Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov cautioned that one should not eat before reciting the morning prayers:
“About a person who eats and drinks and [only then] prays, the verse bemoans: וְאֹתִי הִשְׁלַכְתָּ, אַחֲרֵי גַוֶּךָ — ‘You have cast Me after your body’ (I Kings 14:9).”
This homily seems clear enough. When you eat before prayer, “You have cast Me after your body” — you have placed the physical before the spiritual. By your actions, you demonstrate that your body and its needs comes first.1
But Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov was not satisfied with the verse’s simple meaning. The rabbi taught: instead of גַוֶּךָ - gavekha, “your body” — read the word as גאיך — gei'ekha, “your pride.”
“The Holy One laments: This person has become arrogant [by eating and drinking] - and then he will accept upon himself the kingdom of Heaven?” (Berakhot 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”? How does the act of eating fill one with arrogance and pride?
We should recognize that all of life’s blessings come from God. If we delude ourselves into thinking 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 self-satisfaction. The Torah cautions than a person should not say: “It was my own strength and talents that brought me all this success” (Deut. 8:17).
If, on the other hand, we are aware that everything ultimately comes from God, then we will acquire an outlook of genuine humility. How can we be proud about that which is not our own 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 achievements are solely the work of their own hands. The act of eating and drinking in particular can lead a person to a sense of complacency, as one proudly enjoys the material fruits of his labors.
A major goal of prayer is to prevent this hubristic attitude. Prayer helps us internalize the awareness that everything is from God. When we pray for understanding and forgiveness, health and livelihood, redemption and peace, we express out recognition 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 acknowledge the true state of affairs — “Remember that it is the Eternal your God Who gives you the strength 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 Berakhot 10b, sec. 155)
1 It is permitted, however, to drink water (or take medicine) before praying. People who are accustomed to drink tea or coffee in the morning — and without it, will have difficulty focusing on their prayers — are allowed to drink. This is considered a physical need and not disdainful conduct (Peninei Halakhah).