What is your family’s Thanksgiving tradition for giving thanks at the table? Do the assembled family and friends bow their heads while one person says a prayer? Do you have everyone hold hands in an unbroken chain while grace is said? Do you go around the table and have everyone describe what he or she is thankful for this year? Or do you dispense with the formalities and just dig in as soon as the turkey is carved?
As a moderately observant Jew, I come from a tradition where there is a blessing for everything. Although the Hebrew prayers over different types of food were ingrained in me as a child, I did not begin saying an English language prayer over meals until after I got married and my wife started to encourage this. I was delighted, but this meant that I had to come up with some brief, appropriate words to use for the occasion.
The blessing that I now use before we eat is pretty much the same on Thanksgiving as it is on any other day. The only difference for a special occasion is that I might add a reference to my appreciation of particular individuals among us, particularly if we have been blessed by the presence of one or more honored guests.
My basic prayer goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord, for the food we are about to receive and for the many gifts you have bestowed upon us. Thank you for the blessings of our home, our health and our family. Thank you for all your help at my job. And thank you for all the work you do in our lives every day. Amen.”
Admittedly, it’s a fairly plain vanilla prayer. But I think it covers the important things. Of course, if a particular family issue happens to be going on at the moment, I feel free to add a divine request for the complete recovery of a sick person (I still get an incredible kick when my wife refers to this by its Hebrew name, refu’ah shlemah), the safety of one who is away on a trip or the success of someone at school or work.
Among my favorite things about this prayer is the “innocuous factor.” Over the many years that I have been saying this blessing (including in public), I have never heard anyone object to it on religious grounds. I believe it reflects the gratitude that we all feel, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof. Who isn’t grateful for having a roof over his or her head, food in his or her stomach, a loving family and meaningful work? As one who recently suffered through a year of unemployment, this last one hits close to home for me. “Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.” Ps. 90:17 (NIV)
I suppose an atheist might object to this blessing, but then any type of prayer at all might be offensive to one who prefers that I do not address the Lord. There’s not much I can do about that.
True, some Christians might object that I make no reference to Jesus, but everyone is of course free to add the flavor of their religious preferences at the end. All I ask is that those assembled remain respectfully silent for the 30 seconds or so that it takes me to pray over our food. I have never experienced anyone doing otherwise. Some dirty looks from fellow diners in restaurants, yes. The occasional flummoxed server who brings over the iced tea at just the moment that I am praying and doesn’t quite know how to behave, sure. There will always be those who will roll their eyes at the holy roller over there. And there will always be those who believe that praying over the food is a quaint relic of the past that has little relevance today.
Thankfully, many of us realize that, in these difficult times, prayer arguably has more relevance than ever. And fortunately, gratitude is a universal language that all of us can understand.