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Speaking Words of Wisdom

September 12, 2022 | by Rabbi Akiva Gersh

How to use meal time to bring heaven and earth closer.

I’ll never forget the first time I sat around a Shabbat table.

I grew up in a family that ate dinner together literally every single night, so I understood the value and importance of family meals. I appreciate that my parents made sure that this was a fixed feature of my upbringing.

But what I witnessed on that Friday night 25 years ago took the idea of a family dinner to an entirely new level.

First of all, there were no televisions on to distract the attention of any member of the family. In fact, I didn’t even see a tv in the public space of the house at all.

The table was beautifully set with enough places for the entire family and the many guests they had invited to join them (including me at the end of Friday night prayers). The warm challah rested, covered on the cutting board, next to a silver kiddush cup filled with wine.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Something I had simply never seen in my entire life.

My hosts stood up from their chairs and walked around the table to each of their kids and, with eyes closed and hands gently resting on their heads, whispered words softly to them. I didn’t know what those words were, but I could tell they were being said with deep love and affection and I was moved and impressed by the whole ritual that was unfolding in front of me.

When they explained that what they were saying was a blessing that Jewish parents have been blessing their children with for thousands of years, I was amazed and impressed even more. In a world where parents and children spend less and less time together, here were parents sitting with their children and blessing them with words that stretch back millenia.

This powerful moment was followed by kiddush, the blessing over the wine and proclamation of the holiness of Shabbat, followed by the traditional washing of the hands and the blessing over the challah.

And then the actual meal began with an abundance of food I’d only ever seen before at Thanksgiving. But at least this part, the eating part, was familiar to me. Eat, drink, and be merry.

At least it was familiar to me until it wasn’t.

Because then the real uniqueness of this Shabbat meal surfaced as, at the end of first course, there was a conscious pause in the eating and drinking and merrying in order to make space and time for singing Shabbat songs and for sharing words of wisdom connected to the weekly Torah portion or to life in general. It happened again after the main course and once more after dessert.

This was something I had absolutely never seen.

As a musician I loved music. But I had never seen it infused into a meal.

And as a lover of learning I appreciated hearing words of wisdom from others. But never was it woven into the very physical act of eating.

What I was witnessing, and participating in at the same time, was a completely different approach to the human experience of food than I had ever seen. It was a meeting of the physical and the spiritual and it seemed like they were fusing into one. Because…they were. In a way I never knew was possible.

Over the next few years, as I became more connected to my Jewish roots and traditions and sat around more and more Shabbat and holiday tables, I realized that one of the main and fundamental goals of Judaism was to bring the physical and spiritual aspects of life closer together. Not to forsake the physical for the sake of the spiritual, and definitely not the opposite, but rather to weave them together in a way that they complement one another and give each other a more defined purpose.

I often think that’s why the quintessential symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people is the Star of David, with one triangle facing up towards the heavens, representing the spiritual, and one facing down towards Earth, representing the physical. Judaism is all about bringing these two seemingly opposite forces and influences into harmony with one another in order to sanctify our everyday actions and infuse them with a higher meaning.

And there’s no better way to do that than through the act of eating. Because we humans can eat from a place of purely satisfying our physical hunger or we can eat from a place of sanctifying the physical and satisfying our spiritual hunger at the same time.

That first Shabbat meal many years ago was my first encounter with what a Jewish meal looked like and I’ve been blessed to experience it many times since, including hosting my own meals for family and friends. Each time we sit around the table, whether for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, or any other holiday, it feels like we have an opportunity to bring heaven and earth a little closer.

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