Food in Judaism

Food in Judaism

By Josie Lacey O.A.M.

Midrash Psalms 118:17

When you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer, “I fed the hungry,” you will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.”

This Midrash is from a collection of Biblical commentaries collated in the third century CE.

In the Psalms we see the provision of food for all creatures as part of a divine ecological balance, in which the earth is the Lord’s and we are partners and co-workers with God in protecting the environment and that everything is connected to everything else. This idea is fully expressed in Psalm 104:

Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into
brooks, that they may run between mountains,
To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures
of the forest quench their thirst…
Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the
cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth
bread from the earth…
How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou
made them all; the earth is full of Thy glory.

As we eat each food during the day we therefore remind ourselves of the divinity of its origin by making a blessing, with each blessing being appropriate to the kind of food we eat. We bless the Almighty who brings forth bread from the land, or creates the fruit of the trees, or the vegetables from the earth.

We also eat specific foods on particular festivals as symbols of the religious and historical significance of the occasion. The outstanding example is the festival of our freedom, the Passover, where there is a special Seder (“Order”) plate containing various symbolic items of food. There is the shank bone of a lamb, the Paschal lamb which the Bible commands us to eat in memory of the exodus; bitter herbs (raw horseradish) to remember the bitter and harsh experience of slavery; matzos, or unleavened bread, eaten for eight days to recall the urgency of the departure from Egypt; a roasted egg, a reminder of the offering made at the Temple in Jerusalem; a mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine, which represents the mortar used by the slaves, and salt water into which green herbs, parsley, are dipped and eaten, which stands for the tears of slaves.

We also make sure that all the food we eat is pure in every respect (“Kosher”), and in conformity with divine commandments. Animals must be slaughtered in a humane as possible fashion, and with all blood removed. Fruit and vegetables must have been tithed by the producer, with one tenth going to the poor. Foods which are likely to harbour disease or parasites if not perfectly fresh, such as shellfish, scavengers, insects or pork, are forbidden.

Preserving the natural order which makes our food pure and safe is therefore a central part of the Jewish religious ethic. It is important that the environment which is the source of the sustenance of future generations is not sacrificed to the greed of the present moment, and we must be sure that the purity of our future food supplies is never placed at risk.