Food is at the heart of Jewish life and culture, the subject of many recent studies — popular and academic — and countless Jewish jokes. From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah spotlights food in the Torah, where it’s used to explore such themes as love and compassion, commitment, character, justice, belonging and exclusion, deception, and life and death. Originally created as an online project to support the innovative food rescue charity, Leket Israel, From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey comprises short essays on food and eating in the parasha by 52 internationally acclaimed scholars and Jewish educators, as well as my commentary. Proceeds from sales of this book will go to Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank.
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The Torah offers a variety of ways to internalize its words. We can hear them: Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe [this commandment — these laws and statutes] diligently (Deuteronomy 6:3).
We can see them (which is related to, but not the same as, reading them): Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an symbol on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:8).
We can teach them: Now this is the commandment — the statutes and the ordinances — that the Lord your God charged me to teach you (Deuteronomy 6:1).
And study them: Repeat them to your children and speak about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:7).
We can meditate on them: Their delight is in the Torah of the Lord, and on His Torah, they meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2).
And we can eat them. Yes, that wasn’t a typo. I meant to write it. We can eat the words of God’s Torah: Then the Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put My words in your mouth (Jeremiah 1:9).
Hearing, seeing, teaching and learning, meditating — all these make perfect sense to the modern mind when it comes to internalizing words of Torah. But eating? What does it mean to eat God’s words?
You might object that when God puts words in a person’s mouth, we’re dealing not with nutrition, but with prophetic inspiration, and, indeed, the idea does occur in that context: I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command (Deuteronomy 18:18).
But ingesting divine words is an idea that transcends prophets and prophecy, and even space and time: And My words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and forever (Isaiah 59:21).
You might object that we’re not talking about actual eating here. But sometimes we really are: How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! And: He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and He gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey (Ezekiel 3:1).
The tradition of giving out honey-coated letters, or alef-bet shaped cookies, on the first day of school must derive from this notion. That’s a potent symbol. But what happens to it on the second day of school, and the day after that, and the rest of our lives? We’ve lost the sense of what it means to taste, to eat Torah.
Eyes, ears, the mouth, even the mind, are gates. To greater and lesser degrees, they filter what comes in. We can shut our eyes and be temporarily blind, cover our ears and block at least some unwelcome sounds, we can close our minds. But we can’t easily do any of these things at will, and certainly not for long. It’s easier to try to change the world around us, to try to remove the stimuli we find dangerous and problematic, than to prevent them from entering our beings.
But the mouth is different from the eyes, ears, and mind. When it comes to what enters by the mouth, we have enormous control. In normal living conditions, it really is up to us what we ingest. We are own gatekeepers.
It makes perfect sense, then, that the first act of human disobedience involved eating. Adam made a deliberate choice to eat the forbidden fruit that Eve picked. He took something into his mouth that had been explicitly prohibited. No one made him do it. He didn’t do it by accident. As a gatekeeper, he was a failure.
The consequence of that was not, I think, simply that thereafter human beings had to work for their food. They had to develop a heightened consciousness of what they allowed to enter their bodies through their mouths. They were no longer like new-born babies, suckling in blissful ignorance at their mother’s breasts, tasting whatever tempting fruit fell into their hands.
The Torah’s main aides to food consciousness are ritual and legal: recognition and gratitude in the form of offerings and sacrifices; the non-intuitive approach to eating represented by the laws of kashrut (we don’t keep kosher because it’s healthy or tasty); and the obligation to feed the poor and disadvantaged.
But consciousness of food in the Torah goes so much deeper than that. Food is our connection to the natural world. God created fruit-bearing trees with seeds. We care about the self-sustainability of plants in part because we need to eat their fruits and seeds.
Food is our connection to the land. We care about agricultural laws, such as the sabbatical year of rest for the land, because we need to eat its produce.
Food is our connection to other living creatures. We care about the welfare of animals — feed your animal before you feed yourself — in part because we want their milk and meat.
Food is our connection to other human beings. We care about the rights of workers — Shabbat rest for them too — in part because we want to eat the food they plant and harvest.
Ideally, of course, we should care about all these things regardless of self-interest. But human beings aren’t like that. We need a point of contact, a way to make the abstract real. Food is a point of contact par excellence. Most of us are connected to vast swathes of the globe and its population by the produce on our kitchen shelves and in our refrigerators.
And yet somehow, it doesn’t make an impact. We are shockingly indifferent to the back story behind what we put in our mouths. We don’t think about the cost to the environment of growing plants in places where they don’t belong; of shipping perishable fruits and vegetables half way around the world — with all the non-biodegradable packaging that requires — so we can eat everything all the time. We don’t think about which workers were exploited, which producers and suppliers subjected to bribery and corruption, which animals cruelly abused, so we can drink our favorite coffee or eat the cheese or cold cuts we really like.
Our indifference doesn’t even stem from lack of empathy or altruism. We sacrifice our own physical and mental well-being, and that of our children, on the greedy altar of the American fast-food industry. What are we not thinking?
Last week, I had an idea for an app. You’d scan a food item on your smart phone and see images of what went into its production. How happy or unhappy were the farmers and factory workers who produced it. How far it traveled. How much water it consumed. How many corporate billions went into making it maximally addictive. Who and what suffered and died for it.
But then I had a better idea. We don’t need a lot of indigestible facts about the food we eat. We just need to be a lot more thoughtful about it. And for that, the perfect guide to mindful eating and drinking is already at hand: the Torah. If you doubt my word, or need a few pointers, I can recommend a book to set you off in the right direction.