Jews, Food, and You

By Rabbi Joshua Rose, Senior Rabbi at Har Hashem, Boulder, CO

This post originally appeared in Rabbi Rose’s newsletter, Ha-Ikar: The Essentials of Jewish Life 

Challah Back

My son Eliav and I have been looking forward to this Shabbat, because with Pesach behind us, it is time once again to welcome in Shabbat with challah. After the eight days of Pesach and trying to find increasingly creative ways to eat Matza, Eliav and Akiva were definitely ready (as were Channah and I) for pizza last Saturday night (Rafael can’t eat bread or matza yet!)

What is it about food that stirs this kind of excitement? Of course on the most basic level, on the physical level, food is just beautiful, sensual pleasure. The taste, sight, texture, smell of food, the feel of a satisfied belly – these are bodily pleasures that provide comfort to our souls.

Eat Your Heart Out

On a higher spiritual level, food stirs emotion and memory. I remember distinctly the smells of delectable Jewish foods – challah warm in the oven, gefilte fish, brisket – that were forever wafting through the kitchen growing up. Whether you grew up Jewish or not, I’m sure you have your own intense memories connected to food. For Jews, food also connects us to a broader connection than just personal memory. When I eat herring in sour cream – oh yes, I do – I am aware that I’m eating my people’s food, Jewish soul food. For Sephardic Jews, haminado or shakshuka are tied to the cords of mystic memory as well.

Yet there is a higher spiritual level still to which food connects us. Food is an intersection of body and soul because it connects us to the entire web of creation. The Jewish approach to food is to have us consider the origins of our food, to encourage us to be mindful of its source, the connection between our heart and soul, and the rest of the world.

A Jewish food ethic would have us carefully consider each meal, even each bite, as it strengthens our bodies and enriches our souls. Halachah (Jewish religious law) prohibits us from eating certain kinds of animals (shellfish and pork, for example) or from eating certain kinds of foods at the same meal (milk and meat).

The spiritual discipline of eating is to confer dignity upon us, to connect our eating with a higher spiritual order in the universe, as well as to connect us to a collective and historical palate. We are not to eat with reckless abandon, seeking to satisfy our bodily cravings. This is the way of animals. Instead we eat with an awareness of the physical and also the spiritual dimensions of the act, aware that we exercise control over our appetites and seek the deeper spiritual significance in each (delicious) bite.

Chew-ish Values

And yet there is more. Eating comes, as does every Jewish act, with responsibility. One dimension of kashrut (kosher) is the ethical. We are taught that kosher slaughter is to minimize the suffering of the animal, to bring death without pain to the animal, and that the prohibition against eating milk and meat is also to caution us against hard-hearted insensitivity.

In our era, we have developed an awareness of the impact of our decisions have on the created world. This has spurred a Jewish environmental movement, with Jewish scholars, activists, rabbis and congregants across the world taking a much closer look at the meeting point of Jewish values and environmental ethics.

This may all sound very 21st century, but in fact there is nothing new at all in this. To take just two examples, in the book of Bereishit (Genesis), Adam and Eve are called upon to “cultivate and watch over” (often translated as “to till and to tend”) the Garden of Eden. In the book of Deuteronomy, in preparation for entering the land of Israel, the Israelites are prohibited from needlessly destroying trees during battle.

In our day, however, the stakes are higher and so Jewish thought on the topic has developed. We have now a much deeper understanding of the relationship between the food choices we make and the broader environmental impact those choices have, the broader ethical impact those choices have.

This coming Sunday, on April 29th, at the Rocky Mountain Jewish Food Summit, people from all over Jewish Colorado will be gathering to explore the connection between food and Jewish values. With sessions on Eco-Kosher, discussions about how to “green” your bar/bat mitzvah or other simchas, reflections on reducing your carbon footprint through food choices, and exploration of the connection between food choices and Jewish justice, presentations by rabbis throughout the community including an opening presentation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi – suffice it to say that this will be an incredible day. (More information and registration)

The program was created by Hazon, whose Director of Community Engagement is Har HaShem’s own congregant Becky O’Brien. I hope you will join me and Rabbi Bronstein, many Har HaShem members and friends from throughout Boulder and Colorado for this program (8am-5pm at the UMC at CU Boulder).

A Blessing in Every Bite

The many, many blessings that we say over different kinds of food testify to our tradition’s desire to heighten our consciousness about the importance of food. There is a different blessing for bread, for food grown from the ground, for food that comes from trees, even for foods that don’t have particular blessings! In each case, we are to pause before we indulge, to consider the divine source of nourishment, so we can connect body and soul together.

To arrive at a deeper understanding of how food can heighten our spiritual sensitivity, to come to see what religious and ethical demands food makes on us, we have to meet God half way. I have often noted that the ha-motzi (the blessing over bread) contains a beautiful mystery. The blessing: “Blessed are you HaShem, Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth (ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz).”

How many times have we said this strange sentence without reflecting that God does not bring bread forth from the earth? God brings wheat. We make it into bread through an ingenious and very complex series of steps, requiring patience, creativity, skill, strength and intelligence.

No matter how ingenious we might be, we could not have created the seed, the soil, the sun, the rain that will enable that wheat to grow. And no matter God’s power, God cannot, so to speak, make that wheat turn into nourishing bread. This little ritual formulation points to the Jewish assertion that blessing can only come into the world when human beings and God work as covenantal partners, making food for the soul.

Enjoy your Challah! Shabbat Shalom.

And please do join us on April 29th for the Rocky Mountain Jewish Food Summit!

Rabbi Joshua Rose is the Senior Rabbi at Har Hashem in Boulder, CO (one of 42 diverse official community partners of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Food Summit), and writes a weekly newsletter entitled Ha-Ikar: The Essentials of Jewish Life, containing brief essays about basics of Jewish life. He hopes to make it possible for those who are interested to gain knowledge about important beliefs, religious concepts, traditions, and practices that are essential to Judaism. 

Photo by slgckgc (Flickr: Day 21 – The Bread of the Earth) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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