Why are food and meals so essential to the Jewish experience?
First comes the Jewish family table organized for us nearly 2,000 years ago by the Rabbis after the Temple, the center of Jewish life, was destroyed. At that great moment of crisis, the Rabbis transferred the Temple in Jerusalem into the Jewish home, moving its rituals, personnel, sacred space, food, blessings and prayers to the family and the family Shabbat table.
As the Talmud says, “And now that we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem and its altar to bring about atonement for sin, a person’s family table gains reconciliation and forgiveness.” Thus the Mizbei’ach (altar) became the family table. Libation wine became Kiddush (consecrating the Sabbath). The kiyor (brass wash basin) became Netilat Yadayim (hand washing). The Lehem Ha’Panim (show bread) became challah. Every offering in the Temple had salt, and challah is now dipped in salt. And of course there was the majestic golden Menorah (candelabrum), which now takes its place as Shabbat candles. The priestly blessing is now recited over children by parents, who take the place of priests in the Temple. Thus can we now say, “Every home a temple; every a family a sanctuary; every table an altar; every meal an offering; every Jew a Priest.”
In making the Jewish family table and meal the successor to the Temple, the rabbis also made Judaism portable. The family table travels with us from Gibraltar to the Indian Ocean, from Afghanistan to Peoria and from Ottawa to Damascus.
What inspired the Rabbis to move Temple to home? What in Jewish religious culture had taught the Rabbis that the family and its dining table were suited to the task?
In the Torah, great and important things happen over meals. The first time Avraham arrives in Jerusalem he has a meal of bread and wine with Malki-Tsedek. When Avraham and Sarah enter the covenant and are visited by significant guests, the birth of Isaac is announced over a meal. Then we have what is probably the most important meal in the Torah. On the night before liberation from slavery, God instructs the Jewish people to commemorate the move from slavery to freedom by conducting the Passover Seder, with matza and maror and the Passover lamb.
Eating as a sacred act
There are several intimate things that people do together: love, play, pray, work, and eat. Animals feed; humans eat. Human beings transform their animal feeding into human eating. Eating is a social task, which transforms the biological need into a community of intimacy and shared experience.
People sit down around a table or some other shared space. They face each other. Someone has prepared the food, someone serves the food, and people pass food to each other.
Jewish tradition recognizes a meal as a time for intimacy, fellowship, and significant conversation. Kindness is the basic mood of the Jewish meal. People are fed and nourished, and in this intimate setting people talk with each other about what matters. That is why the Rabbis say that if people eat together and Torah talk is not exchanged then the meal is a vain enterprise. If eating does not create the opportunity to teach and to learn then it becomes biological feeding. Because eating creates intimacy amongst people it creates opportunities for encounters of the intellect and the soul, which must be punished.
The significance of food
Apart from the intimacy of the shared meal, food itself has over the centuries become quite significant.
The preparation of food, meaning recipes and designs, has been the product of the dynamic interaction of several factors. You can only cook with the food that is available; thus the host culture in which the Jews find themselves plays a dominant role in Jewish cuisine. Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine is nothing if not a kosher adaptation of east European foods. The same holds true for the various lands of Sefardic cuisine. Latkes are only a few centuries old and the product of the east European potato in combination with oil.
Jewish culinary creativity goes much deeper than that. The weekly Torah portions exerted great influence on food. As these lines are written, it is Friday before that Shabbat on which we read about Jacob fleeing Esau, finding a place to sleep on a bed of rocks, falling asleep and having a dream. In that dream angels from God are climbing up and down from Heaven to Earth and from Earth to Heaven on a ladder.
On this Shabbat there was a tradition to bake a challah with a ladder of dough as decoration. There was a tradition to place decorative birds on the challot for the Shabbat when the giving of the Torah is read, because of the Midrash-rabbinic commentary—that the birds welcomed the Jewish people to Sinai. On holidays when the priestly blessing is recited there was a tradition to bake a challah in the unique shape of the priest’s blessing hands.
Because 12 loaves of bread were brought into the Temple in Jerusalem every Friday afternoon before Shabbat, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, there is a tradition that each Shabbat the challah ought to have 12 sections to it.
The warm, enthusiastic populism of Hasidism gave birth to its preference for sweet kugels, and the sharp Talmudic intellect of Lithuanian Jewry, surely, gave birth to its preference for salt and pepper kugels. This Polish -Lithuanian rivalry of salt/pepper versus sugar is expressed in many foods.
Germanic, or early Ashkenazic Jewry 1,000 years ago, began to develop food based on puns made of its newfound Yiddish language. For example, in Yiddish, “carrots” are “mer’n” and of course we pray that on Rosh Hashanah that our merits before God be increased, and in Yiddish “to increase” is “zikh-meren.” The pun between the prayer and the food, created the tradition of eating carrot tsimmes on Rosh Hashanah.
The mandatory culture of Judaism, its mitzvot (sacred commandments) to celebrate Shabbat and the Holidays and more, measures our belief and commitment. The discretionary culture—meaning the artistry and creativity that we bring to Jewish life as we perform the mitzvoth—describes our love for Jewish living. Indeed Jewish life is with family and as it sits around the weekday dinner table, the holiday table, or the Shabbat table, to each of these tables we bring food for living, food for the body, and a goodness that excites the palate and the soul.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.