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Jewish Table Etiquette

Rav Ezra Bick


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in commemoration of the yarhzeit of
Rabbi Lipman Z. Rabinowitz, by his family



Everybody eats, every day. It is true that there are occasional special meals, banquets, and feasts; but basically eating is viewed as an essential, and therefore not particularly meaningful, act. It is universal to all living things, and, from the usual religious point of view, too hopelessly bound up with the body, with physical impulses and mundane desires, to have significant spiritual potential. And yet, eating is riveted with halakhic directives. Not only are all holidays marked by special feasts, not only was the ancient Temple ritual bound up with the eating of the sacrifices, but even the daily act of consumption is filled with laws and prayers. Experientially, although it soon becomes second nature, the halakhic form of eating is one of the most basic underlying marks of a halakhic Jew, and is in fact practically the first thing taught to the little child.

As an introduction, I would first like to present part of a lecture given by my master and teacher, the Rav zt"l, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, some twenty-five years ago ("Structural Patterns and Ethical Motifs of the Haggada;" adapted from notes by Ezra Bick).

"A meal ("seuda") in Halakha is more than eating. The Halakha formulated many rules of how and when, an etiquette and an ethic of seuda. At the root of seuda lies a problem which troubled the Sages as well as the ancient Stoics and Cynics. Eating is a physiological process, in response to an elementary irresistible drive. There is nothing human about pursuing food. Many of the Stoics reached the conclusion that eating is a disgraceful necessity, a necessary evil. It is a carnal, brute action; and many Stoics therefore would take their meals in solitude, ashamed to be seen eating in public. The twin conclusions which arise from this premise are either radical asceticism or hedonism. Judaism also dealt with this problem. It is true that beasts also eat, but this universality of eating does not mean that man and beast must eat alike. Man can raise, or liberate, eating into a free and spontaneous act. There are two distinctions between man and beast. The beast eats alone - each one eats for himself. Secondly, the beast cannot withdraw from its prey once it begins eating. Man must overcome these two characteristics and elevate eating to the heights of seuda.

"Modern society accepts that man must not eat alone. The question, however, is what is the obverse of eating alone. The western world answered this problem in a shallow fashion by declaring that man is a social animal and quests for companionship. Hence, the humanization of eating can be accomplished by making eating a social activity, by developing table manners and etiquette, by placing eating in an aesthetic context of the well-laid table and correct conversation. The aesthetic experience is advanced as the sublimating medium of not only eating but all physiological drives. Since antiquity, society has attempted to humanize the sex drive through aesthetics. The hedonism of modern society conditions that the hedonae be purged of brute forces. What is beautiful is good. "Judaism has defied the notion of the redemptive power of the aesthetics. The experience of the beautiful is not redemptive at all. Rather, beauty has a hypnotic, almost orgiastic effect on man, robbing him of his freedom and dignity. In the Torah, Eve succumbed to the beauty of the tree ("The woman saw that the tree... was pleasant to the eyes," Genesis 3,6); the fallen angels succumbed to the beauty of the daughters of man (6,2); the People of Israel in the desert succumbed to the beauty of the Midianite women (Numbers 25,1). Judaism says that beauty itself is in need of redemption. Beauty can drag down a human institution to the depths of a beastly life. The elaborate, beautiful meal is rejected. "(The head of the Gestapo in Vilna was named Weiss. He was an accomplished musician, an expert on Bach. He was also an expert on murdering children. He especially liked to do both at once.)

"Judaism substitutes something else in place of beauty. In the mystic discipline of the Kabbala, there are two movements, "chesed" (generosity) and "gevura" (strength, heroism). Chesed is a movement of expansion, of surging forward towards parts unknown, vistas invisible in the haze of morning. Chesed is compared to the overflowing river, flooding the countryside. Gevura is a movement of recoil. It denotes flight from society into the private recesses of oneself. Gevura is the flight of the lonely one to the Lonely One. Both movements must be mastered by man, at different times. "To elevate eating, we need a community, not that of western society, but one of chesed. Chesed means compulsive kindness, irrespective of the size of one's possessions. It encompasses an attitude - whatever I own for myself is too much.

"Judaism creates a community not of artists and aesthetes, but of chesed-experiencing, chesed-thinking, chesed-oriented, chesed-questing individuals, who cannot sleep because someone does not have bread. Only that community can convert physiological eating into a humanized seuda. And mere humanity is not enough. The meal is redeemed by its becoming a divine service. The sacrifice offered on the altar in the Temple - what is it? It is the great meal of man and God. "And there shall you eat before HaShem your God, and you shall rejoice in all the endeavors of your hands, you and your household, with which HaShem your God has blessed you" (Deut. 12,7). There is no division between host and guests - all eat and rejoice before God. The institution of "zimun" confirms that this is true of every meal. "Zimun" means the collective recital of the blessing after eating. Together, as a single voice, the eaters praise God because they ate together. The original institution of zimun was for a community of a rich host and poor guests, a community of chesed. The halakha is based on the idea that the bread of each one be accessible to the others."

Let me explain the halakha to which the Rav zt"l is referring.

After eating, one is required to recite a blessing, basically thanking God for the food. We will discuss what a blessing, a berakha, is supposed to mean in halakha next time. But the point now is that this berakha, like personal prayer, is meant to be recited personally by each person who is obligated to do so. In cases where someone is incapable of reciting a berakha, there exists a halakhic mechanism whereby another can recite the berakha for him, where he listens and thereby fulfills his obligation. But optimally, every communication with God should be direct. Halakhic Judaism does not recommend having others pray in your place. Nonetheless, in this case, the Mishna (Berakhot 7,1) states that "three who ate as one" should have one person recite the blessing (and an additional one) for all three. This is called "zimun."

The Rav zt"l explained that zimun is not a case of one person having his berakha relate to another who listens; i.e., in the final analysis, we do not view it as though all three have individually fulfilled the obligation. Rather, in this case, having eaten "as one," they collectively are obligated in only one berakha. In fact, they are not permitted to separate and recite the berakha individually. They have been joined, by sharing their food (which is the meaning of "eating as one"), into a community, and the berakha is a single communal one, and not an individual one multiplied by three.

The last line in the quote from the Rav above, that the food be mutually available, refers to the halakha that states that in order to perform zimun, the food before them must be permitted to all. In other words, even though each ate from his own plate, the berakha of zimun is based on the idea that they were sharing the food, eating, as it were, from a common plate. What we see here is that this occurrence, the joining together to share food, is sanctified by the addition of a special berakha, because the community, three individuals who share their food, has a greater value than the sum of its parts. Eating, the purely animal function of nourishment, serves to bind men together in a greater unit because it is a vehicle of chesed.

The Rav also mentioned in passing a comparison with the sacrifice on an altar. This refers to a famous statement of the Sages, that a table (for eating) is like an altar. Now, at first glance, the exact opposite would appear to be true. An altar, the site of a sacrifice, is where man gives up his possessions, his food, and restrains his indulgence and consumption. The table in my dining room, on the other hand, is where I indulge my desires and drives. God is the object of the altar; I am the object of my table. But if I see the table as a vehicle of chesed, if I sanctify my eating by sharing with others, then I purify eating of its hedonistic element. A man for himself is mundane; sharing with others, giving to others, creates the presence of the holy in our midst. The Rav continued in the opposite direction as well. The holy altar in the Temple was also the center of our eating. First fruits (bikkurim) were brought to Jerusalem to be eaten together before God. The equality and community is itself a sign and a cause of holiness, redeeming the simple basic act of consumption and raising it to the level of humanity, and even more.

In western religious thought, eating would not normally be considered a fit vehicle for holiness. Holiness is associated with asceticism, with denying the naturalness of the body. But this is not true in Judaism. On the contrary, it is axiomatic that a holy soul can be found only in a holy body, and the holiness of the body is achieved not by denying it, but by redeeming it, by molding the naturalness of the body to reflect value. The value described above, that of chesed, is one example. Without food, without eating, both ours and others', there can be no sharing, no chesed, no joining of different individuals into a greater whole, a whole which becomes the vehicle of holiness. The hermit cannot practice chesed. In this way, the natural urges are not only humanized, but hallowed as well.

The direct expression of the sacred potential of eating is found in the berakha, the blessing recited both before and after eating. The gemara (Berakhot 35a) states:

R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: If one who benefits from this world without a berakha, it is as though he has benefited from sacred objects, as is written, "The earth and all its contents are God's." R. Levi posed the question: It is written, "The earth and all its contents are God's," and it is also written, "The heavens are God's and the earth He has given to man?" There is no contradiction - One verse speaks of before the berakha; one after the berakha.

The obvious explanation is that before the berakha, everything is God's; after the berakha, He gives it to man. Note the apparent paradox - the method by which man acquires possession of the goods of the world is by reciting a berakha, a declaration that God is the master (Blessed are You, our God King of the universe, that everything was made by His word). What this means is that one must genuinely recognize that nothing is really his, but is given to us by God. By our recognition of that fact, by acknowledging the sacred nature of the world, we have raised our upcoming benefit to the level of the sacred, we have invested our own bodily activities with holiness, so there is no longer a contradiction between our use of the world and its divine origin. This too is deeply rooted in the chesed we spoke of earlier. If the food is not mine but God's, who has given it to me in chesed, I should obviously be prepared to share it with others.

(In an interesting twist, a chassidic interpretation of the gemara reversed the answer of R. Levi. BEFORE one makes the berakha, the food is yours; AFTER you make the berakha, it is God's, sacred food, like a sacrifice on the altar. The meaning is the same, despite the clever reversal. The berakha is a vehicle of sanctification, even as it allows us to partake of the food.)

The experiential result of the requirement to recite a berakha before eating is very powerful. A halakhic Jew cannot put even the smallest piece of food into his mouth without reciting a berakha first. Precisely because eating is such a natural, almost unconscious activity, this halakha forces one to PAY ATTENTION, to hallow his every step, to take nothing for granted, and, of course, in this particular case, to recognize that we do not own our world, we are not masters of it to do as we please. Practically, it is a halakha easy to forget, since the motion of hand to mouth is such a natural one - that is precisely the reason it is so important. Judaism seeks to insure that we pay attention even to what we eat, because it is the body, our relationship to it and to the world that supports it, that is the first step to creating a holy personality. Together with the theme of the previous lecture, the need to discriminate what we eat and separate the permissible from the forbidden (i.e., to step back and NOT eat everything), the laws of food and eating insinuate themselves at the most basic level of human existence. Man reaches higher not by ignoring the "base" levels, surely not by negating them, but by hallowing them, and thereby hallowing himself, his natural self.

Next lecture, we will discuss the meaning of a blessing - what does it mean to "bless God," and why this is the basic form of nearly all communication with God.

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