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When to Top the Bagel?

I said Hamotzi on a bagel, and after taking a bite, put on cream cheese and lox. A friend corrected me, claiming that Halacha requires that the first bite should be done when it is in its optimal form, so that after the beracha, one should cut open the bagel, put on the toppings, and then eat. Could that be?

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Rabbi Daniel Mann

Tammuz 18 5781
Question: At a brit, I said Hamotzi on a bagel, and after taking a bite, put on cream cheese and lox. A friend corrected me, claiming that Halacha requires that the first bite, which connects to the beracha, should be done when it is in its optimal form, so that after the beracha, one should cut open the bagel, put on the toppings, and then eat. Could that be?

Answer: We attribute great religious significance to berachot (see Bava Kama 30a), and therefore try to do things the best way, even though almost no "mistake" here would be a real problem. The competing values involved here make it necessary to appraise net gains and losses. Your system (not putting toppings until after eating) maximizes two values: 1. Making Hamotzi on a complete "loaf" (Berachot 39b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 167:1). 2. Minimizing any break between the beracha and the eating (Shulchan Aruch ibid.). Your friend’s system prioritizes #1 and: 3. The bread should be in an optimal form when taking the first bite (ibid. 5). Let us look at each rule and the interaction between them.

When one chooses on what bread to make a beracha, its being "whole" is one of the most important factors (Shulchan Aruch, OC 168:1). Prioritizing this versus minimizing the break between the beracha and eating may be a machloket of Amoraim. Rabbi Chiya (Berachot 39a) says that one should break off from the loaf the piece of bread he will eat as he finishes the beracha to minimize the time lapse (Tzelach ad loc.), even though the beracha does not finish with a whole loaf. We pasken like Rava (ibid.), who instructs keeping it whole until the beracha is complete even though this requires a small break to sever the piece after the beracha. It is a worthwhile delay to put some salt or spread on the bread before eating (Shulchan Aruch, OC 167:5). If the bread is of low quality or seasoning, one should put on salt; if it is of a high level, this is unnecessary, but it is permitted (Mishna Berura 167:29) despite the short, food-related break.

This does not mean that we do not care about such breaks between the beracha and eating. Actually, the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 1) instructs to cut the loaf partially before the beracha to save the extra time (I estimate 3-4 seconds) to cut the loaf to that point (Mishna Berura 167:4). In order to not lose the wholeness, semi-cut sections must be such that if one lifts the bread from the smaller part, the weight of the heavier part will not cause it to sever. This still somewhat compromises the completeness of the unit, as we see that on Shabbat, where the wholeness is a requirement of lechem mishneh, we do not cut to that extent (Rama, OC 167:1). Still this time-saving technique is deemed worthwhile. While these few seconds would not invalidate the beracha, it is best to avoid them.

While we have seen that improving the taste of the bread can justify a break, your friend expanded the rule in two ways: 1. By not sufficing with a little salt or sauce but adding all the bagel’s toppings you are planning to eat during the meal. 2. By extending the 3-4 second break to add salt to 20-30 seconds for cutting and spreading cream cheese and lox all over the bagel. I have not found a source nor see compelling logic to make these extensions at the expense of waiting. The Mishna Berura (167:27, 29) also implies not to allow such a break, as he mentions allowing a longer break only between netilat yadayim and the beracha. We thus reject your friend’s approach and see yours as the straightforward one.

One benefit that your friend’s approach offers relates to the preference to eat a reasonable amount of bread soon after the beracha (Mishna Berura 167:15). Some people initially have a tiny piece of bagel and then go to get lox and perhaps strike up a conversation before eating "for real." But in this case, the solution with the benefits and no serious drawbacks is to top your bagel with it cut partially (see above) before the beracha. Then, the beracha is on a whole bagel, at its tastiest, and there is no break. But your way is fine too.
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