The sacred texts of the world, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Lotus Sutra, the Hindu Vedic corpus, have a common profound quality. What marks them as sacred is that they are treated as holy documents possessing supreme authority and power, by virtue of their divine origin. Sacred texts are created directly by God or revealed to humankind or recorded by holy prophets. Through the centuries, rebbes, monks and saints have orally passed down such sacred texts as the Pali canon, the sacred Scripture of Theravada Buddhism, and the Torah, which originally was forbidden to be written and was memorized by tannas, who were flawless ``repeaters'' of the text. Sacred texts are immutable and are considered ``closed'' texts, which cannot be altered or revised. A distinguishing feature of a sacred text is its beneficence to humanity. While not all food prayers are sacred (including those in this anthology), they all possess some kind of beneficial power for humankind.
For those whose intellectual interest is in what Paul Verlaine called ``mere literature,'' the compelling beauty of these thanksgiving food prayers reveals the noble spirituality of humanity. Prayer is how human beings relate to God, nature, and their place in the divine order of things. Prayer is the principal channel we use in our search for ultimate meaning. Thanksgiving food prayers embody religious and social contexts, encompassing myth, sacred doctrine, rituals, and social and cultural practices.
Sharing food is the most universal cultural experience. Expressing thanks for food was humankind's first act of worship, for food is the gift of life from above. In every culture there are sacred beliefs or divine commandments that require honoring the giver of life--God or the divine principle--through acknowledging the sacred gift of food. By admitting us to his table, God became bound to us in a unique relationship. By admitting God to our table, we experience the love and beauty of that relationship.
The gods command prayers of thanks for food. The Bible has several citations: ``And thou shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God'' (Deut. 8:10). The divine origin of the words of the Koran are better appreciated if you understand that the Koran is to Muslims what Jesus--not the Bible--is to Christianity. A verse from the Koran, the words of Allah, the God of Islam, as recorded under divine guidance by the Prophet Muhammad instructs Muslims on the sacred origins of food and the requirement for food prayers: ``Eat of your Lord's provision, and give thanks to Him'' (34:15).
While some people may believe that ``grace'' is a Christian or Western notion, the etymology of the word shows otherwise. The theological notion of grace infuses the entire meaning of thankfulness. Grace is the unmerited love of God and the presence of God in us. This presence of divine love is gratuitous. Gratuitous (given freely) comes from the Latin gratuitus (grateful) and derives from the Latin word for thanks (gratia), found in many languages; Old French, gratus (thankful); Sanskrit, grnati (sing praise). Grace in Greek is charis (charisma). Charismata is the power of the Holy Spirit. A grace is the thanks-to-God utterance before or after a meal. Food has always been recognized as the unmerited gift from God. Grace is the divine reality underlying all religion and faith--that is, God's loving generosity. In the Hebrew Scriptures it is hesed (loving kindness). In the Tao it is found in the love of the Hindu triad Brahma, Vishnu, Siva. In Christian theology, grace is the human transcendent activity of God in every creature.
Whether that expression of thanks (gratia) for the gift of spiritual and physical food is voiced in a tribal ritualized saying or uttered silently or sung eloquently, a person's intrinsic spiritual nature imposes a recognition that the very food before him or her is sacred and mysterious and comes to him or her from the beyond.
Consider: The first interhuman act of the newborn child is to experience satisfaction through food. In the first hour of life our senses may transmit ephemeral sight, sound, or touch quanta, but it is the initial ingestion of milk from the mother that constitutes the first interhuman act: nourishment. The immediate response to this nourishment is a systemic and psychic satisfaction, and the hunger-gratification cycle begins at that instant and continues throughout life. The just-born infant's first human experience is a ``gift'' of milk in response to its sucking instinct and food need, a gratifying experience that has an impact on the infant's psyche on its deepest level. This gratis experience is irrevocably imprinted on the newborn's uninscribed mind and is the primordial unconscious analogue to voiced prayer. Our first common human emotional experience is the gratia response for food.
The ritualized saying of food prayers in thanks for God's bounty is an acculturated experience derived through social and religious practices. This ``imposition'' of formal prayer saying is a confirmation of our first primal food experience. It gives form to expressing thankfulness that reaches immediately back to our first minutes of life and is something inherently cognate within us. The gratia experience we encounter as infants is transformed and intellectualized over time into an appreciation of food as both spiritual and physical nourishment that is acknowledged in the gratis prayer.
There are four principal types of thanksgiving grace: the silent grace, the spoken grace, the sung grace, the signed grace. I thought it would be nice to include an adult and child's signed grace (prayers 133 and 134). They have a beauty all their own. See for yourself.
While this book is a collection of blessings that civilization has preserved, there are other momentous prayers of thanks that are documented but whose actual words are not known. An intriguing example is two prayers of thanks that, according to the Bible, Jesus offered at the Last Supper. We don't know if the prayers were voiced or silent. Jesus' exact words (if they were spoken) were not recorded by the authors of the New Testament. In the course of the Last Supper, the Bible tells us, ``Jesus gave thanks'' to God in heaven. The first grace was intoned before Jesus drank the wine, and the second divine gratia before he ate the bread. These two thanksgiving prayers of Jesus are sacred mysteries.
The Dead Sea Scrolls document another fascinating prayer of thanks that was a sacred rite of the Essenes, the authors of the scrolls. (Essene means ``pious one.'') This ancient esoteric Jewish sect existed from the second century basmalah formula bismi-Llahi-r Rahmani-r-Rahim, ``In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.'' Basmalah is never omitted before a Muslim meal; it is the equivalent of saying grace. The meal is never ended without uttering the hamdalah, the ``praise God.'' The hamdalah (colloq. hamdullah) is the required ending response to the basmalah. The Prophet is clear on the motivation for saying grace: ``If you are thankful, surely I will increase you'' (Koran 14:7).
In the Hindu belief, food cannot be eaten unless it is first offered to God. It then becomes prasad (sanctified or observed as holy), something to be eaten that was blessed by God. Hinduism puts great emphasis on the loving reliance upon God. An example of this is seen in prayer 5 from the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), the most sacred religious text of Hinduism. The Gita is found in the Mahabharata, an extraordinary Sanskrit epic that dates from the second century Eucharist is derived from the Greek eucharistia (thanksgiving). In the celebration of Holy Communion, the consecrated bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. ``He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him'' (John 6:56).
Food and associated prayers play a central role in religions of the Far East. Confucianism, founded by Confucius in the sixth century Tao meaning ``the Way''). Taoism is based on the annual rotation of the seasons and the harmony and balance of nature. In the Tasze, the great sacrifice in the huge Altar Park (the largest altar in the world), offerings of food, rice spirits, and other gifts are placed on the altar and the spirit of heaven is invited by means of a sacred hymn to descend to the altar. Sie-Tsih, the gods of millet and corn, are worshiped in a spring and autumn sacrifice. The modern Chinese expedient gratia before the banquet meal, Duo xie, duo xie (a thousand thanks, a thousand thanks), is merely the cultural evolution of worship chanted to the many food gods of Chinese antiquity: Chi Ming, Ching Ling Tzu, or Chung Tso. A witty and sophisticated saying in cultural circles that has the elegance of quoting poetry is (Ren Yi Shi Wei Tian), ``People perceive food to be almost like God.''
Shinto is the old native religion of Japan that reveres ancestors and nature spirits. Derived from the Chinese Shen-Tao (way of the gods), Shinto's central belief is kami, God, the sacred power that infuses animate and inanimate things. Amaterasu is the most eminent of the Shinto deities. She is the beneficent sun goddess who taught mankind the cultivation of food. Inari is the grain god. Norito prayers petition the gods for good harvests. The Setsubun ceremony celebrates the start of a new season of seeds and planting. Its rites involve Neolithic rituals that survive today in technofuturist Japan. A cornucopia of rice, cakes, fish, and vegetables are sacred treasures placed on the altar expressing thanks for the bounty of the earth.
Buddhism's history is rich with reverence for food and thankfulness for its nourishment. The great prince Gautama Sakyamuni experienced full enlightenment while sipping a cup of milk-rice as he meditated the doctrine of nirvana under the Tree of Enlightenment, the Bodhi Tree. Buddhists have used prayers of blessing and offering in everything from the cultivation of crops to the dedication of each plate of food to the betterment of humanity. As exemplified by the Buddhist prayers in this book, food can be truly blessed only when the one giving thanks has lived a life of service to both the universe that has given the food and those who suffer and are without food (prayer 97). Buddhism commands thankfulness for food by its ``vow to live a life which is worthy to receive it'' (prayer 98).
Native American Indian tribes share a common reverence for the earth and all that is given from its bounty. Animals, harvests and water must be accepted with thankfulness in rituals and prayers. Respect for the food gift is often expressed by asking a plant or animal that must be used for food for its forgiveness in taking its life and explaining why its death was necessary (prayer 89). In Native American thought, human beings are dependent upon the earth, not master over it.
Civilization is synonymous in every sense with the growth of agriculture. Cultivating crops predated the invention of the wheel and writing. The existence in the belief of the power of the first fruits or grains has provided the world with many rituals, beliefs and festivals. The festival calendars of antiquity are based on agriculture. Our modern calendar descends from ancient agricultural calendars.
The cultivation of plants for food, as opposed to the use of plants as they grow naturally in the environment, marked the evolution of humanity from a user of food to a producer of food.
The three main Israelite feasts recorded in the Bible are in part, harvest festivals, in which multitudes of Jews brought fruits and vegetables to the Temple in Jerusalem: Pesach, a feast at the beginning of the barley harvest; Shavuot, a summer feast of the end of the wheat harvest; Sukkot, the autumn ingathering of grapes and cultivated fruits. Of the six major sections of the Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law (elul, ``to reap, harvest'') is the twelfth month in the Jewish year.
In the Old Testament the breaking of bread symbolized the immutable bond in relationships among all people. The Covenant was reaffirmed through deeply profound meals and feasts. The Hebrew word for covenant (b'rith) has etymological origins in the Hebrew notion ``to eat.'' The ancient Jewish prayer (6) has been intoned in Jewish homes over the centuries. It is a grace before the meal and is recited before eating the first morsel of bread.
The Jewish liturgy is full of the idea of divine grace interceding to aid humanity. Grace is Ahabah Rabbah and thanksgiving Shemoneh Esreh. The liturgy requires separate blessings (b'rachot) for various categories of food. The blessing over bread (the hamotzi) differs from that of cakes and cooked grains; fruits and vegetables have their own blessings, as does wine and fragrances. Inviting poor people to have food with you makes your table an altar and the meal an atonement. Martin Buber helps us realize that our very table is sacred: ``One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.''
There are many ways to analyze and classify food prayers: by country, by culture, by language, by religion, by God, by food, by sacred imagery--to name a few. A definitive analysis of food prayers is beyond the scope of this book. I have divided the prayers here into two broad classifications: food prayers honoring God or gods and food prayers extolling the bounty on earth. All civilizations and all religions through all ages associate food with God or gods; all primitives nonbelievers associate food with a supernatural power or spirits. All recognize the earth's bounty (crops and food) as a reflection of divine goodness.
Food prayers to the gods are created for many reasons: making one's wishes known, honoring the dead in order to show reverence for life, reconciling God(s) with humanity in order to bring good fortune on earth or to assure a place in the afterlife. The recognition of the earth as sacred manifests itself in the ritual and religious life of communities as petitional prayers by the laborers, chants for seed planting and crop proliferation, ceremonials for laying out plots, transmittal of family tradition, and reflection on the concept of home and hearth. Central to all cultures and religions, food is a sacred gift that is the supreme and universal bond of all friendship.
The world's quest for happiness operates within a context of reverence for God through an inimitable link to food. In this uncertain age when ethnic differences divide people, we should strive to embrace our common humanity that is expressed so succinctly in food prayers. These prayers talk to us with the wisdom of the ages and teach us that we are all one family, all one mystical soul. Food prayers throughout history may be seen as evidence of our profound sense of awe in the face of the infinite.
I have chosen to include in this book texts that are not prayers per se, which nevertheless have great spiritual quality, literary merit and an eloquence in expressing mankind's profound debt to God.
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