Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the legal compendium the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, relates the disturbing story of a man who became so emotional while reciting the third blessing of Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), which asks God to restore Jerusalem (meaning the Holy Temple), that he stabbed himself in the gut with his own knife. The story is recorded as a way of explaining the custom of covering or removing all knives from the table before reciting Birkat Hamazon. Apparently this custom was common enough that it merited mention in the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 180:5).
A second explanation, mentioned in the Mishna Berura, is that the table upon which one eats is likened to a miz’bay’ach, an altar. The actual altar in the Holy Temple was made without the use of any iron implements: “It shall be a stone altar, and you shall not lift up any iron to it” (Deuteronomy 27:5). Iron, which is a general reference to any hard metal, is used for making weapons, which enable a person to easily take the life of another. Therefore, iron is viewed as unfit for the making of the Holy altar.
While eating, of course, a knife may be on the table because it is useful. Once the meal is over, however, knives serve no purpose and should be either covered or removed. Seems strange…imagine, whereas today we most often use table knives that are, on the whole, somewhat dull (unless using steak knives), for much of history it was common for people to have one (sharp) knife that was used both during meals and for a variety of other uses.
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