Summary: Charles Lamb, the early nineteenth-century English essayist, ruminates in “Grace Before Meat” (1823) on a specific challenge to table-side spirituality faced by the otherwise comfortable. The blessing before meals’ simplicity belies the complexity of luxurious lifestyles. Lamb’s message is material prosperity begets devotional adversity. Lamb spices his points with humor and biblical allusions, creating a brief five-page education on manducation.
Why this is “The Best”: If the essential aim of a benediction is appreciation, “Grace Before Meat” claims that the prosperous cannot hit the target. Only the poor and children can truly appreciate food’s value. It is the impoverished who can dine with a “present sense of the blessing” while the well-off are ashamed at the “co-presence of circumstances” which desanctify it. Lamb particularly focuses on the hypocrisy both felt and observed by meal goers who, while fastidiously pronouncing blessings, also anxiously await their end as a signal to begin voracious consumption. Lamb’s message is essentially in line with Ramban (Leviticus 19:2), correcting the manners of “scoundrels with permission of the Torah.” Awareness of having too much also necessarily uncovers the injustice towards those who are left outside to starve. It is almost to “praise God amiss.” This compounding discomfort with reciting blessings expresses itself in the comically common, “that never settled question…as to who shall say it.” Much like a hot potato, the “honor” of reciting the blessing is awkwardly passed around to avoid actively recognizing the contradiction.
“Grace Before Meat” therefore proposes an alternative model to uncover “the giver veiled by his gifts.” If the presence of excess impedes authentic religious sentiment, then it becomes necessary to wait for the time and season when “the still small voice can be heard.” A time of spare and moderate dinners. For if renewed appreciation for food comes at the price of losing a few rushed and unfocused blessings, so be it.
Judaism operates under a different paradigm. For one thing, blessings over food are not merely proclamations of thanks; they also serve as the redemption of heavenly property (Berakhot 35a). Regardless of the intensity of one’s personal gratitude in any particular moment, there remains a requirement to receive permission prior to partaking. In terms of scope, the full range of life’s experiences also fall under the purview of Judaism’s dictates, rejecting “implied and silent gratitude” for the verbally articulated kind. Lamb testifies to this comprehensiveness when bemoaning the absence of a blessing lovingly and routinely recited on the Torah: “Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts—a grace before Milton–a grace before Shakespeare—a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading The Fairy-Queen?” Gratitude for divine teachings follows a fortiori.
Finally, his emphasis on pursuing occasional heroic piety runs counter to the Jewish approach, which proposes an alternative and less ambitious program. While religious life can be one of relentless and gradual averaging out, its ultimate maintenance entails effort even in those moments most remote and statistical. Unique individuals may acquire their world in one moment (Avoda Zara 10b,17b), but it is the daily effort of those who care which preserves the continued presence of God. In the contemporary world, the tension between wealth and sacred intentionality is perhaps irresolvable; we are not lacking for flesh and blood examples in our own community. For one thing, our watering mouths have doused the “gentle flame of devotion.” The ease and convenience of consumption, enabled by the innovation and might of our own hands, have come with a spiritual price. Overwhelmed by the variation and stimulation of modern manna, is it any surprise we have no space for contemplation and consideration? A lurking sense of complicity in elaborate supply chain networks, which we feel too weak to correct, also transforms our blessings of thanks into resigned pleas for acquittal. Despite the challenges, there are renewed opportunities for redemption in every mouthful. Bite-sized solutions, while soothing, serve merely to distract from recognizing that this problem baked into the modern condition will take a lifetime of stumbling and adjustment to master.
Ephraim Fruchter is studying Geoinformatics and Business Administration at Hebrew University and learning towards semikha. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.