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How should we pray before meals?
The Mishnah is the first great text of the Oral Law once it had been committed to the written word. The first subject tackled there is prayer and it opens with this:
From what time does one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time when the priests go in to eat of their heave-offering until the end of the first watch – so says Rabbi Eliezer. The Sages say: Until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says: Until the column of dawn rises. It once happened that [Rabban Gamliel’s] sons came from a house of feasting. They said to [their father]: ‘We have not recited the Shema.’ He said to them: ‘If the column of dawn has not yet risen, then you are obligated to recite it.’
If you or I were writing an introduction to prayer in a religious textbook we would start by defining our terms. Not so here, because, to the Jews, prayer was just a natural part of their daily lives and so needed no introduction. What was worthy of discussion, though, was the practicalities of praying the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:9). Prayer is meant to be part of life, like eating and drinking, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us:
“We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. Each time we are about to drink a glass of water , we remind ourselves of the eternal mystery of creation , “Blessed be Thou … by Whose word all things come into being.” A trivial act and a reference to the supreme miracle. Wishing to eat bread or fruit, to enjoy a pleasant fragrance or a cup of wine; on tasting fruit in season for the first time; on seeing a rainbow, or the ocean; on noticing trees when they blossom; on meeting a sage in Torah or in secular learning; on hearing good or bad tidings— we are taught to invoke His great name and our awareness of Him. Even on performing a physiological function we say “Blessed be Thou … who healest all flesh and doest wonders.” This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.” (God in Search of Man p. 49).
There are over a hundred of such prayers for orthodox Jews. They are short, single-sentence prayers, called berakhot, blessings, with the formula, Blessed art thou Lord God, King of the Universe, who … There’s a saying in the Talmud that goes something like this, “it is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a benediction … otherwise he commits sacrilege.” The general formula is simply to thank God for something. Some of our set prayers tend to miss the simple point expressed here. For instance, think of our grace before meals. When nudged, we sometimes resort to a vague request for God to bless our food. Yet our food is already blessed, it is one of the many gifts that God gives to us. We don’t need to make the food holy by blessing it. Instead we should be blessing God and thanking Him for His bounty. The idea of blessing the food to make it holy is Greek thinking, from the platonic idea of the separation between the physical and the spiritual, the holy and the profane. Sometimes thinking differently is just thinking biblically.
The holiest day in the calendar for Jews is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day when one’s sins are seriously considered. It is also a day for community engagement and the central prayer on that day is a communal prayer, on collective responsibility, on confessing the sins of the whole community. The concluding part is this:
For all these sins, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission
There is a sense of family here, community is all-important, something that has remained with the Jews right until modern times.
This is an extract from the book, Hebraic Church, available for £10 at http://www.sppublishing.com/hebraic-church-101-p.asp