Netivyah News, Jerusalem, April 05, 2024.

By Yehuda Bachana.

Parashat Sh’mini Leviticus 9:1-11:47, Ezekiel 45:16-46:18*, Luke 2:41-52

(* Shabbat HaChodesh: the Shabbat before (or starting) Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This Shabbat, the following reading is added: Exodus 12:1-20. The reading speaks about the Passover sacrifice, and reminds us that Nissan is the first month of the year.).

Food as Remembrance and Culture

Dear friends,

One of the more known sayings associated with the Jewish food culture and holidays  is: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
This sentence is amusing, because it pretty much sums up the Jewish food culture, as the Jewish feasts are centered around the table, and every feast has its own special dishes.

Sometimes food preserves a memory, like the eating of matzot preserves the memory of the People of Israel having escaped quickly from the slavery in Egypt. At other times, food represents an idea, like the oil-fried ‘sufganiya’ during Chanuka, as a symbol of the jar of oil in the Temple, in the days of the Hasmoneans.

Every feast and time has its own suitable food, and that’s part of our culture. We could bake hallah-bread whenever we wish, but it just won’t be the same thing as baking it on Friday. Nobody keeps us from eating matza at Purim, but Hamanstaschen are more suitable then.

We could even fast and not eat whenever we want to, but it won’t be as powerful as doing so on Yom Kippur.

Our Torah Portion presents a list of animals we shouldn’t eat.
Almost every generation has tried to find a reason why God commanded us to stay away from unclean animals: some say that – thanks to the dietary laws and limitations – the Jews stayed unique amongst the peoples of the world, because it preserves us from mixing with other cultures. Others say that the dietary laws are health-based, and point out how the Jewish menu encourages a healthier diet.

Why did God command the dietary laws?

I’m inclined to think that these commandments serve as a mechanism that protects our identity as a People. If we take a look at the past 500 years, we immediately notice that homes that kept kosher, also managed to keep their Jewish identity in the diaspora, even during extreme hardships like the inquisition.

God called the People of Israel to be ‘holy’ (meaning: separated from the rest). Interestingly enough, right after the long list of unclean animals, God commands: “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44), and that command is connected to refraining from eating the unclean animals. God called us to be set aside from the other nations, and our food culture has proven itself as a very effective tool throughout history.

Actually, food is so important, that it’s also the first topic God talked about with mankind. Many get confused and think that the first conversation between God and people was for us to be ‘fruitful and multiply’. And yes, God did say those words earlier on, but that wasn’t a conversation, but rather a blessing.

God blessed the animals of the field that He had created before Adam and Eve, with the very same words, to be ‘fruitful and multiply’. But then, here we understand that those words weren’t a ‘conversation’ between God and His creation – the alligators, birds and the fish – but rather that God blessed His creation.

And before the phrase ‘be fruitful and multiply’, it says: “And God blessed them” (Genesis 1:28)

And so, God blesses Adam and Eve with the same blessing as the rest of creation, but with a small addition, to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (verse 28).

I don’t think this text is about power and control, nor about the abuse of power; but it rather points at our responsibility and dedicated care. But let’s leave that topic for another time.

And so, the first conversation did evolve around food:

“And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”(Genesis 1:29)

And even here, some argue whether this verse is a blessing or a conversation, since God blesses the people with the same words as the rest of creation.

Then God blesses the shabbat, and while the shabbat is sanctified, it isn’t yet a ‘commandment’ at this point.

After the shabbat, the planting of the Garden of Eden is the next topic. God created everything and puts man at the center of His creation, with the main goal to ‘work and keep’ the garden and creation. This points out the idea of ‘ruling’, meaning: governing (and not ‘controlling’), and emphasizes how Adam was made responsible for the maintenance of creation.

As part of creation, God plants two special trees, which is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. And here follows the first commandment, and I’m sure that by now you suspect that that is about food (and it is!) 😉 It deals specifically with the food we’re allowed to eat, and that which we’re prohibited to eat:

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:16-17)

The next conversation between God and man, is one where man actively communicates and shows how Adam and Eve hide and are ashamed:

“He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”(Genesis 3:11) From this conversation, we continue to the curse and the punishment, which is also connected to food:

” Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3:17-18)

Here we can see the importance of food in the Jewish culture, and why the topic of dietary laws is so emphasized.

Yeshua teaches us that if we watch what enters our mouth; all the more so, we should watch what comes out of our mouth (gossip, slander), and safe-guard the honor of those around us.