The Custom of Covering Knives at Birkat Hamazon
What is Birkat Hamazon?
Birkat Hamazon is the Jewish Grace After Meals. The literal translation of Birkat Hamazon is Blessing on Nourishment. Birkat Hamazon is made up of a set of blessings that thank G-d for various things including food, the land of Israel, Jerusalem and G-d's goodness. According to Jewish law, after a meal that included bread, one is required to say Birkat Hamazon. The prayer is found in Jewish prayerbooks or in special booklets that only contain Birkat Hamazon called Birkonim.
On the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, which is on Saturday, and on Jewish festivals, there are special breads that are eaten called Challot. The Challot are placed on a special Challah board and cut with a specially designated Challah knife. There is a custom to remove knives from the table before the recital of Birkat Hamazon, including the Challa knife.
What is the source for this custom?
There are two explanations offered for this custom
- The commentator Rokeach explained that it is based on the idea that a table in Judaism is compared to an altar. In the same way that one may not place metal on an altar (because it can be formed into a weapon that shortens man's life and altars lengthens man's life), so too we remove knives once they have no use from the table before we bless G-d.
- The commentator Shibolei HaLeket quotes Rabbi Simcha who tells of a Jew who once said Birkat Hamazon and on reaching the blessing that requests from G-d that He rebuild Jerusalem, he was so overcome by the destruction of Jerusalem that he took a knife from the table and stabbed himsexlf. Since then, the custom has been to remove knives from the table before Birkat Hamazon. Unfortunately, to many of us today, this reason seems absurd- who really feels the destruction of Jerusalem so deeply today that they would be compelled to stab themselves?! In truth, this is a sad reflection of the lack of sensitivity that we have today for the matter
There are also a number of commentaries who show that there is room for leniency regarding this custom but perhaps the custom of covering knives is just what our generation needs to heighten our sensitivity to the holiness of the table, Birkat Hamazon and our not-yet-rebuilt-Jerusalem.