Our sages teach, “In the future a person will give a judgment and accounting of all that he (or she) saw and did not consume” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 48:2). We are encouraged to enjoy the vast array of foods. To turn away from a tasty treat is to reject a Divine gift. And yet, Jewish tradition also values self-restraint. G-d even uses food as a repeated test of loyalty.
In the Garden of Eden, there is only one rule: “You may eat from all the trees in the Garden except the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” (Genesis 2:15-16). Only by refraining from the “forbidden fruit” are Adam and Eve deemed trustworthy. Needless to say, they fail that test of faithfulness and are evicted from the Garden.
Upon leaving Egypt, G-d provides manna as a delectable frost each morning to satisfy the Israelites’ hunger, as if a mother nursing a newborn. And yet, there is one rule: “Mark that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore you are given two day’s food on the sixth day; let everyone remain where he [or she] is so that on the seventh day that they do not leave their place” (Exodus 16:29).
Once the freed slaves reached the Promised Land, food restrictions increased, as did the variety of possible foods. Forbidden and permitted animals are listed in the Torah; blood is prohibited, and the rabbis will interpret the thrice repeated “You may not cook a calf in its mother’s milk” as a mandate to separate milk and meat. Kashrut, Hebrew for kosher, means “fit,” and in modern Hebrew is the term used for a “fitness room” in a gym. Dietary rules exercise distinction-making and self-restraint, essential features of a spiritual life. The Biblical dietary rules were unique in the ancient world. Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom says that only the Torah prohibited the Israelites from eating blood, for symbolically blood was life and only G-d had authority over life itself. Likewise, archaeologists today identify ancient villages in Canaan as Israelite by the remarkable absence of pig bones.
For generations, Jewish dietary rules defined communal belonging and transformed feeding an appetite into holy dining. Holiness is more than just ethics, which includes the rabbinic guidance on how to kill an animal with the least amount of pain. Holiness is rising above animal instincts and leads to a mindset of gratitude for the source of our bounty and abiding by restrictions on behalf of greater connectivity and mystery.
What makes our food Jewish is not its origins. Bagels and lox, for instance, are products of the larger European culture in which Jews lived, and as the NY subway ads emphasized, “You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s Rye Bread.” Ethnic cuisine from around the world can be fully Jewish as long as the ingredients are kosher.
With eagerness to eat, we are guided by our sages to pause. In reciting a one-line Hebrew blessing over food, such as the motzi over bread, we express Jewish belonging and gratefully acknowledge the many partners who have made the meal possible. Such conscious pauses and choices of what we eat contribute to soulful living.
So let’s enjoy!—while knowing that we are what and how we eat.
RABBI ELIE SPITZ IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.