Oneg Shabbat, the Pesach seder, b'nei mitzvah buffets-there is hardly a present-day holiday or life-cycle celebration that isn't intimately connected with food. Even our fast days are about food! But there is an ancient precedent for this ongoing attention to what's on the table.
The Jewish calendar, more so in ancient days than today, was highlighted by the coming of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Sukot, Pesach, and Shavuot. This Shabbat, Chol Hamoed Sukot, on the first of these festivals, we read: 'You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign God of Israel.' (Exodus 34:22-24) The fall, spring, and summer harvests brought opportunities for our ancestors to select from their bounty and create an offering of thanksgiving. Tens of thousands of people would travel to Jerusalem's Holy Temple, their carts and wagons laden with the grain, the firstlings of the flock, and the fruits and vegetables that the current crop had yielded.
But what occurred during the lean years and the dry seasons when the crops were not abundant? Our ancestors performed the same pilgrimage. They understood that thanksgiving wasn't about just the quantity of the harvest but was about sustenance itself. The acknowledgement of the tenuousness of nature's yield is never more evident in Jewish life than at Sukot time, when we construct the fragile sukah. Many of the conditions that make for a full harvest rather than a scant one are in the hands of God, not the hands of the farmer. Perhaps those in the food business look to the heavens and pray to God more than the rest of us collectively do. But the pilgrimages were ordained for all Israel. Everyone needed to recognize and acknowledge the One who blessed each table with food.
Sukot is Chag Ha'asif, the 'Feast of Ingathering.' (Exodus 34:22) On a spiritual level as well, Sukot affords us the opportunity to survey our resources and take stock of our abundance. In full recognition of God's role in the productivity of our lives, we express gratitude that in an often-tenuous world, we are being sustained. How can we acknowledge in a continual way our thankfulness that our lives are sustained? We acknowledge our gratitude through the vehicle of sustenance, food.
For our ancestors, daily and festival offerings of animals and produce were the primary way to sanctify God. But the final verse of our Sukot Torah reading, sheds light on another means of using food to draw near to God, a means that would not be discontinued as a result of the destruction of the Temple: 'You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.' (Exodus 34:26) In the words that have become the backbone of kashrut, we inherit an ongoing opportunity to acknowledge God - not in the collecting of the produce but in its preparation and consumption. Many liberal Jews see the spiritual opportunities within kashrut in multiple ways, embracing many if not all of the guidelines of keeping kosher. For some, the moral guidelines of eco-kosher living (requiring the humane treatment of animals) add a contemporary insight. Kashrut is the notion that what and how we eat can make our kitchen tables a mikdash me'at, a 'miniature sanctuary,' where we thank God for the sustenance that fills our bellies.
In contemporary Jewish life, there is always the opportunity to sanctify God through food. Whether it's through the bagels, kugel, or mandel bread at the wedding reception, the shivah house, or the Brotherhood brunch, regardless of whether or not we observe kashrut, we acknowledge God's fruitful world with words of blessing. By thanking God for sustenance, our most basic necessity, we elevate our most basic daily activity to the highest level of sanctification. And this is one of the Sukot messages we can carry with us throughout the year.
Here are some discussion questions to use in your exploration of the text:
- How does the law, 'You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk,' affect Jews who do not feel bound by halachah? Do the ethical imperatives behind the kosher methods of slaughtering animals affect Reform Jews?
- Should Religious Schools require all parents to bring only kosher food into classrooms? Should Synagogue, Summer Camp, and Federation kitchens be kosher? Should Synagogues require celebrants to hire only kosher caterers for weddings, b'nei mitzvah, and other functions held at the synagogue?
- Our community strives to become more sensitive to the needs of those people suffering from eating disorders. As Jews, we are all responsible for one another. How can we maintain our commitment to this traditional method of using food in the celebration of our religion and culture while remaining committed to the well-being of all the members of our community?
- The Torah commands us to thank God after we eat. How can Jewish organizations incorporate blessings into all communal meals? Who should lead those blessings, lay people or professionals? How can our families incorporate this commandment into our daily lives?
- Being able to share a meal in celebration of a Jewish holiday is a blessing. Traditional recipes and methods of presentation characterize our ethnic backgrounds, our local communities, and our families. Call a relative for a family recipe or buy a Jewish cookbook and make knaidlach (matzah balls), charoset (the sweet mixture of apples and nuts representing mortar at our Pesach seder), or falafel (deep fried balls made of garbanzo beans and spices).
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah, Ventura, CA.
Rabbi Seth Hochberg-Miller is the educator at Temple Beth Torah, Ventura, CA.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512