Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World


Connecting cultures to each other, nature, and the infinite, breaking bread together is the most universal cultural experience. Commonly regarded as the first act of worship, saying grace acknowledges the bounty as a gift from the divine. Blending scholarly insight with the poet’s love of language, this new edition of Bless this Food presents additional prayers as well as expanded background information about each one. The graces have been carefully selected from all the world’s major religions (Hinduism, ...
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Bless This Food: Ancient & Contemporary Graces from Around the World

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Connecting cultures to each other, nature, and the infinite, breaking bread together is the most universal cultural experience. Commonly regarded as the first act of worship, saying grace acknowledges the bounty as a gift from the divine. Blending scholarly insight with the poet’s love of language, this new edition of Bless this Food presents additional prayers as well as expanded background information about each one. The graces have been carefully selected from all the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shintoism, Confucisnism, Sufism, Tamilism, Unitarianism), ancient traditions (Greek, Egyptian, Native American, Indian, African), and great poets, thinkers, and activists (Shakespeare, Milton, Gandhi, Mother Teresa). The book even includes two prayers in American Sign Language and features the short prayer “Bless this Food” in 19 languages. Each prayer is introduced with cultural context and intriguing details about its history and evolution.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A precious gem of a book! Every home would benefit from owning it and sharing the delicious wisdom it offers.”
John E. Welshons, author of One Soul, One Love, One Heart

“Cultivating gratitude is one of the most powerful choices you can make for your health and happiness. This book of blessings can help you do that on a daily basis.”
M. J. Ryan, author of A Grateful Heart and Attitudes of Gratitude

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608682140
  • Publisher: New World Library
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 534,763
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Adrian Butash studied history and world cultures at Fordham University. A marketing and advertising professional, he lives in Santa Barbara, California.

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Read an Excerpt

By Adrian Butash New World Library Copyright © 2007 Adrian Butash
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57731-591-9

Introduction Food Blessings Connect all Humankind

Open this book to any prayer, and you will find meaning and beauty. 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 who can read, this book gives the opportunity to lead the family in prayer, to participate actively in a family ritual instead of remaining a subordinate, passive member at the table. Children will also 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.

The book of blessings I have gathered here is a spiritually nourishing basket of poetic fruit - sacred prayers from all times, for all people. Amid these words you will find the soul of humanity, the song of ages. These simple prayers of thanks are a record of humankind's unbroken relationship with God and the divine. The prayers, many of which have been uttered over eons, have never lost their power.

Sharing food is the most universal cultural experience. Expressing thanks for food was humankind's first act of worship, for food is the gift of life from above. In every culture there are sacred beliefs or divine commandments that require honoring the giver of life - God or the divine principle - through acknowledging the sacred gift of food. By admitting us to his table, God became bound to us in a unique relationship. By admitting God to our table, we experience the love and beauty of that relationship.

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.

The family food blessing is a perfect and reverent way for the family to experience a direct kinship with the Almighty. A grace's spiritual power can be felt as a profound sense of reality. God is present. A family praying together is a beautiful thing -a wonderful blessing all its own. When we say a grace at the table before eating, we give thanks for our togetherness, our blessings, and our happiness. For loved ones who are deceased, for friends and family who are far away, a grace said at the table that mentions their names is a magical way to honor them and have them rejoin the table in a sublime sense. Moreover, we should all say a grace and include a thankful mention of our servicemen and servicewomen. They will hear you.

Children need prayer models to see, hear, and experience in order to learn from the ritual. The table blessing is among the easiest and most enjoyable for children to partake in-coming as it does just before the family feast. Bless This Food has several blessings that young people will enjoy reciting for the family, one-minute performances that all will remember and cherish.

There are four principal types of thanks-giving graces: the silent grace, the spoken grace, the sung grace, and the signed grace. I thought it would be nice to include an adult's and a child's signed grace (see "A Grace in American Sign Language" on page 172 and "A Child's Grace in American Sign Language" on page 173). They have a beauty all their own. See for yourself.

This book may be an especially useful tool when a guest or visitor at the table is called on to say grace, since many people are not comfortable with impromptu speaking. Keep the book near the table to provide guests with a ready script. They will find it easy to choose a blessing and then honor the occasion with a reading. A food blessing transforms everyone into a circle of friends.

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 ritualized saying of food prayers in thanks for God's bounty is an experience of acculturation in social and religious practices. This imposition of formal prayer-saying is a confirmation of our first primal food experience. It gives form to expressing thankfulness that reaches back to our first minutes of life and is something inherently cognate within us. The gratia experience we encounter as infants is transformed and intellectualized over time into an appreciation of food as both spiritual and physical nourishment that we acknowledge in the gratia prayer.

The sacred texts of the world, such as the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, the Koran, the Lotus Sutra, and the Hindu Vedic corpus, have a profound quality in common. What marks them as sacred is their treatment as holy documents possessing supreme authority and power by virtue of their divine origin.

Sacred texts are those created directly by God or revealed to humankind or recorded by holy prophets.

Through the centuries, rebbes, monks, and saints have orally passed down such sacred texts as the Pali canon, the sacred scripture of Theravada Buddhism, and the Torah. The latter originally was forbidden to be written down and was memorized by tannas, the flawless "repeaters" of the text. Sacred texts are immutable and are considered to be closed texts, which cannot be altered or revised.

A distinguishing feature of a sacred text is its beneficence to humanity. While not all food prayers are sacred (and some in this anthology are not), they all possess some kind of beneficial power for humankind.

For individuals whose intellectual interest is in what Paul Verlaine has called "mere literature," the compelling beauty of these thanks-giving food prayers reveals the noble spirituality of humanity. Prayer is how human beings relate to God, nature, and their place in the divine order of things.

Prayer is the principal channel we use in our search for ultimate meaning. Thanks-giving food prayers embody religious and social contexts, encompassing myth, sacred doctrine, rituals, and social and cultural practices.

Scriptural Sources and Texts

The gods command prayers of thanks for food. The Bible has several citations that illustrate this command, for example: "And thou shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God" (Deut. 8:10). The divine origin of the words of the Koran is better appreciated if you understand that the Koran is to Muslims what Jesus-not the Bible-is to Christianity. A verse from the Koran, the words of Allah, the God of Islam, as recorded under divine guidance by the Prophet Muhammad instructs Muslims on the sacred origins of food and the requirement for food prayers: "Eat of your Lord's provision, and give thanks to Him" (34:15).

The theological notion of grace infuses the meaning of thankfulness. Grace is the unmerited love of God and the presence of God in us. This presence of divine love is gratuitous. The word gratuitous (given freely) comes from the Latin gratuitus (grateful) and derives from the Latin word for thanks (gratia), which is found in many languages, such as Old French, gratus (thankful), and Sanskrit, grnati (sing praise). Grace in Greek is charis (charisma). Charismata is the power of the Holy Spirit. A grace is the thanks-to-God utterance before or after a meal. Food has always been recognized as the unmerited gift from God. Grace is the divine reality underlying all religion and faith-that is, God's loving generosity. In the Hebrew scriptures it is hesed (loving kindness). In the Tao it is found in the love of the Hindu triad Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In Christian theology, grace is the human-transcendent activity of God in every creature.

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.

While this book is a collection of blessings that civilization has preserved, there are other momentous prayers of thanks that are documented but whose actual words are not known. Two 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 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 (55) 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. Prayer 8 is a wonderful blessing I composed that is based on fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the Thanksgiving hymns.

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 first fruits 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.


Excerpted from BLESS THIS FOOD by Adrian Butash Copyright © 2007 by Adrian Butash. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents List of Prayers, by Origin....................ix
Introduction Food Blessings Connect All Humankind....................1
Prayers in Chronological Order (Earliest to Today)....................24
A Grace in American Sign Language....................172
A Child's Grace in American Sign Language....................173
"Bless This Food" in Nineteen Languages....................174
Sources and Permissions....................175
Index of First Lines....................183
About the Author....................189
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