When you have eaten and are satisfied, then you shall praise the Eternal One, your God, for the good land you have been given” (Deuteronomy 8:10). This is the biblical instruction on which is based the obligation to give thanks after a meal.
Jewish tradition has developed numerous variations on the blessings to be said, based on the type of food eaten, the number of people who have eaten it and the context in which it has been eaten. That same tradition even ascribes authorship of the different blessings to Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon and Rabban Gamliel.
Little attention was paid to these subtleties at a recent communal function I had the privilege to attend. The commencement of the Grace after Meals was a cue for the majority of the guests to re-enact another well-known element of Jewish history: the Exodus.
I have often been astonished at the level of disregard that is normally paid to the recitation of the Birkat Hamazon at functions, where the voice of whomever is leading the prayers struggles to achieve superiority (even with the assistance of a public address system) over the volume of conversation at the tables.
But guests at such functions are a captive, if at that point unwilling, audience. No such restrictions apply to those at charity functions who have eaten their meal, heard the presentation and responded to the appeal. And so when Grace begins, they leave.
My response to those who choose to talk during my leading of Birkat Hamazon at bnei mitzvah or wedding celebrations draws on my experience as a teacher, gained in years spent in a primary school classroom before I entered the Liberal rabbinate. If there is conversation, I simply stop and wait for silence before resuming. I have not yet gone so far as to use those stock teachers’ tactics like folding my arms and saying “I’m waiting…”, or threatening to keep the miscreants behind after the dancing has finished, though it is sometimes tempting.
But my years in the classroom also taught me that the best way to hold the attention of one’s charges is to ensure that what is being presented to them is meaningful, accessible and relevant. And my experience of numerous Jewish functions at which the full Birkat Hamazon is treated with disdain suggests that this is not the case.
My instincts as a Liberal rabbi are, therefore, to shorten the prayers, encourage participation by offering transliterated versions of them and, where appropriate, incorporate some English.
One English passage used in the Liberal version of Grace after Meals reads as follows: “We have eaten and been satisfied. Help us to be responsive to the needs of others and to listen to their cry for food. Open our eyes and our hearts, so that we may share Your gifts, and help to remove hunger and want from our world.”
This reading, placed alongside the blessing in Hebrew which thanks God for providing food for all, reminds us of our responsibility to distribute wisely the gifts we have been given. This combination of gratitude and responsibility effectively summarises the essence of Grace after Meals; the rest, it could be said, is the equivalent of bullocks offered in biblical times: ritually accurate but over-elaborate and ultimately diminishing their significance to those offering them. Less, it seems, would mean more.
I recall a particular barmitzvah celebration where various delays left very little time for the post-prandial prayers. I announced that in these exceptional circumstances I believed the Almighty would understand if we gave our thanks for the food in a single blessing, recited that blessing’s six words, and received a rapturous round of applause!
Rounds of applause are routinely offered after speeches and presentations at such functions — but not after Grace. Yet in many ways the Grace after Meals is just that: it is a round of applause, a signal of appreciation to God for the food we have enjoyed. We would not engage in noisy conversation or get up and walk out just as the guest speaker or the host, the bridegroom or the batmitzvah girl started speaking. So why is it deemed acceptable to do so when God is being addressed?
Which brings me back to that communal function where the start of Birkat Hamazon was the cue for a mass exodus from the dining area.
I fantasised that had I been leading those prayers, I might have offered an impersonation of my prophetic hero Isaiah and leapt onto the table to denounce the disrespect being demonstrated by my fellow guests. I would condemn them for believing that having made their sacrifices to the hosts’ cause they felt they had discharged their duty and could leave without needing to acknowledge God’s presence in their lives.
Instead I meekly joined in the lengthy Grace after Meals while wishing it were presented in a way that might reach those fleeing for the exit. I watched the dining room empty and reflected on what I had learned about our modern Jewish community from that evening’s events: warm hearts wholly dedicated to supporting its charities, pockets of sufficient depth to provide generous support for those charitable projects, but souls with little time or room for God and the divine call of their Jewish heritage.And I believe the problem lies not in those souls but in the presentation of the religious heritage that simply fails to touch them.