov v’hameitiv”.  Today we will flesh out some of these rules and conditions and give a bit more background regarding this bracha.  
    By way of a quick review, recall that when eating a meal that contains bread, its status as “the staff of life” makes it the primary focus of the meal. Accordingly, the bracha of hamotzi which is said on bread is all inclusive, covering all the different kinds of food and beverage that are consumed during that meal. The most prominent exception to this rule is wine. Wine has two aspects to it that make it the most prominent of all beverages.  First, due to its alcohol content, it has the quality of being mesamchei lev, of “gladdening the heart”.  Second, wine is considered to be a beverage that is capable of giving one a feeling of satiety, in and of itself.   For these reasons, wine requires its own bracha whenever it is consumed, even in the middle of a meal.

    Now, the rules of brachot state that a single bracha of hagafen will suffice for all the wine consumed at the meal. However, the Gemara tells us that this only applies when a person drinks the same wine for the entire meal. If he changes wines, switching to a different variety than the one with which he began, then it’s appropriate for him to say the additional bracha of hatov v’hameitiv.  What the Gemara actually says is that changing the wine at a meal does not require a new bracha of hagafen but rather a special bracha of hatov v’hameitiv.  The Gemara also adds the additional caveat that this special bracha is only made when the wine is drunk by a group of people.

    There is much discussion among the Rishonim as to what this changing of the wine mentioned in the Gemara actually means. Is it to be taken literally that any time a different wine is drunk, the additional bracha is made?  Or, perhaps are there other qualifications? Tosafot and the Rosh quote a story about the famous Tanna, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, who would make the bracha “hatov v’hameitiv” on every wine bottle that he opened at a meal. Evidently, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi felt that any switch in wine, even to one of a lesser quality, requires a hatov v’hameitiv.  However, Rashi and the Rambam, are of the opinion that the bracha is only made when the second wine is of a better quality. When deciding the practical halacha, the Shulchan Aruch takes the side of Rashi and the Rambam and declares that we only make a bracha of hatov v’hameitiv when the second wine is of a better quality.
    This presents an interesting wrinkle to the practical situation we’ve been discussing.  Namely, there is another halacha that specifies that when one has two similar foods in front of him, he should always give honor to the bracha and recite it on the better quality one. In effect, this limits the situations where hatov v’hameitiv is recited because when two wines are available, the bracha of hagafen will always be recited on the better wine which will then exempt the lesser quality wine from both a hagafen and a hatov v’hameitiv. This applies as long as one has in mind to drink the lesser quality wine, whether it was on the table or not. If for some reason one does make his hagafen on the lower quality wine first, then a hatov v’hameitiv will be made on the better wine.

    Perhaps the situation where a hatov v’hameitiv is most applicable is where two wines are available and one genuinely does not know which one is better. In such a case one wine is removed from the table while a hagafen is recited on the other. When the second is brought, it receives a hatov v’hameitiv.  One might think that the more expensive wine is always the better one.  As it turns out, there are many factors that go into the price of a wine and therefore, price it is not usually the determining factor of the quality of the wine.
    There are three other conditions that have to be met for a hatov v’hameitiv to be recited. The first condition is that the wine has to be drunk with another person or group of people and all have to drink from both wines. The second condition is that all the people there have to have a share in the wine. This means that if one is a guest, then the host has to place the bottle on the table for all to partake freely. If the host pours out cups and keeps the bottle next to him then this bracha is not recited. The third condition is that the second wine has to be brought out for the purpose of providing a different kind of wine and, at least potentially, a heightened enjoyment for the drinker.  In other words, if the new wine is only brought because the first wine is finished, then the bracha is not recited.
    I think you can see from the above discussion that the bracha of hatov v’hameitiv is anything but simple and straight forward.  The complexities and details that are involved here only underscore how seriously the rabbis took the importance of this bracha.  If this much energy and effort was expended in understanding the proper way we need to thank Hashem for the extra enjoyment we get from drinking one type of wine over another, how much more so do we need to constantly think about and delve into all the amazing pleasures, enjoyments, and opportunities for growth He provides for each of us every day. Doing so would most certainly instill in us a heightened appreciation for our Creator as well as a heightened enjoyment of this world which He has provided for us.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas