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College of Liberal and Fine Arts

“Food for the Soul: The Power of Allusion in Chuck Sullivan’s ‘Grace after Meals: Thanksgiving 1958”

Food for the Soul: The Power of Allusion in Chuck Sullivan’s

“Grace after Meals: Thanksgiving 1958”


Stephen G. McLeod, Ed.D.

Jackson State University


The world’s most popular work of literature, the Bible, is replete with references to food, and food plays a key role in many scripturally based traditions. One such tradition is the Hebrew “Grace after Meals” (Bokser 358-64; Davis 10-29; Mangel 88-95). Spoken—or sung—after every meal, this poem supplements the benefits of eating by adding food for the soul. The “Grace after Meals” inculcates an attitude of thanksgiving, strengthens the unity of the family, affirms the things that matter, and builds a consciousness of prosperity—things that are also celebrated in a traditional American Thanksgiving. In stark contrast to both the traditional “Grace after Meals” and the traditional American Thanksgiving, Chuck Sullivan’s poem “Grace after Meals: Thanksgiving 1958” presents a scene of domestic violence in which a meal ends before it even begins (33). By alluding to the Hebrew “Grace after Meals” in his title, Sullivan exponentially multiplies the power of his own poem, inviting us to discover layer upon layer of meaning as we explore the implications of the allusion.

            Allusion is one of the most effective tools available to a writer. If we accept Horace’s observation that literature serves two possible functions--to delight or to instruct (Evans xxiv), then allusion allows the writer to do both. An allusion can delight us by giving us the pleasure of recognizing a reference to a familiar work. At the same time, an allusion can also instruct us. As educational psychologist Merlin Wittrock has demonstrated, we can facilitate our learning if we make connections between new information and our “prior experience” already “stored in long-term memory” (Wittrock 623). By referring to our prior literary experience, an allusion gives us the opportunity to make this connection.

            But allusion can also delight and instruct us from the opposite direction. Suppose we are not familiar with the work to which a writer alludes. The allusion provides us with an opportunity to experience the delight of discovery, and it also provides us with a powerful motivation for learning: that of enriching our understanding of the work before us by exploring the work alluded to. With this in mind, let’s explore these two works that share the title “Grace after Meals” but that represent such contrasting worlds. Come with me first into the world of the Hebrew “Grace after Meals.”

            The Hebrew “Grace after Meals” is firmly rooted in both scripture and tradition. The scriptural basis for the Hebrew “Grace” is found in the Torah: “And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHWH your Elevated One for the good land that he has given you” (Deut. 8:10).1 A large part of the goodness of this land is its food, for it is “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing...” (Deut. 8:8-9, JPS). The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 54) tells us that, even before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, our father Avraham, to whose descendants this “good land” of Israel was promised, instituted the practice of saying a blessing after meals (cited in Bokser 359-60). Famous for his hospitality, Avraham would entertain travelers with a lavish meal and after the meal, he would invite them to say grace. When they would ask him how to do it, he would introduce them to the Creator with the following blessing: “Blessed be the Everlasting [Elevated One], of whose bounty we have eaten” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:6).

            Because blessings tend to multiply through the practice of saying grace after meals, Avraham’s single blessing has grown, and the current “Grace after Meals” now contains three core sections. Each section is called a “blessing,” and each section actually concludes with a blessing for a specific thing.

            The first blessing, the blessing “For the Nourishment,” is attributed to Moshe, who, our sages tell us, composed the blessing in gratitude for the manna in the wilderness (Davis 13). Interestingly, as Menachem Davis points out, there is no direct reference to manna in this blessing (10). Why is this? One possible explanation is that, through this blessing, we are being trained to see the hand of Providence, not only in instances of extraordinary provision--such as the manna--but also in so-called “ordinary” events such as eating our daily food (cf. Davis 10). So in this first blessing we give thanks for the physical food that we have eaten, but we also give thanks for the “grace, lovingkindness, and tender mercies” with which our heavenly Father nurtures the entire universe (GaM).2 With this attitude of gratitude, which scientific studies indicate is very good for our health (Alspach; Emmons and McCullough), we are also building a consciousness of prosperity as we make bold statements such as the following: “Through his great goodness, never have we lacked--and never will we lack--food for evermore” (GaM). This first section concludes with the following anchor-point blessing: “Blessed are you, YHWH, who nourishes the All” (GaM).

            The second blessing, “For the Land,” is attributed to Yehoshua (Joshua) bin Nun, in gratitude for the land of Israel (Davis 14). (You will remember that Moshe led the children of Israel to the Promised Land, but Yehoshua bin Nun led the children of Israel into the Promised Land.) In this blessing, then, we thank our Father for the land of Israel that was deeded to us through the promises to our ancestors: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzkach (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebecca), and Yaakov (Jacob), Leah, and Rachel. But we do more than this, we “count [our] many blessings” (as an old hymn says); we “name them one by one” (Oatman 324). Through quotations from scripture and allusions to scripture, we give thanks for being delivered from Egypt, for being redeemed from the “house of slaves”: for the covenant that is “sealed in our bodies” through circumcision; for the Torah that our Father has taught us; for the statutes that he has made known to us; for the “life, grace, and lovingkindness” that he has granted us; and for being able to eat the food with which he constantly sustains us “in every day, at every time, and in every hour” (GaM). So in addition to affirming the foundational blessing of the land, we are affirming the central values of Israeli life embodied in the Torah of Israel and actualized through the people of Israel, who are to be a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6, JPS) and a blessing to all humanity (Genesis 12:3). The second section concludes with the second anchor-point blessing: “Blessed are you, YHWH, for the land and for the food” (GaM).

            The third blessing  is attributed to David and Shlomo (Solomon) in gratitude for the building of the city of Yerushalaiyim (Jerusalem) and the Holy Temple (Davis 17). Just as David began the work of the first temple (by gathering the materials) and Shlomo completed it, so David began the blessing, and Shlomo completed it. In this blessing, we follow the admonition of King David to “pray for the well-being of Yerushalaiyim” (Psalm 122:6). We look to the Messianic age as we pray for the people of Israel; for Yerushalaiyim, the holy city; for Tsiyon (Zion), the dwelling-place of our Father’s glory; for the kingdom of the house of David, our Father’s anointed one; and for the rebuilding of the great and holy Temple upon which our Father’s name is called. We are looking for the fulfillment of the prophetic vision when the Temple will be rebuilt as “a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isa. 56:7). The concluding anchor-point blessing is “Blessed are you, YHWH, who, through his tender mercies, builds Yerushalaiyim” (GaM).

            So that is a quick overview of the content of the “Grace after Meals.”

To get a better idea of the process that is actually going on in its three blessings, we must look at the larger context.

            Judaism is all about elevation: elevating everyday actions (such as eating) to a higher spiritual level, and, of course, there is no elevation without the Elevated One. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “Elevated One” is El. The Elevated One is both our source and our destination, and in Hebrew, the word for source (av) also means father.  As Avraham Greenbaum points out, our sages tell us that in addition to nourishing our bodies, the higher purpose of eating food is to give us the opportunity to speak blessings. These blessings follow a traditional formula: “Blessed are you, YHWH, who...,” followed by the specific action that prompts the blessing: for example, “who brings forth bread from the earth,” “who creates the fruit of the vine,” or “who creates the fruit of the tree.” In this way, the so-called ordinary actions don’t seem so ordinary any more, as our action of eating a piece of bread, or drinking a glass of wine, or eating a piece of fruit connects us with our heavenly Father’s action of bringing forth bread from the earth, or creating the fruit of the vine, or creating the fruit of the tree. The speaking of a blessing thus brings us to the perspective expressed by American poet Walt Whitman: “Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me I know of nothing else but miracles...” (513).

            In speaking these blessings, we are activating Yaakov’s ladder in our lives, the spiral stairway that our forefather Yaakov saw in his dream as he slept on Mount Moriah, the site of the holy temple (Richman), which, by the way, also had a spiral stairway (1 Kings 6:8). Yaakov’s stairway has its base on the earth and its top in the heavens, and angels (messengers) of the Elevated One are continually ascending and descending on it (Gen. 28:12). As we speak a blessing over a particular type of food, our sages tell us, we empower the angelic messenger responsible for releasing the nourishment in that food (Greenbaum): our message goes up to the heavens, and the spiritual nourishment (the food for the soul) comes down to us. By speaking these blessings, we are participating in the rectification of our souls. This process also contributes to our physical welfare: spiritual blessings are continually descending from the heavenly realms and being transformed into material substance to meet our physical needs, and material substance is continually being transformed and elevated to the heavenly realms in the form of spiritual blessings.

            The key elements in this process are the hand and the mouth: the hand and mouth of human beings (the physical) and the hand and mouth of the Elevated One (the metaphorical, the metaphysical, the spiritual). The same hand with which we work and reach for a piece of fruit is the hand that we elevate in praise; the same mouth with which we eat is the mouth with which we bless and thank our Creator. Imagery of the hand and the mouth (explicit or implied) plays a key role in both the Hebrew “Grace after Meals” and Sullivan’s “Grace after Meals.” In fact, the actions of the hand and mouth constitute the key points of contrast between the worlds of the two poems.

            The hand image first appears in the Hebrew “Grace” in the first blessing (the blessing “For the Nourishment”). Quoting Psalm 145:16 (Davis 11), we sing: “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature” (GaM). By allusion, the hand image is implied in the second blessing (the blessing “For the Land”).  As we thank our Heavenly Father for the land of Israel, for bringing us out of Egypt, and for redeeming us from the house of slaves, we remember that the Exodus was accomplished “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15, JPS). Near the conclusion of the third blessing (the blessing “For Yerushalaiyim”), the hand image appears with climactic force as we beseech our Father never to make us dependent upon “the gifts of flesh and blood” nor upon “their loans” but only upon “your hand--full, open, holy, and generous” (GaM).

             A father’s hand also appears in Sullivan’s “Grace after Meals,” but this hand is a very different type of hand. This hand is a strong hand at the end of an outstretched arm, all right, but it is more like the hand of Pharaoh, the hand of an oppressor. It is full, all right, but it is filled with a “wing tip” shoe that this father uses to strike the speaker’s mother and knock her to the floor (33). This inhumane hand is not even explicitly mentioned; we infer it from the hornet image by which the speaker’s father is presented and by the play on words in the “wing tip” that inflicts the “sting” on the mother’s face and cracks “the blue willow/design of a bone/china plate” (33). This father’s behavior is brutal and inhumane, and appropriately, Sullivan depicts him through animal imagery.

            Throughout the Hebrew “Grace,” the mouth image is implied because we are thanking our Father with the same organ by which we have just ingested our food, but the image appears quite prominently and explicitly in the second blessing: “May your name be blessed by the mouth of all the living, continually, forever more” (GaM). Significantly, this part of the Hebrew “Grace” is a quotation from the blessing recited on a Sabbath after the weekly haftarah reading (the reading from the prophets), and this quotation serves to remind us that we do not live “by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3): It directs us to the spiritual nourishment provided by the Torah and the Prophets (“Blessings of the Haftarah” xxvi).

            In stark contrast, the human mouth in Sullivan’s “Grace” receives neither physical nor spiritual nourishment because the meal has ended before it has even begun. Note the grouping of the words in the first three lines of the poem:

                                                        The feast

                                                        was all over

                                                        the place [,] 

inviting us to see the first two lines as a sub-statement even as we read the entire stanza as a unit, for indeed this “feast was/all over”--even before it began (33). Instead of uttering blessing, the human mouth has produced a “carve of words” and a string of curses: “Bastard!/Psycho! Bastard!/ Psycho! Prick!” (33). After this non-meal, there is definitely a need for grace.

            We have seen how the allusion in the single phrase “Grace after Meals” brings all the power of the Hebrew “Grace” into Sullivan’s poem. The Hebrew “Grace” serves as a backdrop, a rich tapestry, and a standard against which the actions of Thanksgiving 1958 can be measured.

             It is also worth pointing out that “Grace after Meals” is not the only poem in which Chuck Sullivan demonstrates his awareness of Hebrew literature and culture (see, for example, his poem “Guide for the Perplexed,“ with its allusion to Maimonides’ work of the same title), nor is Chuck Sullivan the only American poet whose work has been nourished by the Hebrew roots of America. The investigation of Hebrew influences on American literature--from the earliest writings to the works of contemporary American authors such as Chuck Sullivan--offers a rich menu of research possibilities that can indeed provide further food for the soul. 





            1. For in-text citations of passages from the Bible, I have followed the practice of citing book, chapter, and verse, in accordance with the chapter and verse divisions of the JPS text. When I use the JPS translation, I also add JPS in the in-text citation. When the translation is my own, I simply omit JPS from the citation.

            2. In translating passages from the “Grace after Meals,” I have consulted versions of the prayer edited by Davis, Bokser, and Mangel.  Translated passages have been placed in quotation marks and cited as GaM for “Grace after Meals,” but because these passages represent my own renderings, no page numbers are given in the in-text citations. 



Works Cited


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Bokser, Ben Zion. Trans. and ed. “Grace after Meals.” The Prayer Book: Weekday, Sabbath, and Festival. New York: Berman, 1983. 358-64. Print.

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Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. 2nd ed. 1904. Trans. M. Friedlander. Web. 18 Mar. 2010.

Mangel, Nissen, ed. “Blessing after a Meal.” Siddur Tehillat HaShem. Brooklyn, NY: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, 1988. 88-95. Print.

Oatman, Johnson. “Count Your Blessings.” 1897. The Modern Hymnal. Ed. Robert H. Coleman. Nashville, TN: Baptist Sunday School Board, 1926. 324-25. Print.

Richman, Chaim. “Weekly Torah Portion: Vayeitzei.” Video commentary. 23 Nov. 2009. Universal Torah Network: Temple Institute on YouTube. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

Sullivan, Chuck. Alphabet of Grace: New and Selected Poems 1969-94. Charlotte, NC: Sandstone, 1994. Print.

---. “Grace after Meals: Thanksgiving 1958.” 33.

---. “Guide for the Perplexed.” 47.

Whitman, Walt. “Miracles.” Whitman: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. The Library of America Series. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982. 513-14. Print.

Wittrock, Merlin C. “Learning as a Generative Process.” Learning and Instruction. Ed. Merlin C. Wittrock. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan, 1977. 621-31. Print.