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SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/2
Our Daily Bread (Pages 05 - 07)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The blessing of bread
Armand Abecassis


In the first place let us analyse the blessing over the bread which a Jew recites each time he comes to table for a meal. The expression blessing — Berakhah — is associated in the Indo-European culture in general, with a certain type of relationship between humanity and the world. This concept corresponds exactly with the theory of sacred and profane developed over a certain length of time by anthropologists and sociologists. Nevertheless it is not clear that this theory expresses precisely what is known as the Berakhah in the Bible and Talmud.

The Sociological Theory of the Sacred
According to official sociologists the world and the space/time continuum would have been profane in the first instance, that is to say neutral, and only in the second instance, logical rather than chronological, would the sacred have entered into the profane realitey; or to put it in another way, the world would be divided into two regions: the profane one and the one where divine power would reveal itself, the place where it dwelt, as in a sanctuary; a mountain, a tree, a fountain, or even an animal. The profane would become sacred when divine power revealed itself there. In this way the idea of a sacred or a holy place developed. In one way, the blessing would be the sacralization of the thing blessed, be it bread or wine, before it was consumed. To bless would be to make sacred, to invoke the divine power so that it would come and take possession of the substance, or again to recognize that the divine power dwelt in this substance. This way of understanding the well-ordered relationship between humanity and the world belongs to pagan religions, that is to say, religions which do not know the truth about transcendance. In these religions the divine is entirely engulfed by the world; it is physical or biological power, even astral power, because the stars can be looked upon as gods, or social power.

Relationship of Humanity to the World: the Monotheistic Point of View
The question is how to transpose this concept of blessing into the world of monotheistic faiths which are primarily characterized by the idea of a God who created the world out of nothing. In fact there is nothing divine in the world. The world created and constituted by God has become nature, functioning according to the laws fixed by the creator, it is true, but revealing nothing of God in its substance. We can say that God created the world, but the world is not God and no part of it is divine. We can also affirm that God has constituted the world, although the laws governing the universe are not divine in themselves, only in so far as they have God for their author. The biblical text says that God created the Sabbath because his work was finished. To speak of God's Sabbath is to say that God did no more work on the world which, with its laws, continued to function by itself just as a watch continues to function by itself without this being anything more than a sign of the intelligence which made it. The world is not divine, but it refers back to God; it is a universe with a reverse side of meaning and significance. But the meaning is not ineherent in its reality, it comes from without, it transcends it. Only spirit has meaning, be it that of God or of a human being. Meaning signifies the reference of a reality to something other than itself. Grass only refers back to itself; it is grass: a stone is a stone, just as a cloud is nothing other than a cloud. But when a human being looks at a cloud he/she immediately sees it in reference to rain; the cloud means rain, rain means a harvest, the harvest means food, bread etc... A project is born of human experience and reflection which shares, organizes, foresees, anticipates, hopes, prays, expects.
For the Torah, one of the essential dimensions of the human plan for the world and for reality, the fundamental structure of the relationship between humanity and the world, is the ethical dimension. This plan, or project, has to take into account the presence of the other in the world, with his own plan or project. So that these plans take each other into aeccount they must not be exclusive, that is to say absolute. Otherwise the conflict only ends in a war where the strongest is always victorious. Recalling that God created the world, the Torah lays down as a fundamental organic principle the fact that no ownership is either absolute of eternal: God alone is the absolute owner of the entire universe and humanity holds ownership only by delegation. This is also the meaning of the Sabbath: on the seventh day the labourer ceases to transform the world in order to give it back to its legitimate owner-creator. It is by giving up his sovereignty over the world each week that the human being is able to make himself ruler and possessor of it during the six days devoted to work, exercising self-control before he takes control of the world. But what does the Jew do on the Sabbath? He lives exclusively in relationship to (others and to God, forbidding himself all contact with the world. It is the Sabbath which makes his project both ethical and spiritual. It is on the Sabbath that he learns to take others into account and to recall this to mind when he makes his livelihood from the soil during the working-week.

The Berakhah: Recognition of God as the only Legitimate Owner
Let us now repeat what we have just said in terms of the sacred and profane, in order to compare it with the pagan religious concept. The world is not profane in the sense that someone has to sacralize it by a blessing before he can feed himself from it. On the contrary it is first and foremost sacred, that is to say untouchable, because it belongs to its creator. But a human being has to eat in order to live and consequently he takes his food from a world which does not belong to him outright. In other words, he has to desacralize the world to render it profane by his work and by innovations, new forms which he imprints upon reality. But the necessities and inbuilt biological needs of the human race are not sufficient to justify this desacralizing action. They could lead to killing,lying, exploitation, to blows and intimidation, in short to the exercise of power and force in order to eat and satisfy basic needs.
What gives individuals the right, and perhaps the duty, to extract their bread from the earth? Have they the right or the duty to profit by the inexhaustible fertility of the earth which they have not created and of which they arc in no way the legitimate owners? The answer is to be found at the table of a Jew. He has sown, laboured, watered, harvested, ground, kneaded and cooked his bread. Here is this bread, fruit of so much hard work and desacralization, on his table. He will — listen to him and watch him — take this bread and, now that he has fully earned it by his work, dispossess himself of it by recognizing that the only legitimate owner of this bread taken from the earth is the creator of the world.. Here is the Berakhah:

Thus he does not bless the bread but rather gives it back to its rigtful owner. In that case, why does he eat it? Because he shares it with all who are at table with him. It is this sharing with others which gives him both the right and the duty to term the next day to his field to desacralize it and once more take from it the bread which he acknowledges does not belong to him; he is only the one who is completely responsible for it. God has confided the world to such as he. The project of someone like that who says a Berakhah each time he draws benefit and joy from the world is a plan transcending both the world and himself. His is a plan connected with the plan of the creator. He enters into a covenant with God. His table is no longer a table but an altar.

Hamanity Receives only In order to Share
The kabbalists even write into the ritual this obligation of sharing bread with another, seeing it as the basis of human endeavor and of earthly toil. They recommend that the bread be cut into pieces after the Berakhah and the pieces put before the participants without placing it in their hands. We known that the only occasion when we must place bread in another's hand is when he or she is bereaved, when the one who receives the bread into his hand from the hand of another cannot work during the seven days devoted to mourning. Being unable to work, he is thus made dependent on the community, whose various families take it in turn to prepare the midday and evening meal for the bereaved family. To put a piece of bread into someone's hand is thus a sign of organic dependence. In fact it is the act of alienation par excellence by which a person, economically dependent on someone else who is his superior, his patron or his master,loses the exercise of his own freedom. Bread must not be used, even after the Berakhah, to make someone dependent on others. The piece of blessed bread must not be placed in the hand of another, it must be placed in front of him: he thus has the freedom to take it or not because, having listened to the Berakhah and having understood that it is the creator, king of the universe, who is the true owner of the bread, he can prepare himself to receive from him and him alone his daily food. The relationship of gift and very particularly economic gift, the gift of bread without which a person cannot survive, is the most dangerous of all because it includes all the other alienations. It is essential that the one who gives the bread knows that he only passes on to another what he himself has received from God in order to share. His table is an altar; he is the priest at his table, the one to whom nothing belongs, like the priest in the Temple at Jerusalem; he fulfils a service at this family altar, and this service may be either divine or tyrannical.

Hight Prices
Once when prices in the region of Kotzk were very high, the hasidim who had come for over the sabbath wanted to start home on the following day, but the rabbi kept putting off their departure. His wife was at the stove when he came up to her, his pipe in his mouth. "Mendel", she said, "why detain the hasidim? Prices are high at the inn and they will have to pay so much for their food!"
“Why is food so dear?” he countered. "Because people want to eat all the time. If everyone wanted to learn all the time, learning would be dear and food would be cheap."

Praying and eating
Rabbi Mendel was asked: 9t is written: 'Ye shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless thy bread.' Why is eye' written first, and later 'thy'?"
He explained: 'To serve — that means to pray. When a man prays, and even if he does so alone in his room, he ought first to unite with all of Israel; thus, in every true prayer, it is the community that is praying. But when one eats, and even if it is at a table full of people, each man eats for himself."
Martin Buber: Tales of the Hasidim, pp. 282, 284

Armand Abecassis is Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at Strasbourg and Bordeaux. He is well-known through his numerous articles and lectures on Judaism.


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