Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov cautioned that one should not eat before reciting the morning prayers:
“Regarding one who eats and drinks and [only then] prays, the verse states: “You have cast Me after your body” (I Kings 14:9).”
This homily seems clear enough. When eating before prayer, “You have cast Me after your body” — you place the physical before the spiritual. By your actions, you demonstrate that the body and its needs comes first.
But Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov was not satisfied with the verse’s simple meaning.
“Instead of gavecha (‘your body'), read it gei'echa ('your pride'). The Holy One says: ‘After this person filled himself with pride, he will then accept upon himself the kingship of Heaven?'” (Berachot 10b)
Why did Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov feel it was necessary to add this unusual reading of the verse — ‘You have cast Me after your pride’? And how does the act of eating ‘fill one with pride’?
We should recognize that all of life’s blessings come from God. If we delude ourselves into believing that we are in control, and that our success and wealth are the fruit of our own efforts, then this will be a source of false pride and even arrogance — “It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity” (Deut. 8:17).
If, on the other hand, we are aware that everything ultimately comes from God, then we will gain an outlook of genuine humility. How can one be proud about that which is not his doing?
Our physical senses cannot grasp that which exists beyond the realm of the concrete and the tangible. People who are mired in a limited world of sensory perceptions will suffer from pride and smugness; they imagine that their success is the work of their own hands. The act of eating and drinking in particular can lead one to a sense of complacency, as one proudly enjoys the material fruits of his labors.
Preventing this attitude is a major goal of prayer. Prayer helps us internalize the knowledge that everything is from God. Our prayers for understanding and forgiveness, health and livelihood, redemption and peace, reflect the realization that the most important things in life are not in our hands, but in God’s.
For this reason, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov stressed the importance of praying before eating. We must first recognize the true state of affairs — “Remember that it is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to become prosperous” (Deut. 8:18). Only afterwards are we ready to feed ourselves, a sensory activity which inherently entails a measure of pride and self-satisfaction.
[Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I on Berachot 10 (I:155)]