The Jewish people have always had this thing with food. We just love to get together and eat, whatever the occasion may be ... Shabbos dinner, Holiday meals, Kiddush at the synagogue, weddings, a bris, a shivah home, etc. Isn't it true what they say that the essence of all Jewish holidays is: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat! And it's not just any food, mind you, that gets us excited. We have a whole slew of uniquely Jewish specialty foods - most of which are definitely not for the "gastronomically challenged" – and which your average Gentile-on-the-street could hardly pronounce, let alone eat!
We Jews take our food very seriously ... so seriously, in fact, that we make a blessing before and after each food that we put into our mouths. And we won't eat all foods, either. The Torah gives us a whole list of foods we can't eat, as well as the proper way of preparing the foods that we can eat. There are even certain times of the year when G-d commands us to eat different types of special foods which symbolize some historic event that our ancestors experienced. And there are other times of the year when G-d commands us not to eat anything at all, in order to divert our attention from our bodies to our souls, which are in need of introspection and personal reflection.
All this makes me hungry ... er, I mean, wonder ... why does Judaism seem to place such a huge emphasis on food? What difference does it really make what I eat, how I eat it, when I eat it, etc.? What do matzah balls have to do with spirituality and religion? What is Judaism ... chopped liver?
THE MUN AND THE MUNDANE
I believe we can find the answer to these questions if we go back to one of the first "Jewish foods" in the history of our people ... the heavenly manna which fell down from the sky each morning during the Jews' forty year sojourn in the desert, and which provided them with a ready means of food and sustenance. The manna is called mun in Hebrew, and takes its name from the reaction that the Jews had when they first saw this strange-looking glob of food. They said, "Hey, mun!" (I guess you could say they were the first Jew-maicans!), meaning, "It's some sort of food!".
The mun was truly a miracle food. The Midrash teaches us that whatever a person wanted the mun to taste like, that's exactly how it tasted. So, for example, if a Jew was in the mood of a thick rib steak, he would think about rib steak, and that's what the mun tasted like. And if he thought about a milk shake, it would taste like a milk shake. (Of course, if he thought about a rib steak and a milk shake at the same time, the mun would explode!!) And there were many other miracles associated with this amazing mun that our ancestors ate for forty years.
One has to wonder, though, why G-d would choose to feed the Jewish people in such a strange way. Couldn't He just provide them with chicken schmaltz and kishka and bagels and horseradish the way normal Jews eat?
Well, you are not going to believe this, but G-d Himself answers that question in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Eikev. As Moses recounts with the Jewish people all that they had gone through over the past forty years, he reminds them of the heavenly manna which G-d sent down for them from heaven: "He afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you the manna that you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live." (Deuteronomy 8:3)
So there you have it, folks. The reason why G-d chose to feed His people mun was to teach them a very important lesson, a lesson of which they would be automatically reminded every time they sat down to eat. And that lesson is that just as G-d sustained the entire Jewish nation for forty years with the miraculous mun, even though it contained none of the Recommended Daily Allowances of the essential vitamins and minerals officially needed to maintain good health, so, too, when we eat "normal" foods, we should recognize that is it not the bread itself, but the will of G-d that sustains us.
In other words, we are being taught that nothing in this world - not even the basic food that we eat - is mundane, and without some spiritual significance. All that we eat ultimately comes to us because G-d willed that we should have it, and it is His will that allows the food to sustain us, just as it was His will that the miraculous mun should sustain our ancestors way back when. And since eating food is such a basic aspect of our daily lives, Judaism seeks to elevate this "mundane" bodily function by teaching us important lessons while we are eating about the nature of G-d's Providence in the world and His unique relationship with us.
This, I believe, is the reason why Jews have traditionally taken their food so seriously for the past 3000 years. We take our cue from that very early Jewish food - the mun - and we try to "elevate" our way of eating as well as our choice of foods, recognizing the great opportunity to learn valuable spiritual lessons while being occupied with such a seemingly trivial aspect of our lives. Over the centuries, we Jews have developed our own uniquely Jewish foods, which we have faithfully eaten, all the while absorbing the lessons contained within them. It is in this spirit of "Jewish eating" that I present to you:
RABBI ZEE'S GLOSSARY OF SOME JEWISH SPECIALTY FOODS
Otherwise known as "bubba-mycin", this artery-hardening but therapeutic, all-time favorite of Jewish bubbas and mommas everywhere is a virtual staple at the Friday Night Shabbos Dinner table. This very Jewish offering probably has its roots in the halachic tradition that Jews have been practicing for millennia to honor the Sabbath by gathering the whole family together every Friday night to eat fish, meat or chicken at a festive meal, accompanied by lively Shabbos Zemiros (songs) and inspirational Torah insights. Chicken was cheaper than meat, and, while boiling in water, could easily provide a tasty appetizer, and so chicken soup for the Jewish body and soul was born!
This popular dish is made by grounding filleted carp, whitefish or pike, molding them into ball-like shapes, and boiling them in water. It is traditionally served with a healthy(?) dose of chrain (horseradish) lumped on top of it, the sharpness of which can instantaneously bring one to tears (and it also helps to drown out the taste of the gefilte fish!). It has been theorized that Jews first began to eat filleted gefilte fish at the Shabbos meal due to the Biblical prohibition of borer, which means that on the Shabbos we are not allowed to separate the undesired part of the food from the desired part. This made eating fish with bones quite difficult, and gefilte fish was an easy solution.
A pancake-like structure, eaten on Chanukah (The Festival of Lights). It is made with potatoes, onions, eggs and matzo meal and is fried in oil. Latkes can be eaten with apple sauce but never with maple syrup. There is a rumor that in the time of the Maccabees they lit a latke by mistake and it burned for eight days. What is certain is you will have heartburn for the same amount of time. Seriously, though, the Jewish people and oil go back a long way. In fact, we have even been compared to oil. Just as oil is made by beating and smashing olives, but then it rises to the top, so, too, the Jewish people have been beaten and persecuted, but have always managed to rise right back to the top.
Pronounced holly by some Jews (as in: "Set the table with loaves of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la ..."), two of these freshly baked, braided breads are eaten at each of the Shabbos meals, and for many people, including myself, are the highlight of the entire meal. The challah we eat on Shabbos commemorates the miracle of the manna which fell from the sky for forty years in the desert, and which sustained the Jewish people (see above). No manna fell on the Sabbath, the day of rest, and a double portion of manna came down on Friday instead. We therefore place two challahs on the Shabbos table to remind us of this special miracle.
It sounds worse than it tastes. These small, wonton-like dumplings filled with ground meat are usually boiled and served in chicken soup. Kreplach are traditionally eaten on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before Yom Kippur, at the pre-fast meal), on Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkos), and on Purim. [In fact, one explanation for the strange name these dumplings have is that “Krep” is actually an acronym for the three times a year when they’re eaten: K for Kippur, R for Rabbah, and P for Purim. The “lach” comes from the Yiddish, meaning “little”. Others suggest that the word comes from the German, krepp, meaning crêpe.] One reason why we eat kreplach on the day before Yom Kippur is because Erev Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov (holiday), but it is a ‘hidden’ Yom Tov as we are allowed to do Melachah (work) on this day. Therefore we eat meat which is a mitzvah to eat on Yom Tov. However we hide it inside the dough, as the Yom Tov is concealed in a day of Melachah. This also explains why we eat kreplach on Hoshana Rabbah and Purim which are also Yom Tov days, although work is permitted on those days.
This thick and "powerful" stew, made up of a unique combination of beans, barley, potatoes, and bones or meat (and whatever else you want to throw in when nobody's watching!), and traditionally eaten at the Saturday morning Shabbos meal, has been called the Ultimate Jewish Protest Food. You see, it all started over 2000 years ago, when a certain break-off Jewish sect called the Saduccees (pronounced sad-to-see) began to preach a literal interpretation of the Torah. This yielded some strange results. For example, the Torah states that one should not have a fire burning in one's home throughout the entire Shabbos day. Taken literally by the Saduccees, they would actually sit in the dark all Friday evening, and would have nothing hot to eat on Shabbos morning. We, who believe in an Oral Tradition, interpret the verse to mean that one should not start a fire on the Shabbos, but we are allowed to maintain a preexisting flame. Big difference, no? So in order to show our faith in the Oral Tradition, and to protest the Saduccees' misguided teachings, we leave a cholent stew on the fire (or in a crock pot) all Friday night long, and we serve it piping-hot at the Shabbos morning meal. Tastes great! More filling!
[Sources: Jewish specialty foods glossary adapted from the article 400 Years of Eating Survival Tools on www.jewishmag.com.]