“Feast or Famine – What Judaism Has to Say About Food”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah dwells in part on the specialness of food. In Chapter 8, verse 3 of Deuteronomy, G-d recalls that in the wilderness He gave the Jewish people manna from heaven to eat: “La’ma’an ho’dee’akha kee lo al Ha’lechem l’va’do yich’yeh ha’adam, ke al kol motza phee Hashem yich’yeh ha’adam.” All this, says G-d, was done in order to make you aware that man does not live on bread alone, but by whatever G-d decrees. The Torah, in verses 7-10, beautifully describes G-d’s intentions to bring the Jewish people to a good land, a land of streams of waters, springs, and deep wells flowing forth from the valleys and the mountains. G-d promises to bring the people to a land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and date nectar. A land where you will not eat bread in poverty nor will you lack anything…you will eat and be satisfied, and then you shall bless G-d, the Lord, your eternal G-d for the good land that He gave you.

There is a cute, pithy saying floating around the internet these days that says: All of Jewish history could probably be subsumed in one simple line: “Our enemies tried to destroy us. They failed. Let’s eat!” Friends, there is a perception out there, true or false, that Jews like to eat. Yes, food does play a special role in Judaism. The Talmud in Brachot 58a quotes Ben Zoma, who said: “What labors Adam had to perform before he obtained bread to eat. He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound (sheaves), he threshed and winnowed, and selected the ears, he ground (them) and sifted the (flour), he kneaded, and baked, and then at last he ate. Whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me!”

As Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of England, has written, “Judaism spiritualized the act of eating as part of the process of hallowing daily life.” Furthermore, Rabbi Hertz points out that the laws of food are a major religious practice in Judaism and constitute an invaluable training in self-mastery. The ultimate motive of this emphasis is holiness, so that we Jews may sanctify ourselves and be holy, for says the Torah in Leviticus 11:14, “I, G-d, am holy.”

The dietary laws have proven to be an important factor in the survival of the Jewish people. We abstain from forbidden foods not because of personal aversions, but because our Father in Heaven ordained it. When we eat, we offer thanksgiving to G-d before and after every meal. This raises a meal from a mere satisfaction of a physical craving to a spiritual experience and religious act. Since a meal is like a sacred offering brought on the altar, we, like the priests and Levites of old, always wash our hands before eating bread, the staple of the meal.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his Code of Jewish Law, (Laws of Kings, 6:10), speaking of the prohibition of Bal Tash’khit – wanton wastefulness, states clearly that it is not only strictly forbidden to destroy fruit trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food in a destructive way, offends against the Torah law of “Thou shall not destroy” (Deut.20:19).

The Code of Jewish Law emphasizes the importance of food by declaring that feeding the hungry takes precedence over clothing the naked. If a person is naked, and claims to need clothes, we first check the truthfulness of the claim. However, one doesn’t inspect the veracity of person’s claims who comes and says, “feed me.” They are fed instantly, says the Code of Jewish Law. The Code continues, “A city with Jewish inhabitants must establish a charity fund of known and reliable people who will collect from all those capable of giving, to properly assess the amount. Each week, from Shabbat to Shabbat they distribute the monies and give to each poor person enough to suffice for seven days. This is called kupah (charity fund).

Similarly, officials are appointed to collect daily, from each courtyard and neighborhood, bread, assorted food stuffs, fruit, or cash, from those who donate spontaneously. At night the collection is distributed among the poor, and each poor person is given one day’s sustenance. This is called Tamchui (soup kitchen). The Code even mentions that we have never seen or heard of a single Jewish community without a charity fund.

I would like to close with what I consider to be a most remarkable law, one that is not well known in Jewish life. The Code of Jewish Law 169:1 records that any food that has an aroma and arouses one’s appetite that is brought by a servant or waiter before a person, must be served to the servant immediately, and it is considered meritorious to serve the servant from all the foods. The Mishnah B’rurah, which is authored by the Chafetz Chaim, cites a gloss that says that latter authorities have ruled that even if a condition of the hiring was that the master be free of the requirement to feed the servant first, the clause has no efficacy.

Now we can truly see why food is so important in Judaism. It is not only a staple of life, it is a staple of faith and moral behavior.

May you be blessed.