Q&A : Food – February 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine
There is the stereotype of the Jewish mother feeding her children ad infinitum… what is it about?
Yes, there is the conventional wisdom that food is the most important thing in Jewish life. But the Torah view on our relationship with food is misunderstood. The Torah deals with every aspect of what it means to be a human being – the Talmud says it is the blueprint G-d used to create the world – so everything that is in the world is in the Torah, and Hashem gives us a plan for how to live according to His will in every dimension of creation – and eating is one part of that.
But why then is food so important?
Consider how important food is to daily living. We all know how we feel after a fast day, even just a 12 hour fast. We need food daily for sustenance, and therefore people interact with food all the time. And since eating is a major part of what it means to be a human being, the Torah therefore gives it importance.
But within the Jewish calendar, food is about more than just our daily sustenance… Shabbat, the festivals – all revolve around eating…
It is true to say that food is not just about functionality. It is a dimension of life that also brings pleasure and joy. When speaking about Shabbat and Yom Tov for example, the mitzvah is to honour and enjoy these holy days – therefore food, our meals, are part of the mitzvah of the day. Shabbat is a special day. How does the specialness manifest? The Talmud answers that it is through food, through clothes, through singing, etc. These are the physical expressions of how we live as human beings.
But is that all it is about – enjoyment?
It is not enjoyment for its own sake. It is about using food as the platform to experience joy so that the joy should take us to a higher level of connectedness to Hashem. Including in the celebration of a holy day has to be a celebration of food because as we said eating is an integral part of what it is to be a human being.
Shabbat and the Torah is about real life, not just about ideas and concepts that exist in the head. It’s about making those ideas come alive. And how do we make them come alive? When we live them. And how do we live them? As human beings, we live through eating, sleeping, walking and talking, singing, and interacting with people. It has to be about bringing those Torah principles and ideas to life – bringing them to our lives, and bringing them to life. Torah is living wisdom and it is wisdom for how to live.
Why do we say blessings before and after we eat?
We don’t take benefit from this world at all without saying brochas before and after. We don’t just eat like animals. There is a pasuk about Esav, which says, “He ate and he drank, he got up and he went”. That is how an animal behaves. As Jews, we say a blessing before and after, and we only eat kosher food. We live in a meaningful way, unlike mere animals.
What about the danger of over-eating – eating more than just to satisfy our hunger?
Part of serving Hashem with food is only eating because we need that energy to serve Hashem. It is a mitzvah to look after our health, and the Rambam in particular goes into detail about diet and eating healthily. If we are really eating to serve Hashem and not merely to serve ourselves, then we need to eat in a healthy way. In the Rambam’s book the Yad Hachazakah, a 14 volume codification of all of Torah Law from start to finish, there are a number of pages devoted to the importance of healthy diet and exercise (he was also a medical doctor), and the fact that it is in his book of law rather than in a book on philosophy shows us how important health and diet is in Judaism.
Let’s speak about Kashrut… does it have symbolic meaning?
We are given the mitzvot, but G-d doesn’t give us reasons for most of them. Our sages encourage us to delve into the meanings behind them but to do so on the understanding that what we uncover as a reason or a symbol in the mitzvah may or may not be what G-d intended. And even if it is part of what G-d intended, it certainly isn’t all of it. When developing a philosophy about kashrut, or indeed when trying to understand the reasons behind any of the mitzvot, one has to go into the details, and this is a very important general guiding point that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives to understanding the reasons behind the mitzvoth. You do it with humility because these are ultimately the mitzvot of Hashem, by looking at the details always that are taking place. We must be very careful in that sense to ascribe symbolism to any one thing, because it is always much deeper than that.
Why do we need to understand the details? Surely we can just keep kosher…
Torah law is so involved in detail. Each one of the details has been crafted by Hashem, and we can’t just explain it away with a broad brush. We are encouraged to go into details behind the reasons, so that through them we can be inspired.
What about for the average layman, who doesn’t delve deeper but who still acquires meaning through the service of Hashem through food… i.e. by keeping kosher…
We have been blessed by G-d that for us South African Jews keeping kosher is so easy. We have the most outstanding Kashrut Department of the Beth Din and the Union of Orthodox Synagogues. We have one unified and universally accepted “hechsher”. We have thousands of products to choose from and so many caterers, restaurants etc. But the fact that it is so easy does not mean that we should not keep on learning about the details and the depth of the practice and the philosophy of keeping kosher. But at the end of the day, the highest level of motivation and inspiration is to say I am doing this because this is the will of Hashem.