Among the most used ritual booklets in Jewish life is the birkhon or bentscher. This compilation contains the Grace After Meals (Birkhat Hamazon), various formats for the Shabbat and Holiday kiddush, Shabbat songs known as z’mirot, and the various prayers associated with a wedding and a circumcision. Since these are always distributed at traditional weddings, most families have quite a collection and indeed there is some competition to seek and distribute ones that are somehow unique. Some are amply illustrated, some are in calligraphy, some contain beautiful photos and still others bear special covers. Most are merely a generic reminder of the event.
Around The Family Table by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is a birkhon worth keeping, and even purchasing in multiple copies for the entire family. There are no illustrations, but there are numerous insights and concise commentaries on all the traditional prayers associated with the Jewish celebratory rites de passage and home-based rituals. In a too- brief introductory essay, Rabbi Riskin discusses what he terms Jewish table culture. This concept is a crucial factor in Jewish family life. Shabbat and Holiday meals as a family, candle lighting and Havdalah, the Passover seder, sheva brakhot, shalom zakhor, etc. are important elements that bind the Jewish family unit.
The standard prayers and songs are included, each with an introduction and commentary. The Hebrew title of this book is Siah HaShulkhan—Table Conversation, since every mini-essay provides tidbits for further discussion. There are a number of notable additions worthy of mentioning that are absent in most traditional birkhonim. In the Grace After Meals the additional blessings for Israel and Tzahal are included as are the special insertions for one’s host and for a mourner. The Friday night blessing of the children and that over spices is also included. Hardto- find rituals are incorporated, including the seder for Tu B’Shvat, the Redemption of the First Born, Dedication of a House, and Simhat Bat or Zeved HaBat ceremony.
The text is traditional with one possible exception. The Friday night kiddush prayer usually begins with “…and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day” which is the middle of the verse in Genesis 1:31. Rabbi Riskin includes the first words of this verse since Biblical passages should be quoted in their entirety. Once he did this, he could have added or included some of the textual changes that appear in the Edah birkhon by Rabbi Saul Berman. The only other very minor point is the inclusion of a number of verses after Psalm 126 without commentary. Until the ‘60’s these verses were not recited except by certain Sephardic communities and then as part of a larger compilation of verses. How they crept into our table liturgy makes fascinating detective work.
Around The Family Table should be found at everyone’s table. It is available in paperback and in a hardcover edition.
Wallace Greene, Ph.D., has held several university appointments, and currently writes and lectures on Jewish and historical subjects.