Ki Tavo: "Altaring" our habits

I read recently that the number of calories we eat is determined more by habit than hunger.  To lose weight, therefore, it’s vital to create healthier “automatic” eating habits (e.g., use smaller plates, eat with the non-dominant hand (slower), stock refrigerators and vending machines with fruit, etc.). 

Many Jewish rituals are also intended to prompt automatic good habits and/or encourage mindfulness through “unusual” action.  An interesting example, derived from this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tavo), is the custom – or, for the ritually observant, the obligation [Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 180)] – of covering or removing knives at the table before reciting Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals).  This practice derives from the mitzvah (commandment) prohibiting the use of iron cutting implements in constructing the altar (Deuteronomy 27:5). 

Knives symbolize war and death.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, who lived during the era of the writing of the Mishnah not long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.,  explains: “The altar was created to lengthen a human being’s years by bringing atonement and forgiveness, while iron was created to shorten human life. It is inappropriate for the ‘shortener’ of life to be raised over the ‘lengthener’ of life.”  In fact, the name of the first blacksmith (who created sharp metal implements) in the Torah is “Tuval-Cain,” reminding us of his ancestor, Cain, the first murderer, according to the Torah, in history (Gen. 4:22).

As with many (most? all?) other Jewish customs, one can find a wide variety of other interesting and beautiful explanations for covering/removing knives before reciting Grace after meals.  Several are explained at:  My favorite is: “In the Birkat Hamazon we pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, at which time, as the prophet Isaiah (at 2:4) promises, there will be no more warfare or hostility between nations: ‘No nation shall raise a sword against another nation.’ We thus cover the knives to allude to our hope that this prophetic promise be fulfilled.”

But whichever explanation for a ritual most resonates, it’s important that the ritual further a positive purpose, preferably one of which we are aware and that strengthens our own sense of purpose.  In addition, before dismissing or deriding a seemingly strange ritual, we should seek to understand its purpose(s) – or even reinterpret old rituals to provide modern meaning.  Judaism has done this throughout its history.  

This Shabbat, and in the coming weeks as we prepare for the “High Holydays” of introspection and repentance (this being a Mishnaic reinterpretation of the biblical Rosh Hashanah!), why not try to identify and evaluate the many habits that so deeply, if unconsciously, impact our lives? 

We can gradually change those that neither bring meaning nor help mold us into the people we wish to be.  And we can create new habits, especially those from our tradition  -- as simple as covering or removing table knives during our Grace after meals -- that can add purpose to our lives.   G-d made us “creatures of habit.”  Rather than trying to “kick” them, we can make them work for us and others.  

May you have a sweet, peaceful, and (holy) habit-forming Shabbat!  

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb