According to the hagiographical collection of Hasidic tales Shivchey ha-Besht (Praises of the Besht), the putative founder of Hasidism—the Baal Shem Tov—gathered together with his small circle of disciples for the Sabbath and festival meals in order to engage in Avodah be-Gashmiyout, or serving God through the material world: in this case—eating. What began as a genuinely communal meal, a repast the Hasidim shared fully with their master, over time became elevated into a highly structured sacrament, in which the Rebbe increasingly took on the role of priest rather than rabbinical dinner host—a rite during which he alone consumed a full meal, while ritualistically distributing minute portions of the shirayim (leftovers, literally) to his followers. Only the Rebbe himself was considered competent to sanctify a variety of traditional foods—each rich with kabbalistic symbolism based on its shape, taste and even the numerical value of its Yiddish name. One example of this is the singular culinary item most distinctive to the Jews of Eastern Europe, the kugel, which is associated with the Kabbalistic orb of Yesod, the divine phallus and the source of human procreation. Fish, too, is standard, as there is a long tradition in Kabbalistic lore that holds fish to be holy creatures. The eyes of the fish are always open, evoking the Lord’s omniscience and providence. Thus, many strange customs pertaining to the eyeballs of the Shabbat fish presented to the Rebbe have been recorded, from consuming them before eating the fish’s flesh to placing the fish’s eyes in the pockets of the kapotehs [coat jacket]. Not the most appetite-inducing image, but one that captures the almost surreal atmosphere that surrounds this most revered and long-standing religious observance that is unique to the Hasidim.
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of Jewish Studies at Drew University.
The history of the Jewish relationship to food dates back to the creation story. When Adam and Eve were created, they were given permission to eat from seed-bearing fruits—really, to be plant-based vegans. Only over time, after the Flood and the story of Noah, were humans given permission to eat meat. The first chief rabbi of Israel, Isaac Kook, talked about the spirituality around food and saw eating meat as being a step, a lower rung in a person’s spiritual growth. To become an actualized Jew, and an actualized human being, the top pursuit is to recognize our temptations—our draw to conquer, our appetite for meat—and ultimately, to overcome them, reconnecting to a relationship of husbandry, compassion and stewardship of the animal kingdom. In this way, we exercise spiritual consciousness over animal consciousness. By extension, the laws of kashrut offer a road map and spiritual discipline to sharpen one’s consumer consciousness. Interestingly, Rav Kook comments that kosher slaughter heightens our sense of moral disintegration that comes from the desire of flesh. As the biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz paraphrases, through the experience of slaughter, humankind becomes aware of the injustice done to the animal kingdom through a type of opportunism. For Rav Kook, the consciousness of shame is the beginning of moral improvement. The hands-on experience of sharpening one’s knife, running one’s fingernail on the facets of the blade, holding an animal, severing its throat and feeling the blood on one’s hands brings us into a deep consciousness of the true cost of animal slaughter. Ideally, shochtim go to tremendous lengths to train their minds and hearts to be able to work with (and slaughter) animals in a sensitive way, and also to prepare one’s own soul (on behalf of a community) to be able to feel the heaviness and significance of taking a life in order to sustain one’s own. I think a sensitive being can’t help but be shaken and moved by that interaction. There’s something quite powerful in this experience and the responsibility to pull back the veil in order to move the needle of spiritual growth that has gotten lost in the comforts of the industrial age, where the interactions between human and animal are limited.
Rabbi Andy Kastner, a trained shochet, is the founding director of the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship at the Leichtag Foundation in San Diego.
One important aspect of the relationship between ancient Jews and food is that sacrifices were often eaten. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Passover sacrifice. According to the Torah, the animals that Jews can offer as sacrifice have to come from the herd or the flock. These animals are tame, domesticated, but most importantly—owned. Sheep, goats and cattle were the most valued sacrificed animals, and ancient Jews probably didn’t eat a lot of this kind of meat unless it was associated with a sacrifice. Sacrifice was not a distinctly Jewish practice at the time of the Second Temple. But the kinds of animals that were sacrificed were sometimes different: Canaanites and many other people in the ancient world sacrificed pigs, and there’s a Greek image of sacrificing tuna. Many people today look at animal sacrifice as a moral issue, but many Jews will go to the synagogue and worship, then go home and eat cholent. There’s no net gain for the animal there—even though it didn’t die in shul. Our inability to understand sacrifices today comes not only because we have separated sacrifice from worship, but because we’ve also separated eating animals from killing animals. Even 100 years ago, if you wanted a chicken, you had to kill it, and most of us also have memories of our grandmothers telling us about the fish in the bathtub. We’re removed from that now. But if you get back into that mindset, it brings you closer to understanding how slaughtering animals could be made sacred.
Jonathan Klawans is a professor of religion at Boston University and author of Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism.
Like all people, we artificially restrict what we eat in different ways. One of the things that characterizes the human animal is that we restrict ourselves to eating less than the total range of foods available in our environment, and those restrictions are symbolic expressions of who we are. The easiest way to illustrate this is to ask modern Americans living in an urban area—a group of people that has a wider-ranging diet than anyone in any time or place—when was the last time they ate a dog or cat. They would likely say, “Are you crazy?” Dogs and cats are perfectly good food, and the reason we don’t eat them tells us something about our relationship to those animals. However, Jews aren’t like everyone else in our specific choices. That is to say, we have a system that has developed over many centuries, called kashrut, and it restricts what we can eat or what we can eat together, and that is distinct to Jews. The system of kashrut has changed over time and often been compromised. Before easy transportation and refrigeration, most Jews were dependent on what was found in their environment and sometimes relied on their neighbors for food. There was a lot more sharing than we would imagine. Only after the mid-14th century, when meat consumption went up quite considerably, did laws restricting which meat Jews could eat become more of a factor in separating Jews from their neighbors; it also obviously made issues of separating meat and dairy more urgent. Also, there are records from Jewish sources in the Middle Ages and early modernity showing that Jews compromised on drinking gentile wine, particularly in Italy. Today there is a range of ways of keeping Jewish restrictions while eating like everyone else, more or less. Since we live in a society where people eat out with regularity, the most interesting question in some respects is what kind of restaurant will you or will you not eat in, and what will you eat when you’re there. These kinds of choices are keys to what kind of Jewish identity a person has.
David Kraemer is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary and author of Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages.
Everyone has a religious identity and a geographical identity when it comes to food. That said, Jews have a unique way of preserving Jewish tradition and culture through food because of their wandering history. For over 2,000 years in France, for example, Jews have preserved regional dishes and ways of cooking from North Africa, from the south of France, from Alsace-Lorraine and from Poland. Each person has a story that includes a specific kind of Jewish food, depending on where they are from and the journey they have taken. That food is intertwined in their history whether it be the kind of Friday night fish they make, their harosets, their matzo, their stuffed veal or lamb shanks, their break-the-fast soup, even their challah. Recipes also have their journeys. Take that wonderful Jewish staple, Jewish apple cake. Originally from Poland, the cake has a certain French touch in France, and in America, an American touch. It is the same with cheesecake and chicken dishes. We are all touched by where we live.
Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook is Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.
Every culture has its own special—and sometimes complicated—relationship with food. It’s not exclusive to Jews. In my own personal experience, I always think of food as being the center of life cycle events. When I was growing up, there was often a deli tray at our house the day after a big family gathering, like a bar mitzvah, so people could come over, graze and talk. Generally, if there was family in town, there was always something out to pick at. That is how we got to know each other better and catch up: with a plate of food in front of us. To this day, I don’t feel I can really know a person unless I break bread with her first. I was chatting with my Uncle Lewis about the relationship between Jews and food, and he said, “Food was the answer for happiness and sadness. Eat, you are too thin! Eat, you’ll feel better. Ess, ess, mein kind.” If pushed to express food as a symbol of something, I prefer to think of it as a representation of love, family and community. But most of the time I think of it as just that wonderful thing you eat.
Jami Attenberg is a fiction writer and author of The Middlesteins.
Jewish dietary practice, which we call kashrut, is the original practice of mindful eating. Kashrut isn’t about what you can and cannot eat; to me, it posits the individual in a holistic network of life and death. It says we do not own the earth, nor its creatures; we cannot have what we want whenever we want. Certainly what we put in our mouths says a lot about what we value as Jews and as human beings. There has always been a special relationship between Jews and food, not just emotionally, but with laws and rituals that govern every aspect of food: from how we sow the earth, how we harvest, how we slaughter animals, how we prepare food and the blessings we say before and after meals. The interesting thing to me is that in America today, kosher food is widely seen not just as part and parcel of an Orthodox lifestyle, but among many liberal or secular Jews as a mark of membership in the tribe, a public pronouncement of their Jewish identity.
Sue Fishkoff is editor of j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, and author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.
Kosher food is big business. There are more than 10,000 kosher food companies in the United States that make more than 135,000 kosher products for 12 million American consumers who purchase these items because they’re kosher certified. Surprisingly, only eight percent of these consumers are religious Jews who buy exclusively kosher food. Most kosher consumers buy kosher products for reasons relating to health, food safety, taste, lactose intolerance, vegetarianism or non-Jewish religious practices like halal. More products are labeled kosher than are labeled natural, organic or premium. But kosher food certification was not always as reliable as it is today. From about 1850 to 1950, there was widespread fraud and corruption in kosher meat production. This started to change in the 1950s with the rise of a new approach to kosher regulation: private kosher certification agencies. Today, there are about 300 kosher certifiers in the U.S., and competition among them—all are eager to maintain a reputation for reliability among consumers—helps keep them honest. This competitive system replaced the tradition of centralized communal control of kosher certification with a more entrepreneurial approach that fit better in the American context of religious liberty and free markets. Kosher food has helped introduce Jewish food ways into American culture. At the same time, it has implanted American democratic and market institutions into Jewish communal life.
Timothy Lytton is a professor of law at Albany Law School and author of Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.
The famous tagline of Hebrew National, a kosher meat producer, reads: “We answer to a higher authority.” It reflects a long-held perception that kosher food is holier or more ethically produced than other food. But that is not always true. The gap between perceptions and the reality of the food industry was highlighted in 2008, with the federal immigration raid and subsequent revelations about oppressive working conditions at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The child labor, wage violations and hazardous working conditions that were taking place at the plant shook the consciousness of thousands of Jewish consumers, forcing them to ask tough questions for the first time: Does the fact that my food is ritually kosher mean it’s produced in an ethical way? What is the responsibility of the Jewish community to monitor ethical food issues? Today, people around the country are seeking answers to those tough questions. For some, those questions focused on workers who produce kosher food. The treatment of food workers is a deep Jewish issue. The Torah states, “You shall not oppress a hired worker, whether he is poor or needy, whether he is of your brethren or a stranger within your land and within your gates” (Deuteronomy 24:15). The workers the Torah refers to were often migrant laborers helping on farms, similar to migrant workers today. The Talmud goes so far as to equate oppressing these hired workers with murder (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia, 112a). By fighting for the vulnerable within our food systems, we hope to consume food in ways that honor the infinite value, God’s image, in all people.
Ari Hart is an Orthodox rabbi and a founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox organization devoted to social justice which created Tav HaYosher, a kosher certification system.
As is true of the food of any ethnic group that has settled in the United States, a lot of Jewish food has been adapted to American taste. Both in New York and in Chicago, when you order a hot dog, chances are very good you’re going to get an all-beef hot dog—in Chicago you usually even get a kosher hot dog—but I venture to say most people who order one don’t consider it a Jewish hot dog; it’s just an all-beef dog made by the Vienna Beef company. That’s something you don’t find in cities that don’t have significant Jewish populations. Oklahoma City, for example, has a big hot dog culture but you don’t get all-beef hot dogs; they’re not interested. There’s also the ubiquitous bagel. Bagels have become more common than pita bread, which also used to be an ethnic thing. They’re everywhere, in all sorts of ridiculous flavors—blueberry bagels, French toast bagels. I guess I’m what you’d call a bagel snob. It’s sort of like the hot dog in that a lot of people who eat them don’t think, “I shall now have a Jewish breadstuff.” Bagels have become so common that I don’t think people think of them as particularly Jewish, except in Montreal, maybe. Montreal bagels are so famous and so different from those in American cities, and they’re still in the Jewish part of town. I think those still remain a very Jewish icon, whereas here I think most bagel connoisseurs—including Jewish bagel connoisseurs—think bagels have become so homogenized they’ve lost whatever character they had as a bread from the Ukraine, which they once were.
Michael Stern is co-creator of Roadfood and a regular contributor to NPR’s The Splendid Table.
I don’t think there is a unique Jewish relationship to food. Many, many cultures love to eat as much as we do!
Ruth Reichl was editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine and a former New York Times restaurant critic.
Interviews by Sarah Breger, Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, Sala Levin & Emma Meyers