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The Power of Five Seconds: Jewish Obsession with Food

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Jewish obsession with food

As the echoes of Purim reverberate through existence, its message and energy speaks to each of us. Here is a strange Purim thought that struck me this year — Simon Jacobson

How much time transpires between the moment that you put a piece of food in your mouth and when it turns into mush as it begins to make its way down your gullet entering the digestive process?

I estimate around five to ten seconds.

How much time and energy do we spend to satisfy these five fleeting seconds – the brief moments it takes until all types of food are equalized in our throats? How many trillions of dollars are spent on the food industry to gratify these short seconds?

These were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I was sitting in a posh kosher restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. I know that it sounds quite masochistic of me to be thinking this way while swallowing down a juicy steak, following some mouth melting sushi. But hey, that’s how I was wired – or programmed. Not that I suffer from any major guilt; that doesn’t happen to be my problem. It’s just that I am always trying to overanalyze the simplest experiences.

The same thoughts came back to me during the Purim festive meal, as I was sipping some nice wine and enjoying a piece of good veal.

Judaism makes such a fuss about food that you have to wonder if that is not the cause that so many Jews today find their tradition to be spiritually irrelevant and morally bankrupt. Hamantashen and kreplach on Purim. Latkes on Chanukah. Cheese blintzes on Shavuot. Honey and apples on Rosh Hashana. Even Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year – is about food: It’s a fast day – we are fixated on not eating food. And on the day before Yom Kippur we are told to eat twice as much! Then there is of course Passover, with its unique menu, and each family preparing their own special recipes.

It seems that for every holiday there is another food…

What’s this Jewish obsession with food and gastronomy? What is so spiritual about a sumptuous meal? What is significant and eternal about cuisine, and at that, food that lasts a mere five seconds before it enters our systems?!

Purim specifically is defined by its special meal – Seudat Purim. The Megillah specifically designates that this holiday be celebrated with a mishta, a festive party. We send friends gifts of food, mishloach manot. And of course, we say l’chaim, on tangible wine or vodka. Indeed, the Levush explains that Chanukah is the celebration of the soul. Purim is the celebration of the body. Thus Chanukah is commemorated with kindling lights – light representing spirit, celebrating the spiritual victory of the Jews over the Greeks who wanted to obliterate their souls, not their bodies. Purim on the other hand celebrates the victory over Haman who wanted to kill them physically. Hence, we celebrate with feeding our corporeal bodies.

Here’s a beautiful analogy from the Baal Shem Tov that explains this thing with food and drink.

A king was preparing his child to inherit his throne. In order for his son to be a sensitive leader, the king determined to send him away from home. While the child was living in his palace, the king realized, he would remain isolated and protected by his comfortable surroundings. The son was spoiled by all the wealth and all the attendants that catered to his every need. The comfortable palace stunted his growth and would not allow him to show and demonstrate what he was really made of. To be groomed as a great leader, the king knew that he has to send his son away from the palace, no matter how painful it is, to live among the common folk, the subjects. This would allow him to earn his way to be a compassionate and fitting leader.

The sad day comes. As the king bids farewell to his weeping son, the king promises him that he will stay in touch with him, and even in the most difficult times the son will be able to access his father, the king.

And so it happens. The son is sent off to a distant land in the kingdom where no one recognizes him. He must learn to make his way and earn his right on his own, with no one shielding him. As time passes, the son slowly forgets his past and the purpose of his journey.

But the wise king anticipated what would happen. He understood that with time, his son would forget his roots, as he assimilates into the ways of the foreign land that he now inhabits. In order to counter this amnesia, the king sends his son a letter several times a year reminding him that “I am you father the king. You were sent to this distant land in order to prepare you for your destiny, to be a great leader of this nation. Never forget it.”

When the son receives the letter, he is ecstatic and wants to celebrate. He remembers the beauty of the palace and his home. He recalls the purpose of his mission to this strange land.

He has a great desire to celebrate and announce to all his neighbors the true reason for his coming to live in this town. But he soon thinks better of it. He realizes that the townspeople will not understand or appreciate where he is coming from and that he is being groomed to be their leader. They would not believe him, thinking him insane. They might even be resentful.

But his desire to celebrate is strong. He thinks of an idea. After he receives the letter, he makes an announcement in town, offering everyone in town a free meal and drinks. Of course, all the townspeople are delighted. They accept the offer and celebrate for their free dinner and cocktails. Meanwhile, while they are distracted and celebrating their free meal, the king’s son celebrates with them for the letter he received from his father.

G-d is the king and each of us is the king’s child. Our natural environment before coming to Earth is the heavenly palace, a spiritual environment where our souls are completely comfortable. But in order for us to establish and demonstrate our true abilities, G-d sends us away from our comfort zone into a foreign, material world. A world that can be harsh and cruel.

And we forget. As we grow accustomed to our material existence, we forget our point of departure and our destination – the purpose of our journey to Earth.

But G-d sends us a ‘letter’ several times a year – He gives us the holidays, reminders that we come from a greater place, and we are here to transform the material world into a Divine abode, a home for our souls. When we receive these letters, we naturally want to celebrate.

However, there is a small problemo. Our physical bodies and the material world around us are not exactly prepared to celebrate with us; they do not understand or appreciate the spiritual message we have received. They are so consumed with the selfish world of matter, that they will not allow us to freely celebrate our spiritual awareness.

So G-d tells us: “Feed your body with good food and drink on the holiday. Provide it with free meals and cocktails. Allow your body to celebrate on its terms, while you celebrate the ‘letter’ that you have received from Me on this grand holiday.”

That’s the secret of food. The body of food is the nourishment and gratification it gives your body. The soul of food is the Divine message which each holiday offers us.

You can eat and you can eat. You can indulge in your meals and drinks, which last as long as the taste is in your mouth and the food in your stomach, until your… next meal. Or you can bless and sanctify the food, eat it on your table which you transform in to a sacred altar, and then eternalize the power of the spiritual message into a timeless experience.

Five seconds can go either way: Down your throat into your belly. Or up into eternity. It’s up to you.

****

Below is a correspondence between Rabbi Jacobson and a reader in response to the The Power of Five Seconds:

Dear Simon,

Please read the truth about that “lovely piece of veal” you so much enjoyed at www.britishmeat.com/veal.html G-d never intended us to treat our fellow creatures in such a hideous way, as we find on today’s factory farms.  Kosher doesn’t make it any less pardonable.  If it wasn’t for the plain stupidity and/or arrogance of Noah, we would still be eating the healthy foods that G-d  created for us.

Every creature is born with intelligence and instinct.  Just because we can’t seem to understand each of our fellow creatures, doesn’t mean that lobsters feel no pain while dropped, alive, into a pot of boiling water. Though I am aware that shell fish are “unclean,” and not to be consumed, it doesn’t make the many other cruelties less onerous.

So, the next time you’re eating in some “posh” Manhattan kosher eatery,  maybe you’ll give your tastebuds something less cruelly produced.

Regards,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I appreciate your kind advice and your enlightening me on the cruel methods used to produce veal. After reading the article Veal: A Cruel Meal I will attempt never to eat veal again. I guess my eating veal and writing about it can now be transformed into bringing awareness to this issue.

I do however want to share with you what a great Rebbe said about a vegetarian who was questioning the consumption of meat at a Shabbat meal: “And do they know what is happening in the vegetable world?!…”

You write that “Every creature is born with intelligence and instinct. Just because we can’t seem to understand each of our fellow creatures, doesn’t mean that lobsters feel no pain while dropped, alive, into a pot of boiling water.” Are you aware that a vegetable and a mineral also have a life, and just because we can’t understand it, doesn’t mean that a vegetable doesn’t feel pain when you tear it from its roots and consume it! And the same with minerals — how do we know and what right do we have do take anything in this world and tear it away from its life and annihilate it in order to sustain ourselves?!

The answer my friend, is that we have no right! Indeed, damaging any part of the universe and environment is a Torah prohibition called ‘baal tashchis.’ Everything that exists — mineral, vegetable or animal — is sacred.

The only right we have to consume food is because G-d who created the entire universe gave us that permission. But only with one fundamental condition: That we use the energy we gain from the food for constructive, higher purposes, to transform this world into a home for G-d. The Torah tells us that by consuming lower creatures and using that energy for a higher purpose elevates the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. Indeed, that is why we were created in a way that we are dependent on nourishment from a source outside of ourselves (not self sustaining like an amoebae for example). See the Arizal, Likkutei Torah Parshat Eikev.

If you indulge in a meal just to sustain yourself then you have no right to destroy other creatures — whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral — just to satisfy yourself.

This, in other words, was the main point of my article.

True, Adam and Eve were vegetarians and prohibited to eat meat, and the consumption of meat began with Noah after the Flood. However, you are mistaken when you write that “if it wasn’t for the plain stupidity and/or arrogance of Noah, we would still be eating the healthy foods that G-d created for us.” It wasn’t Noah that introduced meat consumption; it was G-d. As specifically stated in Genesis 9:3 (and explained in the Talmud Sanhedrin 109, cited in Rashi), that from Noah on G-d allowed man to eat meat, lifting the prohibition to Adam. (Besides for the fact that Noah is called a tzaddik in Torah — so I am not sure where you get the idea to qualify Noah’s ‘plain stupidity and/or arrogance.’…)

The reason for this is because the world lost its refinement in the Garden of Eden. But once meat was allowed, it could not mean that G-d would introduce and sanction something evil. One can argue the contrary: in a less refined world perhaps it is even more important to avoid the consumption of meat?! Yet, G-d did introduce the concept, allowing meat to be eaten. Why? Because today our role is to refine and elevate even the more difficult parts of existence.

This explains the consumption of meat in the Holy Temple offerings, and in Shabbos and holiday meals. And the fact that many tzaddikim ate meat. Hardly people who were cruel.

Still, eating meat must be done with caution, with even more care than consuming other foods. For it is difficult to refine meat. That is why we find many righteous people eating meat sparingly if at all.

These are just brief points on a topic that truly requires more elaboration.

May we all be blessed to learn from the Torah how to be sensitive to the world around us — and especially to other people — and recognize our responsibility to transform the world into a Divine abode.

Best wishes,
Simon Jacobson
—-

Dear Simon,

My apologies for my overreaction to the veal issue. It pushes all the wrong buttons…  Thank you for your insight and objectivity, the latter which I tend to dance around perhaps too often. I try to practice humility and love of all my fellow creatures. I now understand the “Wisdom” in “WisdomReb.”

Regards,
Steve

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Jeffrey Cohan

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

You are to be commended and further revered for avoiding the consumption of veal.

I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the Torah prohibition on causing an animal to suffer unnecessarily — tza’ar baalei chayim — is not mentioned in your reply. As you may know, virtually all kosher meat companies obtain their animals from factory farms, where this Torah mandate is desecrated.

Given that we are forbidden to commit an aveirah to commit a mitzvah, how can any serious Jew justify the consumption of meat?

L’shalom,

Jeffrey

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