Religious or Secular, Pray Before Meals

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Blessed are You our God, King of the Universe,
who brings forth bread from the earth.
When my children were growing up, we began every family meal--which included breakfast and dinner every day--with a prayer. We are Jewish and so it was the prayer over bread, when we were having bread, or the catch-all prayer for everything when we weren't.

Now that my youngest has left for college and I eat out at friends' or restaurants more regularly, the prayers have declined. The absence has made me miss them. Recently, at a restaurant with a group of friends, I felt an urge to say a prayer before we began. Why the urge? What is the significance of the prayer?

First, these prayers make every meal begin with words of thanksgiving. That is intensely important to me. That every day I go around sated because of this food is an enormous blessing. Just read history and you begin to see that most time in people's lives has been devoted to the struggle to get enough to eat. Feeling sated was a rarity for most people in human history.

But we who find food central to our lives should not have to forgo the real benefits of a blessing because of religious overtones.

Just reflect on the huge variety of things people do eat--haggis; various animals including cats, dogs, rats, and guinea pigs; sea urchins; cocoa; mushrooms; scallops, mussels, and oysters; grasshoppers and ants--and you realize that almost anything that has nutritional value has been eaten. It must be that hunger drove people to try to eat anything and everything.

Travel to any developing country and you witness how difficult, literally slow, and deprived life is on 1000 calories per day. You become thankful not just that you have food, and enough food to not feel hungry, but enough food that you can have something different every day and at every meal every day. You begin to feel thankful that you can eat for the pleasure of taste.

One of the great purposes of these prayers is to make us pause and think how lucky we really are. This is something "bon appétit" does not and cannot do.

These blessings also make every meal a communal event. With a prayer at the start of the meal, there is no grazing or coming and going of people. There's no grabbing something and disappearing. The prayer brings people together and forces them to all start to eat at once--indeed, not to start to eat until all are present. The prayer serves to synchronize the starting of a meal. It also is a shared activity. Said out loud and communally, the prayer literally unites people. Thus a prayer makes a community for a moment. At the family dining table it serves as a reminder of the unity of the family.

Of course, the problem for us in the modern world is that these prayers have religious overtones. We have to invoke God, and use the prayer format of one particular religion. That makes it hard to do with a group of secular people or people from a variety of religions.

But we who are foodies, who find food central to our lives, should not have to forgo the real benefits of a blessing because of these religious overtones. Surely we should constantly remind ourselves of--and express--our thanks for our privileged position and access to wonderful food. I wish I were more creative and could craft the right words for a secular blessing of community and thanksgiving for food. I am sure some reader will.

I just urge that you too make a blessing part of your everyday meals.

Blessed are You our God, King of the Universe,
by whose word everything comes to be.

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Presented by

Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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