Chapter Seven

How the Jews generally behave while they eat.

In the previous chapter, it was noted that the master of the house is the last to wash his hands, so that he can sit down at the table right away and say the blessing. This is to ensure that he does not touch or say anything between washing and praying. The reason for this is not only that no evil may come to you during the meal, but also because the Chachámim have found a proof in the Psalms of David, and taught it from this saying Ps. 134.2: Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and thank the Lord. From this the wise taught two things. First, when you wash your hands before you eat, you should lift them up, so that the unclean water does not run back to your fingers, and make them unclean. Secondly, right after you wash your hands and make them holy, you should pray and say the blessing over the food.

When people sit down at the table, there should be salt, and a whole loaf of bread on the table. The Baal habbais, the master of the house, or the most respected Rabbi takes the loaf of bread, cuts in on the side which is baked best, but does not cut all the way through. He puts it down, covers it with both hands, and says the Beráchah, or blessing, with these words: Praised be you, Lord our God, King of the world, who produced this bread from the earth. He then breaks off the piece where he cut it, puts it in the salt, or dips it in sauce if there is any, eats it right away, and speaks nothing in that interval. If he should speak, he would have to pray again. He makes a big cut, and takes a big piece, so that he may not be looked on as a Tzar ajin, a miser, who is economical in good deeds. There must be three or more together at the table, otherwise each one makes the Berácha, or blessing, by himself.

After this, he cuts a piece off for each one at the table, and puts it before them, so each one can take it and eat it. Under no circumstances does he put it in their hands or mouth.

Likewise he makes also a Berácha, and thanksgiving over the wine, especially in countries where everybody drinks wine, and also if there is a Minjan, a right count, namely ten, or even if there are less, three or more. He has a special cup for the wine. He grasps it first with both hands. After that, he keeps it in the right hand, but if it becomes too big and heavy, he may support it with the left, but beneath the right hand. He lifts it a few inches from the table, looks steadily into the cup, and raises it up for a little while to honor it. He says: Praised be you, Lord our God, King of the world, who produced the fruit of the vine. Generally, if there is no special occasion, each one says the blessing alone over his cup when he drinks the first time. If there is beer or cider with the meal, they also say the blessing over that, but rich Jews take a cup of wine for the blessing, even though they may drink beer with their meal. No blessing is said over water.

After that, the man of the house says the twenty-third psalm of David. Then everybody eats well, if they are able. All the others must say a loud and clear "Amen" to all the blessings. This is because you read in the Talmud that the one who says "Amen" with devotion is more honored than the one who says the prayer. The Chachámim and wise men compare it to writing a letter for another person. After a while, that person comes, and puts his seal on it; only then is the letter valid and complete. The "Amen" after the prayer has the same value; it seals it and makes it valid. There must be salt on the table in remembrance of the sacrifices in olden times. The table is compared to an altar, and the food to the sacrifice. It is written Lev. 2.13: On all your sacrifices you shall offer salt. Therefore no table should be without salt.

The reason why they do not make the cut all the way through the bread is found in the teaching of the Chachámim who say: Whoever does so makes God angry thereby, as it is written Ps. 10.3: Ubozéah bérech nietz adonai, that is: He who cuts all the way through, and says a blessing, makes God angry. The Hebrew word Bozeah  means sometimes cut, or cut through, but not here. They did not interpret it correctly in the psalter either. But according to the Rabbis' understanding, it should be interpreted according to the German Orach chajim. This is a little book which contains interpretations for women and children, in which it is described how a person should behave throughout his life.

They put both hands on the bread, with the ten fingers spread out, in memory of the Ten Commandments which God has given, because of the wheat from which bread is made. I will not go into that now, but will give a few sayings regarding this. Ps. 104.14: You let the grass grow for the animals, and you let people use seed, so that you bring bread the earth. Ps.145.15: All eyes are waiting for you, and you give them their food in its time. Deut. 8.8: A land that has in it wheat, barley, vines, figs and pomegranates and other thing amounting in Hebrew to just ten words. In the same way the prayer [before eating bread] has only ten words.

Four things are of importance when the blessing over the wine is said; these are recalled by the Hebrew word Chamischah [="five." The word consists of four letters.]

They prove that you should lift up the cup with both hands from the saying Ps. 143.2: Lift up your hands as a holiness, and thank the Lord.

During the meal, everyone should be well-mannered, and consider that he is sitting before God's countenance, as it is written concerning the harvest Deut. 14.23: You shall eat it before the Lord your God. Also Ezek. 41.22: This is the table, which stands before the Lord.

The master of the house should stay longer at the table, to wait for some poor people to whom he might give from his table; such is a very precious good deed, and whoever stays longer after the meal and gives to the poor, will have his life prolonged, as you read in the Talmud. Of such the Prophet said Is. 58.7: Break your bread for the hungry, and if they are poor and miserable, bring them home.

You should not eat too much, as the most wise Rabbis teach in Talmud, since they say: There should always be poor people in your house; that is to say, you shall not eat too much, like the poor people who do not have enough to eat.

You should keep the bread clean and holy, as you read in the Talmud: The bread deserves three different honors: You should not put any container on top of it; you should not put it under a bowl; you should not throw it. The one who despises bread, and looks disdainfully on it, will come to great poverty, as it is written Job 15.23: He looks here and there for bread. The most wise ones write in the Talmud Hullin, 105b that there is a special angel who pays attention to those who drop bread on the ground, with the result that people tread it underfoot, and he brings such people into poverty. His name is Nabel. There was once a man who was constantly followed by this angel, who wanted him to be poor, and wished him to drop bread on the ground, so that it might be stepped on. One day the man sat in his fields in the green grass, eating his bread. The angel thought: Now will be the right time, because he cannot pick up the breadcrumbs from the grass, and he will have to step on them. When the man was done, he took his shovel, and dug up the grass with the breadcrumbs, and threw it in the water, so that the fish might eat the bread crumbs. Then the man heard a voice in the air saying: Woe is me, that this man took me out of my dwelling in vain, and I can gain nothing from him!

You should not speak while you have food in your mouth, says the Talmud, because some of it could get into the wrong pipe, and make you choke. Even when someone sneezes you should not say Assusa, that is, Salus, God give you health. The wise and holy men write that the prophet Elijah is always at your meal, and each person has a special angel at the table, and he hears when you pray, when you talk, and when you behave in any other way. If you talk about God's word and the holy Thorah, he stays with you, and the meal will do you good. But if you engage in idle talk, then the angel will go away, and a bad angel will replace him, and he will provoke quarrels, fighting, and disease after the meal. They will not eat their fill, even though they may eat much, as it is written Prov. 13.25: The stomach of the godless suffers a lack, and never has enough.

For this reason nobody should throw bones or fishbones next to or behind himself, lest he hit the invisible creatures. Sometimes the dogs fight over them, and someone may be bitten in the leg.

Therefore you should never leave a knife at your back, so that the angelic and spiritual creatures do not get hurt.

You should not knock out the bone-marrow on your plate, because the evil and unclean spirits might wake up, and think that you are having a fight and they might come and do harm. You may put a piece of bread under it.

Formerly, it was required to wash the hands and the mouth between meat and fish, but today this is no longer considered necessary. Although you should not eat fish and meat at the same time, but rather one following the other, you should remove the meat that is between your teeth by eating a piece of bread, and have a drink, so that fish and meat will be separated.

A knife which was used for meat is not used for butter or cheese or other milk products. Milk dishes and meat dishes are not put on the table at the same time or at least they should not touch each other. They have many laws and regulations regarding that matter, which will be discussed in a different chapter.

While a pious, upright man eats, he should consider the fact that men and eating alike are transitory, that only some of the food stays with you, but most of it is expelled again by human excretion as is discussed in the Talmud. Mar Zutra discusses this saying of the prophet David Ps. 32.6: Therefore all upright men will beg you leés metzo, that is, in a good Jewish interpretation, at the time of extraction. [The word metzo meaning here "auspicious" is midrashically connected with the word tzo'ah, excrement.] The Rabbis opinion is: An upright man is one who considers when he eats and drinks, that he has to lose it again by the process of his body's normal elimination. The two words have generally the meaning at the time of finding, i.e., at the right time, when God is found, or at a time when fear and need comes over you. These thoughts should move you to moderation, so that you do not show off with large meals. This will save you money and make you rich.

If you put a better quality wine, or any other drink on the table while you eat, besides the regular drinks for the meal, then the first one who drinks from it has to say a prayer, which declares: Praised be you, Lord our God, King of all the world, who are good, and do good.

The same goes for special dishes that are not eaten daily. One says: Praised be you God, who made many different dishes.

If one eats fruit which grows on trees like grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, almonds, chestnuts, apples, pears, walnuts, strawberries [Erdbeere -- this appears to be erroneous], one says: Praised be you God, who made the fruit of the tree. What does not grow on trees, but just on the ground, one says: Praise... who made the fruits of the earth.

Other things that grow neither on trees, nor on the ground, like cheese, butter, fish, meat, milk, honey, one says: Praise...through whose word everything has been made.

If he takes a fruit, and says the blessing, and then it falls from his hand before he puts it in his mouth he says: Praised be the name and glory of your Kingdom from now till eternity. This is because he said the name of God to no purpose, which is a great sin. If he drops the fruit before he is finished with his prayer he says: O Lord, teach me your commandments.

If one forgot to pray, and puts something in his mouth, if it is a drink he should swallow it, and say the prayer right after it. If it is food he should put it on one side [of his mouth], say the blessing and then swallow it. However, if it is still whole, he should he should take it out again, and say his blessing.

Just as you should not eat or drink without saying your blessing, you should not enjoy a smell without a blessing to God. Over a good smell that comes from rosewood, incense, cinnamon, you should say: Praise... who gave a good smell to the wood of this species.

Over the good smell of fruits like apples, pears, pomegranates, lemons, nutmeg, one says: Praise... who gave a good smell to this fruit.

Over balsam or other sweet smelling oil or water one says: Praise... who made sweet and good smelling oil.

Over good smelling herbs you say: Praise... who made spicy and good smelling herbs.

If you enter an apothecary's store, or a room with many spices and sweet smells, you say: Praise... who made all kinds of good spices.

In sum, they take great pains, and they write very seriously about the fact that whatever they enjoy and use in this world, should never be taken without praise and blessing to God. And if somebody uses something and does not thank God for it, he is called a robber, who robbed God unfairly of gifts and goods. This custom they have is praiseworthy, if it is done with the right intention in the heart, but they pay more attention to the outward deed, and place their reliance on words.

They always leave a piece of bread on the table, and one who does not do so will not be blessed, as is discussed in the Talmud. He who leaves nothing over from his meal can never hope for anything good. Cf. Job 20.21 It is written in the book of Chronicles II Chron 31.10 that you should leave something over: - We have eaten our fill, and there was much left over. But Rabbi Eliezer said: You shall not leave a whole loaf of bread over, because it may look as though you are using it for idolatry, as happened some time ago, and the prophet Isaiah lamented over it when he said : And you set a table for Gad and pour a drink offering for Meni. [Fortune and Destiny, the Syrian gods of fate.] However, a table is not set and prepared with just a piece of bread, but with a whole loaf. Previously they set and prepared a table for the gods after they had eaten their fill, to thank them. But now that have finished, they leave a piece of bread that something blessed might be left. If you eat up all the bread there is no blessing left on the table.

Before they leave the table, they hide their knives, or each one puts it in its sheath. This is because they read in the Gemara that once all the knives were left on the table, and when the man who said the prayer came to the place where it says in their Gratias or table-prayer: Rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem again very soon in our days. Praised be you God, who will build the city of Jerusalem again -- he thought of the destruction of the city and the Holy Temple, and he became so depressed and despondent that it was not yet built, that he took a knife, thrust it into his heart and killed himself.

Some time ago it was also the custom to sweep together the breadcrumbs under and around the table. Then you washed your hands and mouth in a hand-basin at the table, not on the floor or oven of the room because such a thing is witchcraft, and dangerous. This was done before you said your prayers after the meal, so that you could say the name of God and the prayers with a clean mouth. But today it is not done, probably because of laziness, and everybody does it after the prayer when you get up from the table.

After you have eaten your fill, the Baal bajis, or man of the house, a Rabbi, or visiting guest has to pray the thanksgiving prayer. It is a long prayer, in which they praise and thank God that he takes care of them and all creatures, that he feeds them and gives them to drink, and keeps them through his kindness; that he led their fathers from Egypt, that he let them have the land of Canaan, that he made a bond with them, gave them the commandments, and he will always keep them. They beg him to show mercy towards the city of Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple, and that he should rebuild the Kingdom of David soon in their days; that he should send them Elijah and Messiah to save them from this lengthy misery. He should keep them from poverty, so that they do not have to borrow to relieve themselves from poverty, or have to borrow or receive alms from the Christians, whom they call people who are nothing but body and blood. They mean that the latter are poor, mortal, corrupt creatures who have no communion with God, but are cursed, and mortal, and die like animals. But they themselves are a holy people, the property and heir of God. May he keep them by the abundance of his hand and not let them be ashamed. He should break the yoke of the Christians which hangs on their necks, and he should lead them again openly back to their land. He should bless the table, the house in which they had eaten, the man of the house and the woman, the children and all descendants. After that everybody says with a loud voice "Amen" and then they say quietly by themselves Ps. 34.10: Fear the Lord you holy one, because those who fear God have no lack. The young lions suffer hunger, but those who look for the Lord have no need of anything. This all they have to say with nothing in their mouth, there should be no breadcrumb or meat between their teeth, because it is written Ps. 71.8 : My mouth shall be full of praise daily. The prayer has to be said at the place where you eat. The Chachme hakkabálah write: Those who do not pray at the same place as they have eaten do not come to Kebhúrah, that is, they will die such a death as they will not be buried in a grave, namely they will be hanged or drowned. Some time ago a pious, god-fearing, Jew ate out in the fields and forgot to pray. After he had walked away he remembered the prayer, he turned around and said to his fellow traveller that he had to go back where he had eaten, because he had forgotten a precious gem there. When he came there and said his prayers, God sent a Nes, or miracle, and gave him a golden pigeon, which the pious Jew took home as a reward for his obedience of the law. In Schlauraffen land [a children's fairy tale] it would not have been surprising if a fried pigeon flew into his mouth, but this miracle was probably not far away from the Indian goldmines from which the golden pigeon must have come and fallen down here, too tired to go on.

The Chachámim and wise pious Jews forbid too many banquets and feasts during the week, and they act as though it were Friday all week, [preparing constantly for the Sabbath, and not celebrating on weekdays.] On the other hand, some constantly have company and feasts; they say: Today you shall drink in my house, tomorrow we will do it at your house, after that in the third etc. From this the Chachme Hakkabálah, the Kabbalists, write that at such Súdos or feasts, the evil spirit Samael eats with his chabrúsah, or company, and he tempts the guests to all kind of sins. R. Levi says on account of Rabbi Abben [Abin] in the name of Rabbi Jehosua: All those who eat and drink and make Súdos, or feasts, during the week, three days after they die, their bellies will burst open, so that all the rotten mass of their intestines will run over their panim or faces, as it is written Mal. 2.3: See I will throw the Peres or refuse of your feast days in your face. Then the Schedim or devils come and mock and say: Eat what you gathered for so long. With this meal I will let the Jews sit, and I will further report how they behave after they eat.


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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu