In his 1823 essay, “Grace before Meat,” the writer and poet Charles Lamb reflected on the awkwardness with which his fellow Englishmen utter benedictions before meals. Can the well-to-do, he wondered, really offer such prayers properly when they live without fear of going hungry? Ephraim Fruchter appreciates Lamb’s point, yet argues that the question yields different results when applied to the Jewish blessings said before and after eating, and the attitudes that underpin them:
For one thing, blessings over food are not merely proclamations of thanks; they also serve as the redemption of heavenly property (Talmud, Tracate B’rakhot 35a). Regardless of the intensity of one’s personal gratitude in any particular moment, there remains a requirement to receive permission prior to partaking.
Jewish tradition, moreover, has a ready answer to the following challenge, which Lamb poses at the beginning of his essay:
It is not otherwise easy to be understood, why the blessing of food—the act of eating—should have had a particular expression of thanksgiving annexed to it, distinct from that implied and silent gratitude with which we are expected to enter upon the enjoyment of the many other various gifts and good things of existence. I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts—a grace before Milton—a grace before Shakespeare—a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?
By contrast, Fruchter points out, the Talmud indeed mandates blessings for all sorts of other experiences, from enjoying fragrant smells to seeing a rainbow. And although there is no blessing for the reading of Milton, there is one to be said before Torah study. “Finally,” Fruchter notes, Lamb’s preference for “occasional heroic piety runs counter to the Jewish approach,” which instead values above all the more modest “daily effort of those who care, which preserves the continued presence of God.”