Tag Archives: Food

Parshat Mishpatim (5776)

 Exodus 21:1–24:18

Setting the Table and Letting People Taste the Torah


“This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.” [Photo Credit: Lucy Kleinberg]

Have you ever been to a wonderful dinner and enjoyed the presentation? Have you ever been to a great restaurant and had wonderful meal, greeted by a chef who is enthusiastic to explain the fine points of his dishes? I think that is what most of find most appealing about fine dinning.

Now I have learned a little bit about fine dinning recently. Not that it’s necessarily my first time. However, I’m more than comfortable to admit that my everyday food fare is generally less than sophisticated. I eat a lot of simple foods and humble dishes, stuff that I can eat on the run. So being treated to a fine dinner prepared by an internationally acclaimed chef was a thrilling treat!

Chef Moshe Basson, of Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, prepared one of his acclaimed meals based on biblical ingredients and themes, last weekend for a large group of us from Beth Shalom of Whittier. Chef Basson is known worldwide for skillfully blending middle eastern flavors and holy land tastes in his dishes, taking peoples taste buds on a journey through the region and through history.

We stuffed ourselves on Israeli style salads, hummos, lentil soups, lamb stew, baked figs filled with savory meat, broiled eggplants drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce, all forms of delightful couscous dishes, and more. However, the star of the show seemed to be the maqluba – a traditional Palestinian-Jordanian style upside down casserole (similar to Tebit, often considered the Iraqi take on cholent).

And still I must admit, one of the things I loved most about the meal was how passionate he was about each dish, and the care he took in explaining the bold flavors and the subtle hints of each of them. He helped me learn about the depth of this food and of the unique touches, and so I was able to really appreciate what he was so finely placing before me.

Now normally I don’t start out with a story, especially one which risks distracting people with hunger. However, this is the thought which immediately comes to mind as I read and consider the first line of this weeks Torah portion.

Our text reads:

“And these are the ordinances

that you shall set before them.

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים |

אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם: |

Exodus 21:1

V’ayleh hamispatim asher tasim lifneihem.” What does this text mean? That Moses is commanded to set these mishpatim – these ordinances, rules, judgments and these matters of justice – before them? Who is this “them” being spoken about here? They are the children of Israel, who are now receiving the Torah at Sinai.

This parsha is one of the parashiot in which G-d is mostly laying out a good-sized list of mitzvot which Moses is to communicate to the Israelites. And it is in this parsha that Moses is told to write these laws down and explain them to the people.

But why does this text here brings to mind for me my experience with the good chef and his fine meal? It’s because of a most interesting and very important commentary by Rashi for this text here.

The Rashi for this verse reads:

that you shall set before them: the Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them the chapter or the halacha [law, or rule] two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table, set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone. — [From Mechilta, Eruvin 54b]

אשר תשים לפניהם: אמר לו הקבה למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק וההלכה באו גפעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה, ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשלחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם:

Rashi. Exodus 21:1

In this midrash the rabbis want to try to fill us in on the details of a conversation they imagine between G-d and Moses. And G-d has some news for Mosheh Rabbeinu – for Moses our teacher.

G-d tells Moses in this story “lo ta’aleh al datecha.” Don’t even think about it Moses! Don’t even conceive of the thought that you going to get off easy when it comes to teaching this Torah to these people.

And here in this midrash the rabbis have G-d addressing Moses, our greatest teaching, challenging the very foundations of standard education. G-d tell Moses something which goes against the conventional method of instructing people.

Here we learn from this that Moses was taught from the beginning that he was not going to be able to just toss the Torah before these people and expect them to learn. Nor would Moses find himself only having to teach it to them maybe even two or three times. Repeating it to them just until they could memorize these laws and matters well enough to recall them. According to the rabbis G-d say no, that will not do!

And here we get more than just a jab at the rote method of learning! We actually get a negative characterization for those who use this method. You can take it as a description of either laziness or arrogance, but our rabbis here have divine charge against those who feel like they don’t have to give people reasons and explanations for the Torah’s laws.

This midrash calls our attention to be careful of the almost natural tendency of the teacher to retire to the idea that it’s just their job to make sure people get the basic material, without following through in helping people actually understand the deeper meanings of it.

I also read this text another way, I think many of you Hebrew speakers will see what I’m getting at. I think that there is a more full way of way of understanding the phrase: I shouldn’t have to trouble myself with figuring out how to get them to understand the reasons behind the laws and their specific meanings.

You know for all the warning our ancient rabbis gave us against this folly, it still happens in Jewish education today. Far too often in Torah learning and when being taught regarding the mitzvot, people have been told what they should remember to do religiously, though left without any understanding of why. And for this reason the Torah and its mitzvot remain yet incomprehensible to many people.

Now I know that far too often us Jewish educators spend too much time on pedagogy, discussing how we need to change Jewish learning to save Judaism today. However, this lesson touches me more as a personal and student level, than as a teacher.

When I was young I used to annoy both my teachers and my parents, because I always had to known why something was so. I was always asking questions, wanting to known the specifics of the how and why. And this really flew in the face of the culture of my family and home, being raised by a hard-nosed family who just couldn’t be bothered.

When I was a kid I was most often told in anger, “I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.” So the very thought of having someone repeat themselves was something always avoided. And I grew up in an environment where people firmly asserted, “I shouldn’t have to explain myself! Just do it.” Which left me frustrated and confused.

Interestingly, one of the other issues between me and my family was my picky eating. I always wanted to know what was for dinner and what was in it, because I just didn’t know a lot of foods. However, this was always met with the standard parental response of: “If you’re gonna eat, you’ll eat what I make and put on the table!” So the fact is I just didn’t eat many times.

Truth is I have learned from this negative experience. And with this generation of kids in my family I am always the one to answer their questions, wanting to help them grasp knowledge and also enjoy the experience of learning.

And these kiddies tastes are even pickier than mine, so I go out of my way to make things which are going to appeal to them. Though sometimes I certainly do have to go out of my way to show them why they are gonna enjoy this dish I made for them. Pointing out the flavors they will appreciate in order to spark their appetite. All this fuss simply because I want them to eat well, and also enjoy eating some of our cultural favorites instead of dreading them.

Why does all this also come to mind right about now as I reflect on this text? Why am I back talking about food again? It’s because of this analogy used here in the midrash to help us visualize exactly how to instruct people regarding these Torah ordinances.

Our rabbis here present us with a most famous phrase to bring the lesson of this midrash together in a very beautiful way: “L’kach ne’emar asher tasim lifneihem kashulcha he’aruch umukhan le’ekhol lifnei ha’adam / This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.”


Chef Moshe Basson, of “Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, with our hostess Rita Rubin. Serving roasted eggplant, drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce.

When the rabbis present the concept of setting the Torah before the people, they would have us see ourselves setting it before people like we would a set table. They would have us imagine the Torah as a fine meal, filled with all kind of delights and delicacies. While it is our job to make it palatable to people, as well as accessible to them. Indeed we need to prepare it well, so that it is ready for one to devour it. And we are also told that we need to serve it up, by setting it right in front of them.

And this is the lesson of the rabbis. Don’t think that you are going to get off easy teaching this Torah to people, just tossing the basic ingredients their way a few times and leaving them without instructions. Expecting them to make it and eat on their own; and indifferent to if they don’t or cannot. Instead we need to humble ourselves in order to cater to the needs of those who are spiritually starving, so that they can begin to appreciate and learn how to partake of it for themselves.

This may sound like a lot of work and dedication. However, for those of us who are truly passionate about the Torah we aught to be nearly as intentional and creative about what we are presenting to people, as a chef is about setting the table for his fine food. Even explaining what makes this table fare such a wonderful treat for each to enjoy!

We need to present the Torah in a way which is palatable, indeed we need to make it appetizing for our people and children. And it must be something finely prepared for each person to immediately partake of, presented in a way which is easily digestible (no puns intended; but all puns appreciated).

Here our rabbis are making a very vivid illustration of how we are to present the Torah to people. Of how we have to get people to take the chance to taste and see that G-d’s Torah is good (Psalm 34:8). To readily eat from it and be nourished with holy inspiration.

Something to consider: In the year 1563 the Sephardic master Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Maran) codified the rules of Jewish law; calling the work the Shulchan Aruch – “the set-table.” It then inspired a work of glosses which were added to it, by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), regarding the Ashkenazi customs for applying Jewish law; which became know as the mappa – “the table clothe.” This body of work has together become popularly known as the “code of Jewish law,” which religious Jews turn to for rulings of Jewish law.

These works tell us how to apply Jewish law for each matter, according to both customs, in a concise fashion. Listing each law, so that people don’t have to go hunting through the Talmud to know the halacha (law).

This form of codification has taken a huge role in defining Jewish law ever since. While this form of comprehensive listing of laws has certainly helped people quickly find answers, some rabbis suggest that too much emphasis upon these codes actually strangles halachic invitation and flexibility. [See: “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. As well this fine tradition response: “Against the Shulchan Aruch: The Critique of the Maharshal” by Shlomo Brody]

I’m not so sure how I feel about this entirely, but am intrigued by this discussion. How do you feel about this?

Nonetheless, I do personally think that it can most correctly be asserted that merely giving religious people something like a little Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – a further abridged form of a standardized book of rules – and then expecting people to get something out of these mitzvot is not what our sages had in mind; that was not really their intention for how we are to be laying out these Torah ordinances before our people.

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Parshat Acharei Mot (5774)

Leviticus 16 – 18

What Cooking Teaches Us About Ritual Purity

Meat CholentHave you ever had to make a savory dish like a roast or cholent, and find yourself first searing the meat before you utilize it for your dish? Ever wonder why you do that? Chefs seem to encourage this practice for the same reason some halachic commentators suggest this, but with a different intent. This week we get a rabbinic cooking lesson.

Previously we have been dealing with issues of ritual purity, what makes something tahor (ritually pure) and what makes something tumah (ritually impure). Leviticus has given us some pretty complex rules about what makes animals and people ritually pure, but now it is going to define what makes food fit and appropriate (kasher/kosher). Now if you have been following the parshashiot for the past few weeks you remember that we already dealt with issues of what makes something kosher. We were given the means to identify which species of living creatures are appropriate. We are also given a stern warning regarding their blood. In Leviticus chapter 7 we read:

You shall not eat any blood

in any our your dwellings,

be it from a bird or an animal.

Any person (soul)

who eats blood

shall have his soul cut off

from among his people.”

וְכָלדָּם לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, |

בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, |

לָעוֹף, וְלַבְּהֵמָה. |

כָּלנֶפֶשׁ, |

אֲשֶׁרתֹּאכַל כָּלדָּם— |

וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, |


Leviticus 17:26-27

Not to over simplify, but in general anything that is permitted to be offered as a sacrifice is also appropriate for human consumption. However, there is one specific thing that we are told to be careful not to consume from them, like their blood. So paramount is this command that we will see it reiterated for us here in this parsha as well, with the entirety of chapter 17 being about the issue of the consumption of blood. This is point that is often missed by readers, who wonder why it brings this up now. One can wonder, why does it bring up eating blood during a section about sacrifices and why closely after the issues of ritual purity?

In the past few weeks we dealt with the issues of purity relating to animals, we learned which are ritually clean for eating and sacrifice. We also learned about the purity of the human animal, studying the different physical conditions and ailments which also cause ritual impurity. Of course one of the most common among them are issues of blood. When one is considered ritually impure and untouchable while a person is in a state of bleeding, be it from wound or even natural states such as nidah (females issues). For blood where to continuously flow from a person, they are unclean and anything that flow touches becomes unclean as well. Garments maybe be laundered, but in some cases other items must be burned as the impurity cannot be expunged.

But this is a general principle related to ritual purity, that when blood leaves its natural place in the body it becomes a source of impurity. It renders a person unable to worship in the temple cult of the Mishkan.

This is something that people seem to understand but not really grasp, especially walking into the book of Leviticus where the whole topic sees to revolve around ritual sacrifice, with the offering up of flesh (basar, meat) and blood. Depending on the offering the flesh is either entirely burned, or a portion is taken to be eaten; depending on the form of sacrifice and offering being performed. However, during sacrifice the blood is always dashed upon the altar and never eaten. (Leviticus 7:6)

In this week’s parsha we get a deeper look into the significance of blood, and along the way we are instructed in how to deal with blood. All of chapter 17, which makes up the fourth reading and half the fifth reading, is about how to deal with blood. The fourth aliyah tells us that anyone who bring a sacrifice are required to have to blood brought forward to the altar. To not do so is to be treated as though that man shed human blood, and he is therefore guilty of a capital crime. (Leviticus 7:4) The blood is to be burned up, being drowned out by the fragrance of the burning fat of the meat rising to the heavens.

The Torah makes it clear, anyone who does not bring a sacrifice to the door of the tent, thereby allowing the blood to be offered up, will find his soul cut-off from among their people. This is true for the Israelite as much as the ger, the convert or the resident stranger. (v.10)

Likewise we are also told almost exactly the same thing for people when it comes to the consumption of blood. As our text ultimately demands:

Therefore, I said to the children of Israel:

None of you shall eat blood,

and the stranger who sojourns among you

shall not eat blood.”

| Al-ken amarti livnei Yisra’el

| kol-nefesh mikem lo-tochal dam

| vehager hagar betochechem

| lo-yochal dam

Leviticus 17:12

This is they key verse for this week. And this is indeed the central mitzvah which observant Jews focus in on while reading this parasha. This is really what it all boils down to, we must not eat blood. No one among Israelite society is to consume blood, native and stranger alike.

The Torah makes it pretty clear in the verses leading up to here, that this is a paramount commandment. This is not something that we should take lightly. It also gives us one of the reasons why. As we read:

And any man of the House of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My attention upon the soul who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people.

For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you [to be placed] upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul.”

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל כָּל דָּם וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת הַדָּם וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר:

Leviticus 17:10-11

I state that this is one of the reasons, because our sages make note that this is not the only reason why are not allowed to eat blood. We do not abstain from eating blood merely because it is used in the temple rituals of atonement. There is nothing mystical about it. Instead there is something very natural, simply respecting that it is the blood which gives life to living flesh.

This is reiterated for us in summation found in text and in the chumash commentary for verse 14:

For [regarding] the soul of all flesh its blood is in its soul, and I said to the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the soul of any flesh is its blood all who eat it shall be cut off.”

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דַּם כָּל בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא כָּל אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת:

Leviticus 17:14

Rashi further simplifies for us, “Damo hu b’makom hanefesh, shehanefesh taluyah bo / The blood is the place of the living soul, because the soul is dependent upon it.”

The blood is something that is sacred, because life flows through it. But unlike many cults of the world, we do sanctify the consumption of it. Instead we hold it so sacred that we do not eat it in any fashion. Jewish law is very detailed in prescribing how we avoid the consumption of blood, this is a central component of kashrut.

But why should we deal with this topic now? Why discuss it here among these parashiot? How does this relate to the other forms of impurity?

Simply put, the issues of blood purity and consumption of blood are not at all dissimilar. They both rely on a certain concept. That once blood has left its natural place in the body it becomes corrupt and dies, and thus it causes tumah – it transmits defilement upon being touched. So too when consumed.

The fact is that blood is a natural part of slaughter, but it is not natural for us to consume it. This dead blood was understood to cause harm. Our Torah tells us what to do with the blood. The blood of animals is treated with respect. The lifeblood of the animal after slaughter is to be poured into the dirt and covered. This is the way it is described when we are learn the “rules of the hunt” concerning trapping wild birds, for example. (v.13)

Most of us understand what this means for the process of slaughtering and the handling of kosher meat, as we know it today. The animal is ritually slaughtered, the animal is drained of blood, the meat is salted and soaked. In fact today meat which is kasher is over-salted.

What do I mean by over-salted? As we know korbanot – the sacrificial offerings were always salted. However, today we salt the meat a longer period of time and with the soaking remove any pooling blood that might have been displaced in the meat. The coarse salt – commonly known as kosher salt because it is commonly used for this purpose – it aids on the removed of the surface blood by drawing it to the surface, to be washed away in the soaking. Thus we do not consume blood. This is the standard by which we hold today.

Traditionally, as with the ancients, they seem to take extra care when handling their meat. Though it was undoubtedly bled, washed and salted they also applied one other step. They actually kashered their meat with a very different step than the cold water washing of today, they insisted upon chalitat basar – the scalding of meat.

Though the process is not well understood, this principle of halacha is prescribed and detailed for us in the meticulous code of the Misheh Torah by the Rambam. There he instructs us how to kasher in this methodology:

“How is it done? Rinse the meat initially. Afterwards, salt it very well. Leave it in its salt for the length of time it takes to walk a ‘mil.’ Afterwards, rinse it very well until the water turns clear and then immediately throw it into boiling water, not warm. [This is done] in order that the water will ‘close it up’ so that the blood will not come out.”

אין הבשר יוצא מידי דמו אלא אם כן מולחו יפה יפה, ומדיחו יפה יפה. כיצד עושה: מדיח הבשר תחילה, ואחר כך מולחו יפה יפה, ומניחו במלחו כדי הילוך מיל; ואחר כך מדיחו יפה יפה, עד שייצאו המים זכים; ומשליכו מיד לתוך מים רותחין, אבל לא לפושריןכדי שיתלבן מיד, ולא ייצא דם.

Mishneh Torah, Ma’achalot Asurot 6 § 10

Instead of the meat being salted for an entire hour, as is our halacha and minhag today, we are told here that meat was traditionally salted for 18-minutes (the time it takes to walk a Roman mile). However, in order to remove the rest of the blood and to seal the meat the Rambam prescribes chalitah – blanching.

During the process of chalitat basar meat is throw into boiling water, not mere lukewarm water. It is scalded in boiling water, utilized for both removing blood into the water and also sealing any blood-like juices into meat. The meat is thus blanched until is appears white on the outside, and then it is kasher – it is fit for consumption. The water is then tossed and not consumed, as discussed earlier.

Not what purpose what does this method suggested by the Rambam have? It may not seem apparent to most of us, as we most often think in terms of just not eating meat with blood inside of it. But Jewish tradition, as suggested by the text of this parsha, it suggest to us that the historic practice was actually more skewed towards the avoidance eating blood on its own own. Abstaining from eating blood as a separate entity.

Let us think in terms of cooking meat in water as the Rambam describes. Say we were making a soup or a stew, and we threw meat into the water while it was still cold or lukewarm. The meat will noticeably drain what ever fluids inside of it into the water. What ever blood might appear to be in the meat, it will drain into the water and thus color it red with its presence. To eat this, this would also be a transgression of the Torah’s prohibition to not eat blood in the most literal sense.

By scalding the meat the pores and surface of the meat is sealed, allowing the juices to remain inside. The water used for the blanching is then tossed out and the meat can then be prepared in what ever method afterward without fear of consuming the blood of the animal which one eats.

Thus we avoid eating blood, as a separate entity itself.

Now today we don’t have to worry about this as much as in prior days, so we do not regularly take this extra step. As stated, the salting period is longer and removes what ever remaining amount of stagnant blood in a much more efficient fashion. In the next half-century years after the Rambam the method of chalitat basar would be abandoned by many as halacha moved beyond that to our current methods, which we hold to be more efficient. Even the Shulchan Aruch would eventually rule the blanching method to be insufficient. (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 73; Rema, Yoreh Deah 67)

That is not to say that there are not those who do hold by the laws of chalitat basar to this day. There are people who contest that this is not just some complex chumrah and that since it is found in the codes of the Rambam it is something that must be maintained. However one feels about the development of the halachic process since the 10th century, we must keep in mind we are not allowed to just negate our mesorah and roll back to this method. In defense of the common Judaism practice of today I most point out the Mishneh Torah is said to contain laws that are not just practical today, but also those which will be re-instituted in the age to come – in the days of Mashiach, during the future Messianic age.

Simply put, it doesn’t apply to us today. But it sure gives us a lot to think about. The length that our tradition goes to avoid the consumption of blood, and to respectfully return it back to sacredness of the earth.

So what of this scalding method? For good cooks this method does not come as much of a surprise. Indeed in order to protect the moisture and the flavor of meat, most chefs do a similar process on meats before making a dish such as a stew or a casserole. But instead of boiling the meat, most often people brown the outside of the meat in a pan. The browning is not just about adding the right texture and firmness, but it also an important step needed for sealing the outside in order to keep the natural juiciness inside the meat.

As we are coming into the holiday of Pesach, we are often consumed with the issues of kashrut. That this parsha is among the ones that make us consider what makes food kosher is timely for us, at a time of the year when we are obsessed with just that. Removing the chametz from the house, and quite often replacing items in our kitchens to meet the challenges. Reviewing the laws of kashrut is apropos to the Passover season for all religious Jews.

As we start this Passover week I find myself like many of you, physically and mentally stretched to the limit. In fact this year comes with a few more physical challenges which become amplified by the stress and strain of the holiday rush. Overwhelmed by the demands of this holiday season, and the extra complexities it sets upon keeping kosher.

But then I have my many friends who are not as observant or are new to Judaism, who look at all the effort that many of us put into the Passover holiday and they get discouraged. That all they can do is abstain from bread and the like.

Some get embarrassed that they aren’t able to keep as strictly kosher as they would like. So before we end this lesson I want us to remember that kashrut is not an all or nothing deal.

Some of us, just out of natural sensitivity know to abstain from things like eating blood or eating forbidden creatures. We all have a spark of this kosher soul inside of us, even if we don’t realize it yet. We have certain things that are to our merit, if we consider it.

Yes, we should all strive for kosher living. But we ought not feel defeated if we still fall short in certain areas.

In closing I would like leave us with some words paraphrased from the sichas of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. I think this entry says it the best:

The Torah records the laws of forbidden reptiles and insects of the ground after the laws of forbidden animals, fish and birds, in order to hint that even those Jews who are on a low spiritual level, and do not observe the Dietary Laws, would still avoid eating snakes and insects and ‘would not defile themselves [by eating] creeping creatures like the other nations.’ (Rashi to Lev. 11:46)

Here we see, once again, that however low a Jew may stumble in the service to G-d, evidence can still be found of his unique Jewish character, and his inner desire to return to G-d.”

Based on Sichas Shabbos, Parshat Shemini 5743

Kol Menacham Chumash, Gutnik Edition, P. 697

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Is there a Hebrew Thanksgiving connection? Yes, it’s the Turkey!

Interesting Points About the Origins of the Name Turkey in English and Hebrew

This holiday drash is a bit special because it is the first time that American Thanksgiving coincides with the start of Chanukah. Thanksgiving running late and Chanukah seeming to fall early in the season, causes a unique coinciding of two holidays that are very special to me. Add to that my birthday also falling this week, it’s been a week of joy and things for me to be grateful for.


One of the things I’m most thankful for at this time of year is Turkey! It’s actually one of my favorite foods. It is a symbol of thanksgiving the world over, used as the center of festive meals for many holiday observances. But for us North Americans it holds a special place as being a native bird, it puts some of the best of out bounty on display.

So what’s with then name of the Turkey? How does it get this strange name? English speakers and Hebrew speakers both have legends about how they came up with the strange name for this bird.

The well-known Anglo myth regarding why we call the bird a Turkey is because the bird was mistaken for another type of bird when it was imported into central Europe. They were simply classified as a Turkey Fowl along with guinea-fowl, the name Turkey however stuck in the end. Being named after their assumed place of origin, pointing towards their import location in Constantinople.

Now one might ask themselves, what they call them in Turkish? They call them a “Hindi.” That is where they assumed the wild turkeys came from, from the Indus valley in India. They also did not realize that they Spanish and Portuguese traders who colonized India were importing them from the New World at first. They are not the only people to have made that mistake. This is also reflected in other languages such as Russian, Yiddish, Armenian, Catalan, French, Italian, Polish, etc. Each of these languages still retains a variance of the name India in their proper name for the Turkey.

It is also true in Hebrew, we call it by a full name “tarnegol hodu,” or the Rooster of India. Hodu is also the long-held classical Hebrew name for India. In the end we all drop the first part of the name that states the type of animal it is, and just simply call it a hodu.

Now Jews also hold two urban legends about how they names Turkey and Hodu came to be used. There are those who hold by a legend that Christopher Columbus was a converso-Jew who had some crew expelled by the Inquisition with him, they named the colorful bird after the Hebrew work for a parrot “tuki,” it mistakenly got passed along as Turkey. Yet others also credit him with the name Hodu, saying that he thought the Native Americans were Indians so he called their bird Hodu, after where he thought he had landed; the Indian subcontinent. I can’t vouch for either one of these claims, as they both rely on tall tales. But it’s an interesting connection

Now if that isn’t enough to keep the mind thinking wild connections, I couldn’t help but giggle when I came across the places in our morning Hebrew prayers where we say the commonly used phrase “hodu l’Hashem.”

This is more grandly repeated in rounds on Shabbat and Festival days with the recitation of Psalm 136, “Hodu l’Hashem ki tov, ki l’olma chasdo / thank the L-rd for He is good, His kindness endures forever!” We see and hear the word “hodu” used, here but in a totally different way. Here the word hodu is a call to give thanks. From the Hebrew root holdot, meaning thanksgiving.

Though the word form seems the same, the only distinction that is made between the classical Hebrew word “hodu” and the more modern use of “hodu” is a slight variance by the native speaker. One tends to raise their voice in the prayer; accenting the first syllable, HOdu. In everyday speech though we tend to accent our last syllable, like when speaking of India it’s “hoDU.”

So remember as you say your prayers on Thanksgiving, when we say our prayer. It goes like this:

“Thank the L-rd for He is good,

His kindness endures forever”

| Hodu l’Hashem ki-tov

| ki l’olam chasdo

Psalm 136:1


“The Turkey of the L-rd is good, His kindness never ends.”

We all know that your bird isn’t going to last that long, not with a full-house of hungry people. The good things is that the chesed of Hashem – the kindness and mercy of G-d is something that is never-ending. It never runs out, it lasts forever. Not just today, but every day of the year. So we can and should also be thankful each and every day as well!

This is Shmu, from Hardcore Mesorah. I want to wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving and also a Chag Chanukah Sameach.

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Parshat Toldot (2012)

Parshat Toldot
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

What the Torah teaches us about foods and mourning

It almost seems ridiculous that I talk about food in this season, even my skinny little frame has packed on some pounds going through the holidays. We literally had weeks of holidays, each with their own rich and sweet foods to really drive the concept of blessing and sweetness home for each of us. But here we are at the end of the month of Mar Cheshvan, at the end of a month of that doesn’t have any holidays, and at the beginning of Kislev waiting through the long stretch until we get to Chanukah.

You would figure that most of us would be taking it easy on the foods to lose a few holiday pounds, but I find that most of my friends are utilizing the abundance of the fall harvest and practicing their cooking for the holidays to come. I can’t blame anyone, I actually think I’m mediocre at Torah learning but more gifted at making a festive table so I really get a thrill out of the cooking. I would like to remind everyone of the often quoted midrash, that in the days of Mashiach – in the messianic-age – this month of Mar Cheshvan will be filled with holy days, it will be one long holiday; it will no longer be Mar (literally: bitter) Cheshvan, but sweet Cheshvan. If your making the meals rich and sweet in this season your just practicing for the merit of Mashiach!

Food is something of great importance and weighs heavy with symbolism. The Jewish tradition, like most cultures, puts a lot of importance on the traditional foods. Except more often than not our foods that we choose are more than just reflective of their abundance at that time of year, the dish is often symbolic of a lesson that we are trying to recognize.

Food and the effects it has on a person should not be under estimated. Our midrash relays to us the saying, “The stomach carries the legs.” (Midrash Rabba Bereishit 70) We can look at that statement a few ways. One that what we consume drives us as people, you are what you eat. For that reason we are very mindful of our kashrut as much as possible. We understand on a very simplistic level that for the soul, even what we consume as food should be driven by purposefulness because our manner of eating is a process of “junk in, junk out.” The more well provisioned we are the better our state of body and mind is.

More often than not when we think about food and cooking in Judaism we think about restrictions; the types of meat allowed, not making inappropriate mixtures, if the source of the product is wholesome, if the producers associate their food with idolatry, etc. Then we think about the customary foods for the holidays, the compulsory foods; coming up we have Chanukah foods such as sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes symbolizing the miracle of oil for us is a great example. But in our tradition we have other examples of where foods are used as symbols, both restrictively and prescriptively. We have this displayed for us here in this weeks parsha.

“And the youngsters grew

and it so happened that Esau knew how to trap,

he was a man of the field.

And Jacob was a simple man,

dwelling in tents.

And Isaac loved Esau

because his game was in his mouth.

But Rivka loved Jacob.”

| Vayigdelu hane’arim

| vayehi Esav ish yodea tza’id

| ish sadeh

| veYa’akov ish tam

| yoshev ohalim.

| Vaye’ehav Yitzchak et-Esav

| ki-tza’id befiv

| veRivkah ohevet et-Ya’akov.

Genesis 25:27-28

So here we start with the infamous comparison between the two sons. Jacob, being the simple bookworm that liked to be indoors. And then there was Esau who knew how to trap, he was a tzaid; a trapper, a hunter. As the Torah elaborates he was a man of the field. And we are told that Isaac grew to love Esau because he fed him meat he hunted. In this instance the old saying proves true, “The way to man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Interestingly a surface reading through our tradition we are going to see that it’s not going to deal so much with talking about the legality of hunting and eating hunted meat. Instead it is going to frown upon these acts by symbolism and association. It is going to look at the actions of trapping at the hands of Esau to be also symbolic of his character, that he trapped his father with his tongue. Let me elaborate, it doesn’t necessarily sound so clear when presented in the Rashi. Normally we think too simply that Isaac was trapped by his own mouth, through his desire for eating meat. However the midrash as expressed through Rashi instead twice focuses, once in each independent line of commentary for each verse, that Isaac was trapped by Esau’s mouth. He insists that it’s not as simple as saying that Isaac’s love was bought through his gastric taste but that he was also emotionally taken in by the trappings of Esau’s flattering speech.

Lag b'Omer bow and arrow

A man with a Lag b’Omer bow and arrow

Over time our laws of kashrut, the restrictions of proper shechitah – ritual slaughter, in which the life of that animal is taken swiftly and at once through a single slice and blessing – would make hunting unpractical. But we have no reason to believe that these rules applied before Sinai, it was apparently permissible in their age and is furthermore logically possible under certain constraints even today. Nonetheless the tendency for hunting is virtually unknown to Jews, who see such occupations as more of the temperament of Esau that we try to avoid.

Why should we want to avoid being like him? Before the holidays pick up again, when we read Parshat Zachor the Shabbat before Purim many of us will find in our liturgy the following piyyut (liturgical hymn) that chastises Esau among the enemies of the Jewish people and our ancestors. In fact it is going to have more lines about Esau than even Amalak that is the primary player in the Torah reading that week. It’s going lay out quite thick what Esau was like according to our tradition:

“Remember [Esau] who caused his forefather [Abraham] to die before his time, with murder, thievery, and adultery [Esau] frightened him – he diminished five years from [Abraham’s] life.

“Remember [Esau] who scorned his brother for being kind to their bereaved father, [Esau] disdained his brother for doing kindness with his grandfather, like someone who prevents his friend from enjoying kindness.

“Remember [Esau] who assaulted women found in the field, he shed blood upon returning from the field, and deceived his father who prayed in the field.”

זכור איש אשר הגויע עב ללא עתו, ברצוח וגנוב ונאוף בעתו, גרע חמש שנים ממחיתו:

זכור בוזה על גמילות חסד, גועל אח עש לזקנו חסד, דומה למס מרעהו חסד:

זכור גלה ערות מצואת שדה, דם שפך בבואו מן השדה הפך לב שח בשדה:

Yotzer for Prashat Zachor

(English based upon Artscroll’s translation)

These are just the first three lines of eight concerning Esau, he was a bad guy; so bad his example of wanton violence is going to take up 8 out of 22 stanzas of this liturgical poem. He was an evil guy, more than just a thickheaded woodsman. He was a man who was accustomed to violence and disregard for life to the point that it led as far as him also becoming a violator and murder of people. It is understandable in this light why we avoid any type of association with Esau or his occupation. His actions came with brutal grief that literally killed his grandfather and bereaved his father. We avoid this association at all cost, we don’t want our mouth to be filled with cruelty nor in any way associate with a snaring tongue. Thus hunting is not seen as a very Jewish thing, it’s not common among us. Who would want to follow in the footsteps of Esau after all? Hunting reminds us too much of his ways.

In our tradition mental images concerning what we eat run through and through. We are mindful of everything, not wanting to become desensitized in any way in the very basic act of eating. Our text and the Rashi to this text presents us with some interesting insight into the midrash pointed out in the poem. It will also give us more details concerning the first act that we see depicted of Esau in the Torah.

The first time we find Esau making any type of dialogue at all he is coming in from the field, Esau comes upon his brother’s tent and sees something red stewing in a pot. We are forced to ask, where was he coming from? Midrash Rabbah tells us that he was coming in from the field where he had killed innocent people. The news of his rampage caused his grandfather Abraham to die prematurely. This pot that is stewing before him, he isn’t concerned with what it is. Nor is he even turned off that is it gruesomely red. His stomach isn’t turned in guilt. He just wants to eat. Rashi points out that he even asks for Jacob to serve it directly into his mouth, as much as he could. For this he sold his birthright to his brother, for a helping of red lentil soup. (Genesis 25:30-31; Rashi)

Red lentil soup is one of my favorite soups in the whole wide world. I always held it as a guilty pleasure. One would think because of the mental association with the story of Esau that it would also be shunned in our tradition. However it is not, it is a very staple dish in the near-east and for Jewish communities the world over. In fact in the commentary for this text we do not find a prohibition but instead we find the eating of them prescribed. Not just is it encouraged by the Rashi to this text, but we also glean a reason here as to why Jacob was making this dish to begin with. The Rashi reads as follows:

Some of this red, red [pottage]: red lentils. And on that day, Abraham died, lest he see Esau, his grandson, falling into bad ways, for that would not be the ‘good old age’ that the Holy One, blessed be He, had promised him. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, shortened his life by five years, for Isaac lived one hundred and eighty years, and this one (Abraham) [lived] one hundred and seventy-five years, and Jacob cooked lentils to feed the mourner (Isaac). But why lentils? Because they are [round as] a wheel, for mourning is like a wheel revolving in the world. (Also, just as lentils have no mouth [no crack], as other beans have, so does the mourner have no mouth, for he is prohibited from speaking. It is therefore the custom to feed the mourner eggs at the beginning of his meal, since they are round, and have no mouth. So too does a mourner have no mouth, as is discussed in Mo’ed Katan (21b): “A mourner, for the entire first three days, may not respond to anyone’s greeting, and may surely not initiate a greeting. From the third day to the seventh, he may respond, but may not greet, etc.” [This is found] in an old [edition of] Rashi.)- [From Gen. Rabbah 63:12, B.B. 16b]

מן האדם האדם: עדשים אדומות, ואותו היום מת אברהם שלא יראה את עשו בן בנו יוצא לתרבות רעה, ואין זו שיבה טובה שהבטיחו הקבה, לפיכך קצר הקבה חמש שנים משנותיו, שיצחק חי מאה ושמונים שנה וזה מאה שבעים וחמש שנה, ובישל יעקב עדשים להברות את האבל. ולמה עדשים, שדומות לגלגל שהאבלות גלגל החוזר בעולם (ועוד מה עדשים אין להם פה כך האבל אין לו פה שאסור לדבר. ולפיכך המנהג להברות את האבל בתחלת מאכלו ביצים שהם עגולים ואין להם פה, כך אבל אין לו פה כדאמרינן במועד קטן (כא ב) אבל כל שלשה ימים הראשונים אינו משיב שלום לכל אדם וכל שכן שאינו שואל בתחלה, משלשה ועד שבעה משיב ואינו שואל וכו‘):

Rashi to Genesis 25:30

Both in the Midrash and in the Talmud we see a tradition brought down to us regarding the eating of lentils. We are told Jacob was cooking this stew of lentils, a humble but filling dinner. There is nothing special or distinct about this dish. And only the greatest of open-fire cooks can one make it into much more than a hearty porridge. But that’s that point, this isn’t supposed to be anything fancy. According to our tradition we see decadent eating being put aside in place of modest mourning meals. Jacob had made a pottage of lentils in order to feed his father and his mourning household with.

Now what is the symbolism behind the lentils? Rashi explains that in our tradition we recognize their roundness symbolizing galgal hachozer – a circle of life, symbolic of the world that runs in cycles like a wheel (galgal) repeating (chozer). It calls us to look at life as not being linear, but cyclical and round. Our lives are defined by how round they are, not how long they are.

For this reason, when we mourn we aren’t celebrating with wine and rich food which are symbols of joy, we instead take on the practical meals that are fulfilling as well as symbolic of the cycle of life. Lentil stew may be tasty, but this meal is less so in comparison to the rich and savory meats meals we are used to when gathering. This meal is about nourishing the body and has less to do with the mouth.

soy bean grades,hilum colorActually the mouth, or the lack thereof on the lentil, would also become another reason why the lentil would be an appropriate food to make in a house of mourning.

A lentil unlike most beans do no not have a wide “mouth,” so too people who are in mourning do not have a mouth either. What it is referring to is the hilum of the bean, the part where it was attached to the plant. Ordinarily beans have a noticeable and wide one; certain beans such as the black-eyed peas are legumes that are famous for this “mouth” they have. Soybeans, the most common of the legumes, they are often graded by the color of this mouth. But on lentils, you can hardly notice that there was one at all. So too for the mourner their mouth isn’t apparent, and according to our custom during the first few days they aren’t even expected to respond or make greetings. Sometimes in life there just aren’t the words, and so it is in times of mourning.

Our tradition also gives us another suggestion for a meal starter, to serve eggs to those in mourning. It is also for the same reasons as the lentil, because it is round and has no mouth. As you see through out different times and experiences in our lives foods as symbols can be prescribed in order for us to really get a true taste and picture of the lesson life is teaching us. It’s not just on holidays. The symbols of our food can help make a mini-Seder for us every time we sit down if we allow it. Food in our tradition, even on ordinary or tragic days can take on a mindfulness that teaches us a holy lesson.

Something to think about: Did you know that hunting is considered such an “un-Jewish” thing to do that we don’t have any real examples of huntsmanship. It’s true. It’s just “not something that a good Jewish boy does,” so even it’s symbols are foreign to us.

That is except for during one holiday, during the lone holiday of Lag b’Omer that is the stopping off point of celebration between another stretch in the calendar dry of holidays, the symbol of the keshet, the archer’s bow appears. Being in spring it often is said to represent a rainbow, another use for the Hebrew word “keshet.”

But our tradition relates another reason to us that we employ the symbol of the hunters bow at that time, even if we don’t hunt. Oddly it does not even stand as a symbol of war either. To Talmud students it stands as a symbol of Torah learning. How can this be? We are taught that during the Roman occupation of Eretz Yisrael the learning of Torah was outlawed. In order for people to learn Torah they had to do so in secret. So the students of Rabbi Akiva would head into the forest to learn in seclusion, with bows over their shoulders as a display all for the benefit of the Romans that were accustomed to hunting in such a manner. But Jews, instead of having their quills filled with arrows they had the best weapon of all, they carried hidden copies of Torah to learn under the cover of the forest inside a deep cave. In Judaism we are even able to take a symbol of death and made it into a symbol of life instead.

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