Eikev 5779-2019
“Feast or Famine–What Judaism Says About Food”
(Revised and updated from Eikev 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah dwells, in part, on the specialness of food.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, G-d recalls that, in the wilderness, He gave the Jewish people manna from heaven to eat: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי השׁם יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם All this, says G-d, was done in order to make you [Israel] aware that man does not live on bread alone, but by whatever G-d decrees.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 8:7-10, movingly describes G-d’s intention 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. The Torah goes on to say that the land where G-d promises to bring the people is a most fruitful land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and date nectar. In the new land in which the people will dwell, the people will not eat bread in poverty, nor will they lack anything…to the contrary, they will eat and be satisfied, and then shall bless G-d the L-rd, the eternal G-d, for the good land that He gave the people.

There is a rather amusing saying that has been circulating for years that declares: All of Jewish history can probably be subsumed in one simple statement: “Our enemies tried to destroy us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

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: “Look how many 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 in the morning 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, the laws of food are a major religious practice in Judaism and constitute an invaluable training in self-mastery. The ultimate reason for this emphasis, is so that Jews may sanctify themselves and be holy, for, says the Torah in Leviticus 11:44, I, G-d, am holy.”

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

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings, 6:10, speaks of the prohibition of בַּל תַּשְׁחִיתBal  Tash’chitwanton wastefulness, clearly stating 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, commits an offense against the Torah law of “Thou shall not destroy,” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

The Code of Jewish Law underscores the importance of food by declaring that feeding the hungry takes precedence over clothing the naked. When a naked person claims to need clothes, the truthfulness of the claim must first be verified. However, one doesn’t inspect the veracity of a person who comes and says, “feed me.” Those who claim hunger 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 [residents] capable of giving, to properly assess the amount they must give. Each week, from Shabbat to Shabbat the charity committee distributes 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 a single day’s sustenance. This is called תַּמְחוּי –Tamchui (soup kitchen). The Code even testifies that, “we have never seen or heard of a single Jewish community without a charity fund.”

There is a 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 of all foods. The Mishnah Berurah  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 central in Jewish life and Jewish law. It is not only a staple of life, it is a staple of Jewish faith and a key element in developing sensitivity and proper moral and ethical behavior.

May you be blessed.