Bless This Food
Food blessings provide a window to the profound spirituality that we all share and that connects us to all humankind, nature, and the infinite.
The thanks-giving food blessing is the prayer said most often in the home. This is its essential beauty. Saying a blessing before a meal can bring us closer to our brothers and sisters, parents and friends. Asking a friend to choose and recite a food blessing is a wonderful way to welcome that person into your family setting. The occasional gathering for prayer, no matter how brief, keeps the heart and mind in touch with the most fundamental of joys: belonging.
To any child, a blessing provides the opportunity to participate actively in a family ritual instead of remaining a subordinate, passive member at the table. Children discover that food prayers provide an educational experience that stimulates the mind with many subjects: nature, history, spirituality, religion, people, and customs of other cultures throughout the world. Whether impromptu words or a formal prayer, the food blessing is a powerful medium that enriches the meaning of family and allows us to touch a higher realm of spirituality.
While prayers often derive from specific religious contexts, they may be experienced and enjoyed by all, just as religious music and fine art transcend their origins and have universal appeal. There are many nonreligious prayers that evoke spirituality by virtue of the beauty of the words and the underlying humanity that shines through.
Paleolithic rock art presents evidence of the intellectual life of our prehistoric ancestors. Humankind’s earliest recorded beginnings employ food images as an expression of thankfulness to supreme beings. The Lascaux caves in southwestern France date from 30,000 years ago, and the paintings on their walls depict an array of horses, bulls, and stags — the animals of survival for the Cro-Magnons. The extraordinary art in these caves celebrates animals as both a gift from the Almighty and sustenance on earth. To me these paintings are pre-language symbolic thought, an illustration of thanks giving for life-sustaining food.
Likewise, in Egypt virtually of all of the wall paintings in ancient tombs honor the gods with gifts. Food is ever-present as both gift-offering and sustenance for the deceased pharaohs (kings) and their retinues when making the journey to the next life in the otherworld. Ancient Egyptian art contains many images of offering tables of food to the gods Osiris and Isis, depicting gifts of grapes, wine, sheaves of wheat, cakes of divine bread, duck, and fish being presented to the gods by royal priests, kings, and queens.
From humankind’s earliest beginnings to today, food is the thanks-giving link and universal form of expression for gratitude to the Almighty.
Family and Guests Are a Blessing
While we recognize that religious worship has its center in churches, temples, and mosques, the family is the core of life. Gathering together to say a blessing before eating food is a wonderful way to bring God into our houses, right to the table with our families. Worship should be a vital part of every family’s life, but our modern, busy lifestyles often leave little time for regular religious worship. Today, the notion of the family is under siege by a barrage of social ills, and family life may be disrupted by parents’ absence as they work two jobs, by divorce, or by frequent separation resulting from business travel that takes parents away from home.
Food as Offerings to God
The development of civilization is synonymous in every sense with the growth of agriculture. The cultivation of crops predates the invention of the wheel and writing. Belief in the power of the firstfruits and grains of the season has provided the world with many rituals, beliefs, and festivals. The festival calendars of antiquity were based on agriculture, and our modern calendars descended from these agricultural calendars.
The cultivation of plants for food, as opposed to the use of wild plants growing naturally in the environment, marked human beings’ evolution from food users to producers of food.
All civilizations and all religions throughout all ages have associated food with God or gods; all primitive nonbelievers have associated food with a supernatural power or spirits. All recognize the earth’s bounty — crops and other forms of food — as a reflection of divine goodness.
Food prayers to the gods have many purposes. They make one’s wishes known, honor the dead in order to show reverence for life, and reconcile God or the gods with humanity in order to bring good fortune to human beings or to assure their place in the afterlife. The recognition of the earth as sacred manifests itself in the ritual and religious life of communities, by means of petitional prayers said by the laborers, by chants at seed planting and crop proliferation, by ceremonies for laying out plots, by transmittal of family tradition, and by reflection on the concept of home and hearth. Central to all cultures and religions, food is a sacred gift that forms the supreme and universal bond of all friendship.
The world’s quest for happiness operates within a context of reverence for God through a sacred link to food. In this uncertain age when ethnic differences divide people, we should strive to embrace our common humanity, which is expressed so succinctly in food prayers. These prayers talk to us with the wisdom of the ages and teach us that we are all one family, all one mystical soul. Food prayers throughout history may be seen as evidence of our profound sense of awe in the face of the infinite.
There are many ways to analyze and classify food prayers: by country, by culture, by language, by religion, by God, by food, by sacred imagery — to name a few.
Origins of Gratitude for Food
Consider: The first interhuman act of the newborn child is to experience satisfaction through food. In the first hour of life, our senses may transmit ephemeral sight, sound, or touch quanta, but it is the initial ingestion of milk from the mother that constitutes the first interhuman act: life-sustaining nourishment. The immediate response to this nourishment is a systemic and psychic satisfaction, and the hunger-gratification cycle begins at this instant and continues throughout life. The just-born infant’s first human experience is a “gift” of milk in response to its sucking instinct and need for food, a gratifying experience that affects the infant’s psyche on its deepest level. This gratia (thanks) experience is imprinted on the newborn’s uninscribed mind and is the primordial unconscious analogue to voiced prayer. Our first common human emotional experience is the gratia response for food.
The gratia experience we encounter as infants is later transformed and intellectualized over time into an appreciation of food as both spiritual and physical nourishment that we acknowledge in the gratia prayer.
A distinguishing feature of a sacred text is its beneficence to humanity. While not all food prayers are sacred, they all possess some kind of beneficial power for humankind. Food prayers embody religious and social contexts, encompassing myth, sacred doctrine, rituals, and social and cultural practices.
Whether that expression of thanks (gratia) for the gift of spiritual and physical food is voiced in a tribal ritualized saying or uttered silently or sung eloquently, a person’s intrinsic spiritual nature imposes the recognition that the very food before him or her is sacred and mysterious and comes to him or her from the beyond.
Gratia in Jewish Sources
The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The most important aspect of any Jewish prayer is the introspection it offers — a moment when we look inside ourselves and evaluate our relationship to God. The Yiddish word for “praying” is daven, a word whose origins in Latin and English mean “divine.” Deuteronomy 8:10 commands that when a Jew eats he must bless the Lord with this prayer.
The three main Israelite feasts recorded in the Bible were, in part, harvest festivals, for which multitudes of Jews brought fruits and vegetables to the temple in Jerusalem. These feasts were Pesach, at the beginning of the barley harvest; Shavout, in summer at the end of the wheat harvest; and Sukkot, in autumn during the gathering of grapes and other cultivated fruits. The Mishnah, too, shows the reverence for food and food blessings. Of the six major sections of the Mishnah — the first collection of Jewish law (ad 200) and one of the earliest surviving works of rabbinic literature — one section is devoted to seeds and agriculture, another to festivals. Food is rampant in Jewish text and festivals. Elal (Hebrew elul, “to reap” or “harvest”), for example, is the twelfth month in the Jewish year.
In the Old Testament the breaking of bread together symbolized the immutable bonds among all people. The Covenant with God was reaffirmed through deeply profound meals and feasts. Even the Hebrew word for “covenant” (b’rith) has etymological origins in the Hebrew word meaning “to eat.” The Birkat Hazan, the grace said before a meal, is recited before eating the first morsel of bread. It is an ancient Jewish prayer that has been intoned in Jewish homes over centuries.
The Jewish liturgy is full of the idea of divine grace interceding to aid humanity. Grace in Hebrew is “Ahabah Rabbah,” and thanks giving is “Shemoneh Esreh.” The liturgy requires separate blessings (b’rachot) for various categories of food. The blessing over bread (the hamotzi) differs from that over cakes and cooked grains; fruits and vegetables have their own blessings, as do wine and fragrances. Inviting poor people to have food with you makes your table an altar and the meal itself into an atonement. Martin Buber helps us realize that our very table is sacred: “One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls document another fascinating prayer of thanks that was a sacred rite of the Essenes, the authors of the scrolls. (Essene means “pious one.”) This ancient esoteric Jewish sect existed from the second century bc to the first century ad and, as a result, the scrolls have been unaffected by either Christian or rabbinical censorship (rabbinic teachers did not permit religious writings to enter Jewish posterity if they did not conform to strict orthodoxy). The scrolls provide an insight into ancient, pre–Christian-Jewish literature, customs, and beliefs.
One of the key concepts of Jewish eschatology (final days) is the Day of Judgment. A chapter in the scrolls known as “The Messianic Rule” gives a visionary description of the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah. It details the prescribed conduct for members of the community in celebrating this miraculous event. At the end of the world there will be a great feast. The Messiah will sit at the head of the table, and before him will sit the chiefs of the clans of Israel, the wise men, and all others. The congregation will eat and drink new wine, but not before a prayer of thanks. A priest will bless the firstfruits of bread and wine on the Day of Atonement, and then the Messiah will hold his hand over the bread, and each man and woman will be required to recite his or her own blessing. In this remarkably beautiful last rite, the final act of human beings will be to create their own blessings, to be uttered before the Messiah.
Gratia in Sumerian Sources
Historians acknowledge the Sumerian civilization as the very first (3000 bc). The Sumerians lived in Mesopotamia, later known as Babylonia, the cradle of agricultural development. The Sumerian and Middle Eastern pantheon had many gods of food, crops, and abundance, whose thanks-giving prayers did not survive the ages. This list included the gods Abu, Baal, Dagon, Mot, Nikkal, Ninib, Ninsar, and Tammuz. Sumerian mythology and culture were the source of the Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician, and biblical customs and rituals that evolved into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
A Sumerian artifact discovered in the mid-twentieth century revealed that giving thanks for food was a practice integral to the culture.
Gratia in Muslim Sources
For Muslims, confessing the proper beliefs is the foundation on which life is built. Muslims’ thanks-giving prayer is the basmalah, bismi-Llahi-r Rahmani-r-Rahim (“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”). Reciting the basmalah is the equivalent of saying grace, and it is never omitted before a Muslim meal. And a meal is never ended without uttering the hamdalah (also known colloquially as the hamdullah), meaning “praise God,” the required ending response to the basmalah. The Prophet is clear on the motivation for saying grace: “If you are thankful, surely I will increase you” (Koran 14:7).
Gratia in Hindu Sources
While not a food blessing, the Yajurved — one of the four Hindu Vedas composed in the early Iron Age, around the tenth century bc — acknowledges the sun as our primal source of nourishment. This blessing is a dazzling and beautiful voice from humankind’s earliest history: “O nourishing Sun, solitary traveler, controller, source of life for all creatures, spread your light and subdue your dazzling splendor so that I may see your blessed Self. Even that very Self am I!”
Fasting is common among most Hindus. They fast on certain days of the week in accordance with their beliefs, to appease certain deities. Most fasting Hindus abstain from eating meat and live on only fruits and milk. Fasting is seen as a form of penance (tapasya), a means to develop a close bond with the Supreme Being.
Hindu prayer cleanses the food of three impurities, those caused by contaminants in the vessel, in the food stuffs, and in the process of cooking. It is necessary to purify the food in this way, for pure food goes into the making of a pure mind.
In the Hindu belief, food cannot be eaten unless it is first offered to God. It then becomes prasad (sanctified or observed as holy), that is, food blessed by God.
Gratia in Christian Sources
The Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible abound with examples of blessings and incorporate into their liturgy food-related rituals, ceremonies, and metaphors. The New Testament, for example, records the sharing of food on numerous occasions. In Luke’s Gospel there are thirty-one such citations. There are fourteen in John, twenty-six in Mark, and twenty in Matthew. Throughout Corinthians, food and its consumption occupy an important theological position and are mentioned by Paul twenty-two times.
The Last Supper, the final meal eaten by Jesus with his apostles before the Crucifixion, traditionally has been called the Passover meal. For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer, recited at the Lord’s Supper, is a universal thanks-giving prayer, with its imagery of gratefulness for life-sustaining daily bread. Theologically, the Eucharist is the Christian sacrament commemorating the Last Supper.
The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek eucharistia (thanks giving). In the celebration of Holy Communion, the consecrated bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Two other intriguing examples are two prayers of thanks that, according to the Bible, Jesus offered at the Last Supper. We don’t know if the prayers were voiced or silent. Jesus’ exact words (if they were spoken) were not recorded by the authors of the New Testament. In the course of the Last Supper, the Bible tells us, “Jesus gave thanks” to God in heaven. The first grace was intoned before Jesus drank the wine, and the second divine gratia given before he ate the bread. These two thanks-giving prayers of Jesus are sacred mysteries.
Gratia in Chinese Sources
China’s religious beliefs are principally based on the worship of certain deities and on ancestor worship. Fundamental to Chinese dogma is that heaven is Yang and earth is Yin — and both exist in harmonious balance. In Chinese thought, there must be harmony in Yin (female) and Yang (male) principles if there is to be peace in the family. Chinese children grow up in homes that honor the father and mother. This balance and harmony are present in the Tao (Dao) — the Way of the universe.
Food and associated prayers play a central role in religions of the Far East. Confucius, a contemporary of Buddha and the most widely known sage, founded Confucianism in the sixth century bc, one of the two major Chinese ideologies. The other is Taoism (from Tao meaning “the Way”). Taoism is based on the annual rotation of the seasons and the harmony and balance of nature.
Whereas the religions of India emphasize karma and reincarnation, the religions of China emphasize reverence for one’s ancestors — the family. At the Tasze, the great sacrifice site in China’s huge Altar Park (location of the largest altar in the world), offerings of food, rice spirits, and other gifts are placed on the altar, and the spirit of heaven is invited by means of a sacred hymn to descend to the altar and honor one’s ancestors and the gods. Sie and Tsih, for example, the gods of millet and corn, are worshipped in spring and autumn sacrifices. The modern, expedient Chinese gratia before the banquet meal, Duo xie, duo xie (A thousand thanks, a thousand thanks), is a result of the cultural evolution of worship chanted to the many food gods of Chinese antiquity, among them Chi Ming, Ching Ling Tzu, and Chung Tso. A witty and sophisticated saying in Chinese cultural circles today that has the elegance of poetry is an observation made by the contemporary philosopher Ren Yi Shi Wei Tian:, or “People perceive food to be almost like God.”
Certain Chinese dining customs are worth mentioning here. Dinner invitations are sent in a red envelope, red being the color of festivity. Seating at the table should be spontaneous, so that no party is left standing while another is seated. After the meal, departing guests should be escorted all the way to the door: “If you escort a man at all, escort him all the way.”
There is a wonderful Chinese poem, “Inviting Guests” (prayer 57), dating from circa ad 273, that is as modern and meaningful for today as when it was written over seventeen hundred years ago. It is a wonderful glimpse of ancient Chinese hospitality, which we can see is identical to our own sense of sharing food and drink, and experiencing the sublime pleasures of friendship.
The most conspicuous element of European poetry is its preoccupation with love. The Chinese poet deals not with love, but friendship. Chinese poetry is influenced by the “Three Teachings,” based on Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, which taught about the importance of being loyal, unselfish, and courteous. Filial piety is considered the first virtue in Chinese culture; a respect and love for one’s parents and ancestors.
Gratia in Japanese Sources
Shinto is the old native religion of Japan that reveres ancestors and nature spirits. Derived from the Chinese Shen-Tao (way of the gods), Shinto’s central belief is that Kami, God, is the sacred power that infuses animate and inanimate things.
Amaterasu, the beneficent sun goddess, is the most eminent of the Shinto deities. The sun has been an object of veneration in many religions, such as that of the Egyptians. Amaterasu taught humankind the cultivation of food. Inari is the grain god. Shinto’s adherents believe in the power of spoken prayer, and among these are norito prayers, those that petition the gods for good harvests.
The Setsubun ceremony celebrates the start of a new season of seeds and planting. Its rites involve Neolithic rituals that survive today in techno-futurist Japan. A cornucopia of sacred treasures — rice, cakes, fish, and vegetables — is placed on the altar to express thanks for the bounty of the earth.
Buddhism’s history is rich with reverence for food and thankfulness for its nourishment. The great prince Gautama Sakyamuni experienced full enlightenment while sipping a cup of rice milk as he meditated on the doctrine of nirvana under the tree of enlightenment, the bodhi tree. Buddhists have offered prayers of blessing for everything from the cultivation of crops to the dedication of each plate of food for the betterment of humanity. As exemplified by the Buddhist prayers in this book, food can be truly blessed only when the person giving thanks has lived a life of service to both the universe that has provided the food and to those who suffer and are without food. Buddhism expresses thankfulness for food by its adherents’ “vow to live a life which is worthy to receive it” (prayer 129). A wonderful Buddhist mealtime prayer is: “The food is the gift of the whole universe. Each morsel is a sacrifice of life. May I be worthy to receive it. May the energy in this food give me the strength to transform my unwholesome qualities into wholesome ones. I am grateful for this food. May I realize the Path of Awakening, for the sake of all beings.”
Gratia in Native American Sources
Native American Indian tribes share a common reverence for the earth and all its bounty. Animals, harvests, and water must be accepted with thankfulness in rituals and prayers. Respect for the food gift is often expressed by asking a plant or animal that must be used for food for forgiveness for taking its life and by explaining why its death was necessary In Native American thought, human beings are the earth’s dependents, not its masters.
When your family and friends gather at the table, you will find starting your meal with a blessing will enhance the experience for all who are gathered. Anyone, young or old, can create a special, spiritual moment that everyone present will enjoy and remember. A circle of friends is the ultimate blessing.
This excerpt was adapted from the book Bless this Food: Ancient & Contemporary Graces from Around the World © 2013 Adrian Butash and printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. Contact them via their website at www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.