There have been some very interesting issues raised about kashrut in recent months on The Jew & The Carrot, particularly regarding the compatibility of traditional kashrut with the ethical, ecological, gastronomical, and cultural sensibilities of many of our readers and and contributors. And of course, there are the reports about the the blatant abuses of some of the kosher meat processors. However, while the kosher dietary rules (which I personally observe) are an important source and means of expression for Jewish values about food, they are not the only ones. There are also many rituals connected with the table and the seasons that have also shaped how we think about and eat our food.
Reading books at the dinner table is something most of us Jews take for granted, based on our experiences of the haggadot scripting our Passover seders, Tu bishvat haggadot for Tu Bishvat seders, benchers for birkat ha-mazon and zemirot after Shabbat and holiday meals. I remember my Grandpa Max teaching me always to have the prayerbook in front of me when chanting Friday night kiddush, as he always did, even though after countless Friday night dinners, I’m sure he had it memorized. The sense I got from him is that it was a way of being humble, not to be a know-it-all. Even today, though I’m a rabbi and we make Shabbat weekly, I don’t feel right unless I feel the security of the book in my hands.
But the most obvious example of our dinner tale reading is the Passover Haggadah, which cues us to talk about the meaning of the foods set before us and the distinctive ways we’re eating them, e.g., in the Four Questions. We follow Rabbi Gamaliel’s dictate, that whoever does not say anything about the Pesah lamb, matzah, and bitter herb, has not fulfilled their religious obligation. In fact, it has been suggested that this is how the rabbis finessed the omission of eating the Passover lamb sacrifice, the central, most distinctive rite of the Biblical celebration of Passover, which was no longer possible after the destruction of the Temple. That’s not to say that eating the two out of three required foods we can still eat isn’t just as important. Eating the foods we read about aloud makes it sensual, real. It’s not just a dry retelling of our history, but rather what Chaim Raphael call a Feast of History. The requirement to tell the story is made equivalent to the other “mitzvot of the mouth,” the eating ones, so that we tacitly acknowledge the loss of the Temple and our distance from the original commandment to observe the Passover, without feeling so debilitated that we feel inadequate to the task. Instead, we do it in a new way that stresses our continuity with the old ways while playing down our differences from them. It’s the talk scripted in the Haggadah, literally, “the telling,” that accentuates the meaning of the symbolic foods that we can still taste, while acknowledging without eating those we can’t. Thus some Hasidic commentators midrashically transform the meaing of the word Pesah (the roasted lamb sacrifice), to “peh sah,” “talking mouth.” Incidently, lest this talk of Pesah seem unseasonal, there’s a Sefardic tradition of a short seder of sayings about auspicious Rosh Hashanah foods , not only only over apples and honey, but also over fish heads (or lamb heads), dates, leeks, beets, etc. that are often based on Hebrew puns, for example,
the prayers before eating a date (tamar in Hebrew) includes the phrase “yitamu hataim”–may the wicked cease.
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However, it’s not just any words we say at the table, but words of Torah, that are supposed to be transformative, as it says in Pirkei Avot 3:3,
If three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of the Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41.22) “He said to me, ‘This is the table which is before the LORD.’ “
Thus, the importance of the concrete ritual object of the book at the table. Some Jewish books functioned like a sort of mini-Torah, providing certain talking points, in words, and sometimes in pictures, for words of Torah relevant to the meals at hand, divre torah al ha-shulhan, words of the Torah both “about” (al) and literally “over” (al) the table.
13th and 14th century Spanish Jews produced some of the most outstanding examples of books for the table. Probably the most well-known are the illuminated Haggadot, the Sarajevo Haggadah; the Golden and Barcelona Haggadot in the British Library, and the John Rylands Haggadah. Less well-known now (because it has no pictures?), but quite popular in its day and several subsequent centuries, especially in Hasidic circles, was the Shulhan Shel Arba (“Four-Legged Table”) by the famous Spanish Jewish preacher, kabbalist, and Biblical commentator Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher Hlava. I’d like to think of Rabbenu Bahya as a sort of medieval Jewish Brillat-Savarin. Like Brillat-Savarin, R. Bahya elegantly analyzes the ways his culture (i.e., Torah culture) transforms eating into dining, something that elevates human beings to their highest potential. In his four-part book, R. Bahya catalogues and explains 1) distinctive Jewish meal rituals (blessings and handwashing); 2) the “physiology of eating” (really more a kabbalistic, mystical interpretation); 3) table manners (derekh eretz); and 4) the Messianic Banquet reserved for the righteous at the end of time. I’m currently working on an English translation and commentary on this book to make it more available to a wider audience, since it neatly summarizes and articulates classic Jewish religious views of eating. R. Bahya says in the preface to his book that his readers should keep this book by their side at the table while eating, to evoke the appropriate Torah verses suited to the particulars of the meal. By the way, this seems to be a medieval revival of the ethic of Greco-Roman symposium literature. The Haggadot were also meant to be read at meals, and provide appropriate topics of table conversation.
I have just been in the UK looking at the manuscripts of the John Rylands Haggadah and of Shulhan Shel Arba, and couldn’t help being struck by a few things, apart from the beauty of the illuminations and the the calligraphy. First, in the Rylands Haggadah there are several pictures of meal participants eating with books at the table, including one towards the end of a man holding a cup or bowl in his left hand near his mouth, and an open book under his right arm. Secondly, the scenes from the Exodus narrative cycle preceding the text of the Haggadah are each double-captioned, one caption artfully integrated over the pictures in gold lettering (but hard to read), the other in clearly legible dark lettering in the margins – as if these pictures and their captions were to be held up and shown to other people at the table, so that they could see the pictures and read the captions.Finally, there are stains on the Rylands Haggadah and an early manuscript of Shulhan Shel Arba which look like food or wine stains, also suggesting that these books were used at dinner tables (though I can’t prove this with certainty).
So what does all this mean? Well, first of all, holding these 14th and 15th century table books in my hand made me feel a palpable connection across the generations between me and the people who used these book; we Jews are still reading books at the table. But our Jewish tradition of eating and reading also underlines the importance of mindfulness when we eat as Jews. We are supposed to make connections to the social, natural, and supernatural worlds around us as we eat; our ritual books at the table cue us to make these connections. But its an sensual connection in which tasting, seeing, and intellectual knowing are fused together in a single experience.
Jewish eating and reading is a ritual way of encouraging the old to inform the new, and the new to inform the old, creating a fruitful interaction between theory and practice, to produce new, vital Torah that is grounded both in tradition and our current experience. Much like the environmentally conscious, agriculturally, and foodie-informed Torah that has been sprouting forth from the Jew and the Carrot.