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If you have ever joined a Jewish family for a meal on the Sabbath, or seen one depicted in movies, you will know it is quite a ceremonial occasion. Before everyone begins to eat, your host will recite two blessings. The first, over a cup of wine, blesses God ‘for creating the fruit of the vine’. The second is over plaited loaves, for ‘bringing forth bread from the ground’. The ritual is ancient and is echoed in Christian holy communion, when a priest blesses a cup of wine and a wafer—which are then considered by some devout believers to turn into the blood and body of Jesus. The origin of these Christian blessings—and the connection with the Jewish ones—is in the New Testament account of Jesus’s supper with his disciples, which took place on the Sabbath that marked the eve of his crucifixion.
The blessings have often intrigued me. Why, for example, are these specific foodstuffs the subject of these central rituals of faith rather than other staples such as vegetables and fruit? Do wine and bread seem holy because both are the products of fermentation, which must have seemed a very magical process to ancient peoples? Could anyone two or three millennia ago have realised somehow that both are the consequence of the same biological process? (The answer to this last question is obviously no, since it was only in 1827 that Jean Baptiste Desmazières described finding germs in beer and wine, and in 1857 that Louis Pasteur (see figure 1) showed that these were the cause of fermentation.) Or did a major group of religious believers regard it as important to bless God for the two chief by-products of a fungus because these shared some particular cultural importance in early civilisations?
I think I have …
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