The Purple Sheet
Shabbat Parshat Shmini- April 1st/2nd – כ’ג אדר ב תשע’ו
You Are What You Eat
MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
– JimmyWebb/Donna Summer
In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the laws of keeping kosher. There are many misconceptions surrounding these laws, my favourite being that kosher food gets that way after a rabbi blesses it. If that were the case, I would be a millionaire by now offering blessing to pork ribs, shrimp and many other delicacies.
In truth, the logic behind kashrut is difficult to comprehend owing to the fact that there are two types of commandments/mitzvot and that kosher laws belong in the less understood category.Mishpatim are those commandments that seem intuitive and make sense, such as not stealing, committing murder and speaking slanderously about another, to name a few. On the other hand we have Chukim which are the commandments that are above and beyond our understanding and logic. The keeping-kosher commandments are Chukim and hence a bit tough to get a handle on.
Nevertheless commentaries throughout the ages have attempted to get a better understanding of keeping kosher and some of the reasons and theories behind it. The Talmud claims that non-kosher food “desensitizes the heart”. Now I am not claiming that I fully understand how this might work, but apparently the idea is that somehow non-kosher food makes one less sensitive to spirituality, and while it may not necessarily block the arteries in the physical sense, it somehow clogs up the spiritual arteries and lines of communication to God.
Generally we only perceive how food affects us physically. We literally are what we eat inasmuch as our body is made up of the food and beverage we intake. It is no secret that our food is transformed into our cells and tissue. So while much has been said and written about the effects that food has on our physical well-being, we seldom pay attention to the non-physical effects that food may have on us as well.
To illustrate how this might work I often give this light-hearted example. Let’s say you were on a game show and to win the million dollar prize you have to properly label the following groups of 50 people in each of these two groups: One of them is vegans and the other regular meat-eaters. There is no label on each group, you need to guess which group is which. Now, would there be any doubt in your mind that you could not guess the correct answer and walk out of there with a million bucks? The vegans would be thinner, they would be wearing Birkenstock sandals, tie-dye t-shirts, passive, a little pasty skinned and dreamy looking. The meat-eaters would have larger bellies, probably a Bud in their hand, waiting for football season to start, voting Republican and talking about Second Amendment rights.
Now I know this example is a bit tongue in cheek but I think you get the idea. As a group, vegans by and large do look and act differently than meat-eaters. Just as the food we eat becomes us physically, so too it becomes us spiritually. And just as food physically affects us gradually over time – a heart condition does not happen overnight but often through many years of poor eating habits – so too the spiritual effects that food has on us is a gradual process that we usually cannot and do not detect. And since we are not sensitive enough to distinguish the spiritual effects of food, we need help and directives from God to assist us … hence Kosher laws.
A second important aspect of the Jewish view of food has to do with the central role that it plays in holiness. All Jewish holidays are centered around food and a perfect example of this is the upcoming holiday of Pesach. Everyone has heard the joke: How can you summarize all of Jewish History and Holidays in nine words? “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” The only holiday not defined by food is also defined by the lack of it – Yom Kippur.
Additionally we begin every special occasion such as holidays and lifecycle events in Judaism by making a blessing over wine. I recall an article a few years back in the New York Times about the role that wine can play in one’s home. The article titled, Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges? by Eric Asimov illustrates something that Judaism has known for many centuries with regard to alcohol and wine in particular:
“You have to look at a family and decide where alcohol fits,” said Dr. Ralph I. Lopez, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Weill-Cornell Medical College who specializes in adolescents. “If you demonstrate the beauty of wine, just as you would Grandma’s special pie, then it augments a meal. If a family member had an alcohol problem, or if cocktails were served regularly for relaxation, he said, “That’s a different message than wine at the table.” I called Dr. Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist in Washington, who is the former director of counseling at Georgetown University. “The best evidence shows that teaching kids to drink responsibly is better than shutting them off entirely from it,” he told me. “You want to introduce your kids to it, and get across the point that that this is to be enjoyed but not abused.”
In 1983, Dr. George E. Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, published “The Natural History of Alcoholism,” a landmark work that drew on a 40-year survey of hundreds of men in Boston and Cambridge. Dr. Vaillant compared 136 men who were alcoholics with men who were not. Those who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table, but was consumed away from the home, apart from food, were seven times more likely to be alcoholics that those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated.
So, Bon Appetite! Remember that you really are what you eat in many different ways. And don’t worry about giving the little ones a sip or two of the Manischewitz. You may very well be teaching them a valuable lesson about using and not abusing one of God’s gifts.
Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
Aish South Florida www.aishfl.com