I used to find a solid two section special supplement on food, filled with recipes, excursions into cuisine habits, and tons of food coupons and advertisements. I even once had a written correspondence with a staff writer on the origins of the word "pizza" and the Hebrew Pita. I. as a Talmudist, insisted that pita was from the Aramaic word for bread, he, a major in Near eastern languages, insisted that it was an entirely new word, derived from the Greek pita, from which comes the Italian pizza. We well may both be wrong, as it could be from an Italian dialect of Lombardy, a region of people of German ancestry. Go figure!
If I had to weigh out importance of news items, the world report supplement covered only one thin supplement, religion got a scant two page supplement ( now vanished completely), science--barely a one-page glance, but the food section outweighed them all-- two fat supplements. Now, we know what really counts.
Food, glorious food! That is the chorus from the musical Oliver, and the whole world revolves around it.
Someone once pointed out, that in the book publishing business the only guaranteed best-sellers are cook-books. I would presume that diet books are also best sellers, providing a true balance--one is to tell us how to put it on, the other, how to put it off.
For some people, food is just an obstacle, as NF Simpson once said"-I eat merely to put food out of my mind."
On the other hand, the Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the significance of food for the prisoner of a slave state:
"To understand the nature of happiness we must first have to know what it means to eat one's fill... it's not a matter of how much you eat, but of the way you eat. It's the same with happiness--it doesn't matter the number of blessings we scratch from life, but only our attitude towards them."
The concentration camp survivors among us understand this very well.
We know very well that food, for Jews, is a major issue, as is every facet of life. For Jews, too, its not a matter of how much we eat, but of how we eat. There are all kinds of diets--weight watchers, nutrisystem, all fats, all carbohydrates,--there is also a Jewish diet--and I don't mean chicken soup and kreplach.
In today's Torah portion, we have the basic rules of kashrut, of what a Jew may or may not eat-cloven hooved and four-part stomach, or fins and scales, or certain restricted foul. From that day on, when these rules were first promulgated, till today, we have created mounds and mounds of detailed regulations on Kashrut.
Sometimes, we can go overboard. I have gone shopping to find five different kashrut labels on one shelf of meat--RCC, Kehilla Glatt, Rabbi this, Rabbi that. Each community is not sure of the other one's credentials.
There have been various movements in Judaism which have said we should not pay attention to what we eat--the early Reform movement thought that rules of Kashrut were an embarrassment, which served only to keep Jews out of the right circles, or early Christianity, which felt it an outmoded obstacle to belief.
The great sage of Yavneh, who saved Judaism from disappearance during the great war against Rome, himself countered just such accusations. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was asked, about the details of the rules of slaughtering, Shehitah, and replied, "What does God care if the knife is one kind or another, if the blade is held one way or another? These rules were not made for God, they were made to purify and elevate the human being."
All the regulations that we have come to teach us how to live life to the fullest and to the noblest: we live with restraints on our animal instincts, with compassion for living creatures, with a sense of justice towards our fellow human being, and also, with a sense of common destiny with our Jewish people, a joy in life itself, and an sense of sanctity. All these we benefit from a Jewish diet, kashrut.
First, there is sense that I am master of my will and of my body, and that my stomach will not dictate to me what I am about to do. The most annoying thing is to have something or someone nagging constantly, " Feed me, feed me," and it is very satisfying, from time to time, to tell our appetites, from time to time, to leave us alone. We will dictate the what and the when. An ancient Jewish phrase tells us, in this fashion,”The wise man says, I eat, in order to live. The fool says, I live in order to eat. (Orhot Tzadikim)”. That is our first lesson in Jewish dieting. Then, there is the element of compassion. For the first time in centuries, public attention is being riveted to the rights of animals--the way that animals are being tested for cosmetics, or force-fed and kept incapacitated for high quality meats. The preliminaries to our modern sensibilities are to be found in these same rules of kashrut, as well as other regulations on behalf of animals.
All of these practices, which involve pain to animals, were covered by the Jewish concept of Ever min ha chai--the prohibition of torturing an animal to death, tearing it apart piece by piece, as a wolf or lion might do. This basic decency to animals was seen as so fundamental that our sages felt that this was a law which all human beings had to observe.
Animals, as far as Jewish law is concerned, have legal rights, wild animals have the rights to a fair trial, and working animals have rights to kind treatment. This is all subsumed under the principal of Tsaar baalei hayim--the pain that living creatures feel.
A very creative and original Jewish thinker, Arthur Waskow, created a project he called “Eco-Kosher”, Kashrut that is part of a greater picture of mutual harmony and cooperation with the rest of our planet, living and inert. Thus, he finds in our teachings, in addition to compassion for living creatures, the ideas of Bal tashit-the prohibition against purposeless waste , and the ideas of Shmittah and Yovel, of actually allowing the land itself a rest from human meddling.
Then there is the simple issue of justice, social justice. There is the question of the living conditions of the workers who make our food possible. Hence, there are movements to add an additional certification for Kosher, a Tav Yosher, A mark of integrity, to indicate that the workers in the food establishment are being treated fairly.
We always used to speak of finishing the food on the plate because of all the millions starving in China. Do you remember your mothers telling you that and you thinking,”If I finish my food, how will that help the people in China?”
Today, it is not the people in old China who are starving. We know that even in this prosperous country, there are people who go to bed hungry.
Our Jewish diet is designed to make us aware and concerned with other people's hunger. Thus, on Pesah, we don't eat bread, but eat matzah, and we recall--Ha lachma anya--this is the bread of affliction, this is the best one can hope for under oppression or poverty. And on Yom Kippur, our diet is even better--nothing at all, as we read the instructions for the diet, from the Prophet Isaiah, “Share your bread with the hungry.”
The Jewish diet is also a key to identity. You live and love with whom you share your bread, and a sure proof of this is the common word, in English, for a friend, companion. Companion literally means “with bread”, our friend is the one we share our bread with.
A Jewish meal is a meal shared, over a common theme of discourse, within the context of the Jewish family or with friends within a community.
I once attended a class on Jewish law in a working class neighborhood in Israel, attended by Jews of Yemenite origin. The teacher was a lawyer and a Rabbi, and the participants studied Maimonides Code of Jewish law combined with some moralizing and some mysticism. What was the secret, however? The Rabbi would chant one line, they would repeat it, he would interpret it and then, they would stop to drink a sip of arak liquor, say Lechaim, and nibble at some goodies, again for a Brachah. Study,food and liquor( not too much),and worship, all wrapped up in one. That makes for a common bond that does not easily shatter.
The Jewish diet is also a lesson in joy, for a Jew cannot be in a state of despair, but, as our sages taught, we will be held liable for every legitimate pleasure which we could have enjoyed, but which we denied ourselves.
The father of the Talmud taught his student:
“Clever one, eat and drink, eat and drink, for the world we will leave is like a wedding feast. His colleague, Rav, agreed, and told his student, Hamnuna--My son, if you have, enjoy it, for there is no pleasure below, and death does not tarry .And if you wish to leave it all to your descendants, is there anyone in the nether world who will tell you thanks.”
This attitude of our sages enabled us to eat our meals with a calm heart, a relaxed stomach, and a love of the life that God gave us, no matter what oppressions our people went through.
Finally, a Jewish diet is not intended to keep the body healthy, although there are health benefits in it, but instead, it is to keep the mind and spirit healthy.
This was the advice that Columbus may have gotten from the Treasurer who paid for his voyage to America, the Rabbi and philosopher Don Isaac Abravanel:
Don't think that the Torah made its list of dietary regulations for health. If that's all it was about, it would be just another medical report. After all, all the other nations of the world eat pig, lizard, rat, and the like, and they are all fine and healthy. The teachings of God did not come to heal the body, but it does worry about the health of the soul and to cure its sickness. That is the reason behind the rules of kashrut."
Our Jewish diet then, is a diet of the mind and heart, a reminder, constant reminder, that every meal is a sacred occasion, that every time we open the refrigerator and decide if we want Milchig or Fleishig, we are forced to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Jew? What is expected of me in life? What is the goal of my life?” All noble intentions rise and fall, not in the lecture hall, nor in the lofty pulpit, after all, but at home, at the kitchen table.
I want to conclude with one observance--for all of us today. Next Shabbat is the first day, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month in which Passover falls. We have a special Brachah for this season, a Brachah which is said only once each year, which makes our springtime special and beautiful.
As we leave here today, we should look at the first tree in full flower, and declare:
“.Baruch atah...Blessed be he . . . who causes nothing to be lacking in his universe, and created therein beautiful creations and beautiful trees, wherefrom people may derive pleasure."
May we derive true pleasure from all we see, smell, taste, hear and feel. Amen