by Kelton Cobb
Kelton Cobb lives in Colorado, in addition to writing, he has worked as a printer and as a carpenter. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 5, 1986, p. 241. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Everything God has created is good, and no food is to be rejected, provided grace is said for it: the word of God and the prayer make it holy [I Tim. 4:4-5].
In the past three years I have made a number of road trips between Denver and New Jersey, traversing terrain that has a reassuring persistence. From Kansas City to Reading, Pennsylvania, the land is planted in corn -- 1,500 miles and hundred of thousands of acres of corn, interrupted only occasionally by a city like St. Louis or Indianapolis with their suburbs and industrial belts.,
I asked a friend from Illinois what was done with all that corn. "It takes a lot of it to keep the world in cornflakes," he said. He had made a good point. We in North America are big cornflake eaters -- not to mention our appetite for other forms of processed corn, such as Fritos, Doritos. Captain Crunch and numerous other variations on nature’s bounty. All of those acres of corn are annually converted into a thousand different products intended to stimulate our jaded tastebuds. All that corn is picked, husked and processed in ingenious ways and made ready to eat from the box.
It has to be that way. We do not have time for slow food; our schedules cannot accommodate it. One of the advantages of the 20th century is our liberation from the slow drudgery of plowing, sowing, harvesting, milling and cooking from scratch. Factory food frees us from all that bother. It is easy to buy, easy to unpackage, easy to warm up, easy to look at and easy to eat. It fuels our pursuits without wasting our time.
All of which raises an interesting question. Since North Americans place such a high premium on gastronomic convenience, why do some people still insist on praying over the food they are about to consume? Even people who seldom if ever go to church often pause for a blessing before supper. Perhaps the custom reflects the remnants of a religious upbringing -- the vestiges of some vague consciousness of God that food can provoke in us. Maybe a bowl of cornflakes represents to us a certain providence in the universe, and in its presence a reverent pause is almost a reflex action; food, ready to be eaten, triggers in us something like an unavoidable, ontological religiousness. Then again, perhaps there are more functional explanations, such as that saying a prayer is an indirect way of complimenting the cook or calming the kids.
For whatever reason a table blessing is remembered, however, it provides a thoughtful gap in our tight schedules where God can conceivably intrude. We refer to it as table "grace," after all. And saying grace strikes me as one of those irrational instances in which ritual triumphs over convenience, in which our consumption of fast food throttles down long enough for God to be acknowledged.
Martin Buber tells the story of an old Hasidic master who asked a rabbi what puzzled him most about his neighbor. "I heard him say," said the Hasid, "that he was surprised that merely saying grace is not enough to make men God-fearing and good."
"I think differently." the Hasid reflected. "I am surprised that merely eating is not enough to make men God-fearing and good. For it is written. ‘The ox knows its owner and the don ke.y its master’s trough."’
The kitchen table, heaped with food, is our trough. Most of us, if we pray at all, become God-fearing enough at that trough just long enough to manage a cursory, "Thank you, God, for this day and for this food. Amen." Then we pile the foodstuff onto our plates, gobble it down, excuse ourselves and resume our schedules refueled. Fast prayers for fast food. We don’t linger long enough truly to acknowledge God’s generosity in our bounty.
During the summer months my grandmother always saw to it that some produce from my grandfathers garden graced the table. His carefully cultivated tomatoes, bell peppers, chiote squash, string beans or peaches were his contribution to the ceremony of mealtime. When we sat down to eat, I was prepared to be refreshed, not merely refueled. All of my senses were assaulted -- with color, aroma, flavor, texture and sound. I recall my grandfather’s prayer, a formula that always began: "Our most gracious and loving Father, we praise and thank thee for the gift of thy son Jesus and for life eternal through him. We thank thee for guidance and for strength and for blessing us with this food . . . ." Table grace for my grandfather was a confession of faith, of ultimate loyalties. Food reminded him of his dependence on God. Food reinvigorated his faith and prompted him to confess it. Before he ate, he acknowledged his life as a gift from God.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul suggested that prayer makes food holy. The saying of grace sacralizes the food. That is what "blessing" is, after all. To bless food is to make it sacred
First, according to the Treatise, the family and guests gathered around the table. A clay pitcher full of water was carried in from the back room. The father, or host, waited for silence, then declared, "Blessed art thou who has given us command concerning the washing of the hands" -- whereupon each person in the group stretched out his or her hands to receive water poured from the pitcher. After drying their hands, they sat down. The prayer was resumed with a confession of their loyalty to God and to God’s kingdom. Included in the prayer was a reminder that the seasonal rains necessary for the growth of corn, grapes and olives were contingent on human service and love for God -- no devotion, no rain. The earth yields fruit at God’s command, the prayer affirmed, and fertile land is a gift. That is essentially the content of the prayer that preceded the actual blessing of the food.
Next, the food was brought in and set down on the table. The host studied each dish because there was a special blessing to be applied to each category of food. He commenced the blessing: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe. . ."; Then, with his mind’s eye first on the loaf of bread baked from barley flour, he said, "who brought forth bread from the earth . . . ; then for the pot of lentils he prayed, "who created different kinds of seeds . . . ," and for the plate of onions and radishes, "who created different kinds of herbs. . . ." For the locusts fried in a batter of honey and flour, he continued, "by whose word all things exist . . ."; for the bowl of figs, "who created the fruit of the tree. . ."; for the wine, "who created the fruit of the vine . . ." And for the baked fish, he exclaimed, "Blessed be the One who created this baked fish; how beautiful it is!" Each item of food and drink appropriately blessed, according to the formula recalling the unique means through which God provided that item, the host concluded, "For all came into existence by God’s word. Amen." The host then raised his head, broke a loaf of bread and distributed portions of food to each person at the table. Finally, everyone ate.
After the meal, spices were sprinkled on hot coals to produce a fragrant incense. The host proceeded with a benediction which was either spoken or sung as a hymn. The content of the benediction was essentially a thanksgiving for the food, for the gift of good land, and for the Temple. It was often concluded with the host testifying, "I have never seen the righteous forsaken. Amen."
What is striking about these Jewish table blessings is the reverent care given to such a common activity. Hands were washed not only for sanitary reasons, but in order to make them ritually pure for handling food, which was understood to be a gift from God. As a gift, food was holy, and to avoid desecrating it the people washed. Eating was a sacred ritual. So that the vastness of God’s gift of good land and the food harvested from it could be more fully appreciated, the one saying the blessing paused over each dish. The individual blessings recognized the magnitude of the gift by elaborating its variety: the fruit of the vine, the fruit of the tree, the different kinds of seeds, the herbs -- each focused on the origin of the table’s bounty in a way that praised God for the earth’s glorious fertility. And its words of appreciation outstripped any cursory "Thank you, God, for this food."
Buber has recorded one Hasid’s story of Abraham’s reply to a guest who had eaten at Sarah and Abraham’s table. When the guest had finished and wiped his chin, he rose to thank Abraham. Abraham asked the man, "Was the food that you have eaten mine? You have partaken of the bounty of the God of the universe. Now praise, glorify, and bless the One who spoke and the world was.
The Hasid went on to comment, "Whoever enjoys any worldly pleasure without benediction commits a theft against God."
It is not easy to picture food as holy. And the way we treat all those cornfields is anything but holy; the unnatural forms we force the corn to take are an insult to the good land on which it is grown. The fast factory food liberates us to live in the jet age, but it does not teach us that food is holy. Fast food teaches us that food is fuel; consequently, we are much better at cursing food than at blessing it.
Buber recounts the tale of an old rabbi, Abraham Yehoshua Heshel, who was considering the prospect of his death. Pushing back from the table after the noon meal, he recited the benediction, then stood up and began to pace slowly. Alone in the room, he pondered with knitted brow what God’s verdict would be on his accomplishments. Suddenly his face glowed. Abraham stopped by the table covered with crumbs, reached out and gently stroked it with his hand. "Table, good table," he said, "you will testify on my behalf that I have properly eaten and properly prayed at your board."
That evening, Abraham Yehoshua Heshel instructed his son that when the time came he desired to be buried in a coffin built from the boards of his dismantled table.
The food we eat, and the way we handle it, may tell God a good deal. The table blessing is not simply a nice custom. It is a sacramental litany. Food and nourishment are made holy when received with a blessing.