Virtual Talmud

What is it about Jews and food? It’s more than our obsession with finding a good bagel. It’s our almost pathological need for conspicuous consumption. We always have to have more than enough.

Perhaps it is the collective unconscious of generations of Jewish mothers who had to witness their children going to bed hungry every night in Europe’s shtetls. One Yiddish author describes how a father cleverly quieted his children who were crying from hunger. “It is a fast day,” he explained as he put them to bed. With those words their hunger took on religious significance, and they quietly went to sleep, satisfied there was some greater purpose for their suffering. There is a terrible poignancy but also a social critique in this sad tale, which reminds us not to take the abundance we enjoy for granted.

There is a strength and beauty in our engagement with food. Those who eat together, stay together, which is perhaps one reason the Passover seder (set around the family table), rather than the Yom Kippur service (set in the synagogue), is the most observed of Jewish rituals. Unfortunately, all too many opportunities to eat together are ignored by all too many Jews, most notably those who do not have the pleasure of eating around the Sabbath table.

But food alone is not enough to bind us to our Judaism. Food enhances the Jewish experience but cannot suffice as a substitute for it.

I know first hand. I grew up in a home that largely observed gastronomic Judaism. My mother baked hamentaschen for Purim, fried potato latkes for Hanukkah, and made us chicken soup when we were sick. However, we never had chicken soup on Friday night, which was a night like any other as I grew up. While I “found” religion because I meet people who kept Shabbat, neither of my brothers did. Gastronomic Judaism alone did not keep them in the fold.

There is great wisdom in the Jewish approach to food. The mitzvot (commandments) relating to food teach us appreciation, by reciting blessings of thanksgiving before and after we eat; discernment, through distinguishing kosher from non-kosher food; and compassion, by requiring that meat be slaughtered humanely and drained of blood, which also teaches us respect for all life. We are taught that life’s pleasures, like eating, are part of the blessings God intends for us to enjoy–in moderation and with a sensitivity to share what we have with others.

These qualities are the real substance of what can be placed upon our plates, not the shmear of cream cheese and lox on our everything bagel.

Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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