Around the Fam­i­ly Table: Songs and Prayers for the Jew­ish Home

Rab­bi Shlo­mo Riskin
  • Review
By – August 15, 2012
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.

Discussion Questions