By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
The Junior Warden in the south is in charge of meal breaks, and the meals themselves have became known in some quarters as “The South”. Whilst operative Masons worked from dawn to dusk and needed something substantial to eat at the end of the day, speculative Freemasons may well have eaten before coming to their Lodge meeting, and the type of meal they have in the South tends to vary, though in most cases it is more than mere refreshments.
The South has a much more relaxed atmosphere than the formal part of the Lodge meeting. The conviviality of the occasion is an important means of fellowship, as are the speeches and toasts. The humorous chit-chat of the South would be anathema in the Lodge room itself, though I must admit to have been present at Lodge meetings in some places where there was inadequate dignity and decorum and one almost thought it was a comedy show. On the other hand, I have been at Lodge dinners which were rather too stiff and formal and one wondered whether the brethren had forgotten how to smile.
Understanding that food would normally follow a Lodge meeting explains why the early speculative Freemasons often met at inns and taverns, even naming the Lodge after the meeting place. It also explains why there was a constant concern on the part of Lodge treasurers that the “house bill” (i.e. the cost of catering) was becoming too large, and some tavern keepers threatened that if a particular Lodge created too many difficulties they could always find another Lodge. These days the catering is generally in-house, but some Lodges have developed the practice, in the interests of making Masonry a quality experience, of moving to a good restaurant once the formal meeting is over.
Possibly modelling themselves on Greek and Roman symposia or talk-fests, speculative Freemasons in some places combined their dinners with their debates. For Jews this all has a familiar ring, since life-cycle events and the Sabbath and festivals are universally celebrated with a combination of serious discussion and relaxed eating. The leading example is the Passover night Seder at which the Exodus from Egypt is discussed at table and the story and songs are interspersed with symbolic foods that represent the sourness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. Lest the food become more important than the discussion, the Jewish sages were highly critical of those who ate without accompanying the meal with religious and intellectual discussions.
The Masonic South is one of the last places to maintain traditions derived from military banquets. Thus the practice of honouring a toast with “fire” (regulated stamping, clapping, etc.) reflects the military custom of firing muskets after toasts, and possibly entered the craft as the tradition of the many so-called military Lodges that originate in 18th and 19th century imperialism.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.