"Im ein kemach, ein Torah"
If There is No Bread, There is No Torah
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
In the adage “If there is no bread, there is no Torah,” Judaism recognizes that one needs to feed the body before you can feed the soul, because deep learning cannot occur on an empty stomach. The Jewish tradition also recognizes the power of food to enhance the body’s availability to be spiritually nourished.
Every Jewish holiday that has come down through the ages seems to have brought with it particular foods that are today inextricably associated with that holiday: challah (braided eggbread), chicken soup and gefilte fish on Friday night for Sabbath (that’s an Ashkenazi custom that the Jews of Eastern Europe made popular); fried-in-oil potato latkes (pancakes) on Hanukkah to remind us of the oil used to rededicate the Temple in Biblical times after a decisive victory against the Romans; hamentashen (triangular cookies filled with jelly, prunes or poppyseed) eaten on the holiday of Purim, to recall the triangular hat allegedly worn by Haman, our great nemesis in ancient Persia, who tried to destroy all of the Jews; and cheesecake and other dairy products prepared on Shavuoth, the holiday that commemorates our spiritual “marriage”with God when we accepted and pledged our loyalty to uphold the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.
After the death of the Jewish patriarch Joseph, the dream-interpreting Israelite who had saved all of Egypt from starvation, a new Pharaoh rose up who “knew not Joseph,” the Bible says. The Hebrews, whose numbers had greatly multiplied, and who were accused of creating a potential threat to the new Pharaoh, became an enslaved people. They toiled (modern historians debate whether they actually built the Pyramids) and struggled against inhuman treatment, and ultimately they sank into profound despair.
When Pharaoh decreed that all male babies of the Hebrews must be killed at birth and thrown into the Nile, the Bible says the cries of the Hebrews reached heaven. God then sent Moses – who had been saved from death by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the palace as a prince – to be their leader and take them out of bondage. But the Pharaoh refused to let them go. After suffering ten deadly plagues that spread across the breadth and width of the land, Pharaoh relented and let the Israelites leave. But then he changed his mind once again and pursued them with the full force of his army and chariots.
In one of the many miracles that populate the story of the Israelites’ journey to freedom, God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites might cross on dry land, but when Pharaoh and his army pursued them, the Egyptians were punished, swallowed up in the Red Sea. The Israelites reached the other side safely, rejoiced in their new freedom and sang a song of gratitude to the Divine. They then embarked on a journey of 40 years, wandering through the desert until, finally, when the last of the slave generation had died out, the Israelites were deemed spiritually ready and allowed to enter the Holy Land.
Perhaps the most concrete example of food being used as both alimentation and a spiritual gateway into Jewish history is the holiday of Passover, or Pesach, and the “Seder” that accompanies it. The ritual feast that has been observed every spring by Jews around the world for more than 3,000 years. Passover is not celebrated in a synagogue but around the family table, which the rabbis view as a "domestic altar.” The dining-room table also becomes the stage for the re-telling of the Exodus, the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, through story, song, and food. Over the years the Seder feast has also attracted many participants who are not Jewish but who identify with the iconic struggle of an enslaved people.
Interfaith Seders have also cropped up across the U.S. and in Canada. One Seder in particular, in Pomona, California, is especially noteworthy because it has been hosted for the last seven years by the local mosque – a true interfaith endeavor!
Passover offers both a literary and a culinary scaffolding to tell the story of the Exodus. In the Bible Jews are commanded to prominently display several food symbols in the center of the table without which the meal is considered incomplete. The best known, of course, is the matzah, which symbolizes the flat, yeast-free bread that the Israelites made because they were in a hurry to leave Egypt and could not wait for the bread to rise. Also a must on the Seder plate is maror, bitter herbs (usually horseradish), reminding us of the bitter lives the Israelites endured as slaves. A shank bone (in vegetarian Seders a roasted beet is often substituted) represents the Pascal sacrificial lamb that the Israelites were commanded to prepare and then eat the night before they left Egypt, using the blood of the lamb to place a sign on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes during the 10th plague, the killing of the first-born.
Another fixture on the Passover table is a brown chunky mixture called haroseth, concocted from nuts, apples, wine, dates, figs and cinnamon (and multiple combinations of those ingredients depending upon your country of origin). It represents the mortar used by the slaves to build the structures and monuments for Pharaoh. A hard-boiled egg reminds us of rebirth, and a sprig of parsley, representing Spring and renewal, is ceremoniously dipped into a dish of salt water, the symbol of the tears shed by the Israelite slaves as they toiled in Egypt ceaselessly, seven days a week with no respite.
We are also commanded to consume four cups of wine (or grape juice) during the Seder, but ten drops of wine (one for each plague) are ceremoniously removed from our wine glasses during the course of the meal to remind us to be compassionate towards our oppressors – in ancient time the Egyptians – and not to rejoice over their demise because “they, too, are God’s children.”
The story of Passover cannot be told successfully or experienced without being accompanied by the symbolic foods. It is perhaps the food more than any other aspect of the Seder which sets the holiday apart and which encourages the youngest of the children present to ask one of the four classic questions of the evening: "Why is this night different from all other nights?” Over the millennia the rabbis emphasized these rituals designed around food and drink as key to understanding and remembering the significance of our Master Story. They said that, in order to be fully realized, the holiday had to be “ingested” not only intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, but gastronomically as well!
We are taught that in every age, not just in Biblical times, there is a symbolic Pharaoh who refuses to grant us liberty. It is our job to recognize the Pharaoh in our lives and to fight oppression, not just for ourselves, but also for the less fortunate and the disenfranchised peoples of the world. Syrian refugees will undoubtedly be the main topic at this year’s Seder table for what has become the largest “exodus” and biggest humanitarian crisis of our times. And the question that will inevitably follow: What can we do to help them?
As we dip the parsley into the salt water, and spread the matzoh with a combination of bitter herbs and haroseth (so that the bitterness of life can be tasted with the sweetness of existence), many will be moved to examine the state of our world today. May all of us celebrating Passover – no matter what your faith – remember to remove those ten drops of wine from our glasses, to lessen our joy momentarily, and to remind us that even our enemies are children of God.
Header Photo: White House Media