Eating at the Table of the Omnipresent

Alex Braver
March 15, 2012
Share:email print

There is a saying from Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot): “Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of the Omnipresent,” (3:4).  So, seeing that our tisch has brought us to eat from God’s table, it only seems fitting to say the blessing for sustenance, Birkat Hamazon, afterwards.

The rabbis, in Mishnah Berachot (7:4) , discuss the specifics of how and why we bless different things in different contexts.  One such discussion focuses on how we invite our fellow tisch-goers to begin the blessing after meals.

If there are three people, they say:
“Let us bless”.
Simple and direct, the idea of a “zimmun,” or invitation to bless, can remind us to take a moment and notice the people we’ve eaten with.  Sharing food is simple yet powerful social experience, a chance to  meet and bond with anyone from close friends to complete strangers.  Prefacing a blessing by acknowledging the people around you helps link our interpersonal interactions with our religious ones, our ethical principles with our ritual actions.

If there are ten, they say:
“Let us bless our God.”
With a minyan, the ritual quorum of ten required for a davar she’bikdushah, a matter of holiness (such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Call to Prayer, or a Torah reading) our invitation adds God’s name .  It serves as a reminder that God–the Omnipresent one–can be found in the midst of our interpersonal interactions.  Once we have a social interaction–especially around food–of a certain size, we have formed a tiny community, a microcosm of the entire Jewish community.  It is only in community that we feel capable of truly calling on God’s presence.  The Mishnah says that this is the rule–whether there are ten or one hundred thousand, God’s presence is recognized in the same way, and the zimmun remains the same.  Perhaps, this means that we have the potential to feel God’s presence equally, whether in large groups or in tiny communities?

Yet, there are a series of alternate opinions about larger groups:

If there are one hundred, they can say: “Let us bless YHVH our God.” For a thousand: “Let us bless YHVH our God, God of Israel.” And, most interestingly, for ten thousand: “Let us bless YHVH our God, God of Israel, God of the hosts, enthroned on the Cherubim, for the food we have eaten.”

So, perhaps, the size of a meal, a group, or a community does affect the way in which we understand and recognize God?  A large, elaborate meal or an impressive, massive gathering might bring a sense of awe or power that would otherwise be impossible, perhaps?

Rabbi Akiva’s opinion toward the end of the Mishnah, however, seems to challenge this idea:
Rabbi Akiva says, What do we find in the synagogue? The same for many as for few: he says “Bless YHVH”.

Though we may think that larger, more impressive gatherings, meals or communities can grant us access to a deeper sense of God’s presence, when Rabbi Akiva went out to find out what people were actually doing in his community, he found that–whether they were in large groups or in small ones–people blessed the same way.  Meaning, whether you have a tiny community or a huge one, a small simple meal with friends or a gigantic, elaborate tisch for thousands, the ability to elevate the experience and make it holy is the same.



Because, any meal no matter its size where words of Torah are spoken–words of friendship and love, of wisdom and caring–is like a meal eaten at the table of the Omnipresent.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>