May 27, 2024
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May Your Eating Be ‘B’tayavon’

When I lived in America, I do not believe that I ever wished someone “hearty appetite.” The phrase always seemed to me to be too quaint and from a bygone era. Perhaps this explains my failure to adopt a common Israeli custom. Though I was not socialized to wish a person “hearty appetite,” Israelis of all ages routinely wish each other “b’tayavon.”

Besides its rhetorical quaintness, another disadvantage that “hearty appetite” has in comparison with b’tayavon is that the former is largely restricted to the beginning of a meal (or course in a meal), whereas the latter may be used at any stage of a meal or snack—so much so that it seems that all Israelis observe the following injunction: “If thou walkest past an acquaintance whilst they are eating, thou must wishest them ‘b’tayavon.’”

To an American, the b’tayavon custom can seem odd and sometimes even annoying. While b’tayavon functions as a simple social pleasantry, occasionally I wonder if, from the perspective of the individual eater, it would be even more pleasant to dispense with it. Picture this, for example: You are trying to eat your lunch at your workplace’s eating area, as colleague after colleague strolls by wishing you “b’tayavon,” requiring you to respond each time with “toda” (thanks). Is it any wonder that in observing this, I have the tendency to think: Will you just let the poor guy eat?

Why this urge to wish people “b’tayavon”? Like any other perfunctory social exchange (“gezundheit,” “how are you?” “what’s up?”), b’tayavon is designed to express some kind of care and concern for another person. But there is an element of exhortation that is often found in b’tayavon that is absent from other exchanges. It’s as if the person is saying, “I insist that you enjoy your food.” It sort of puts more responsibility on you the eater. You now have to concentrate more on your food.

This, of course, is precisely what a traditional blessing does. Whatever else might be involved in a blessing (e.g., giving thanks to God), another function of a blessing is to concentrate one’s attention upon one’s food. Often, we do any number of other activities while we eat: we read, we watch TV, listen to music, talk with friends, scan our mobile phones. A blessing brings our attention squarely back to our food and encourages us not to take our food (or our health) for granted. When we also consider the clear social element that is often connected to a blessing (mandating an “Amen” from anyone hearing the blessing), it becomes even more appropriate to start thinking about blessings and b’tayavons from the same anthropological perspective: the impulse for both comes from a need to highlight the importance of food and eating in human life. From this perspective, b’tayavon may be properly thought of as a secularized blessing. In wishing someone “b’tayavon,” you use your presence (rather than God’s) to bless them.

There are many secular Jewish Israelis who never say any of the traditional food blessings but who scrupulously observe “b’tayavon.” These Israelis would probably be stunned to learn that from a sociological/anthropological perspective, a food blessing and b’tayavon are cut from very similar cloth. Gee! Maybe we aren’t so different from each other after all. Food for thought. Amen.

By Teddy Weinberger

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