Rabbi’s Message March/April 2019

Our Food And Our Judaism

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper

 …meat represents the animal portion of life…milk represents the reproductive capacity of animal life … milk is the nourishment that supports new life. In animals these two aspects of life are inseparable: animals eat instinctively and reproduce. Humanity [however] has a higher calling…[humanity] must learn to differentiate between these activities and subjugate them…and to put Godliness into all activities… [Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, ArtScroll Humash, on Exodus 23:19]

I sometimes remind others – in a voice equally serious and playful – that for the Jewish people there are three fundamental endeavours:  prayer, learning and food.  After all, what Torah Study session worthy of its name ever lacked a table adorned with coffee, bagels, fruit and other refreshments?

Prayer, learning and food:  each is a key to Jewish endurance.   It is with an ease acquired over millennia that we transition from one to the next.

Recently, I participated in a study session involving kashrut – the Jewish dietary laws. Our conversation focused on the thrice-stated [twice in Exodus, once in Deuteronomy] commandment you shall not boil a calf in its mother’s milk.  How many know that this commandment has little if anything to do with Judaism’s traditional separation of dairy and meat items?  How many know that the separation of dairy and meat is a decree flowing from our rabbis of antiquity, and not Torah?   And how many understand that the mitzvah is, in truth, about kindness to God’s creatures, honouring the relationship between offspring and mother, and arousing compassion when that offspring becomes destined for human consumption? In other words, ensuring that the mother is in no way a party to its offspring’s demise.   As another text in Torah teaches:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. [Deuteronomy 22:6-7]

Our sages then – in their ingenuity – formulated the prohibition of combining dairy and meat to reinforce the concepts of kindness, honour and compassion; and in the best of all possible worlds, turn food preparation and consumption into sacred occasions.   After all, where in our homes do we most frequently congregate?  To where are our guests most commonly drawn?  Within which spaces do some of our most meaningful conversations occur?  None other than our kitchens and dining rooms.  By extension, our Jewish approach to eating encourages us to select foods judiciously, with an eye to balance, and with a stress laid more on what we need than what we want.

Our rabbis of old sought to imbue eating with holiness.   We in turn – in the words of Rabbi Bradley Artson …transform our kitchens and our dining rooms into sacred altars; our meals become occasions to experience our deepest values as Jews.  [The Bedside Torah, 2001, p. 185]

Our food and our Judaism. How beautiful that our tradition offers us the ways and means of elevating and loving both.