פרשת שמיני, תש״פ
Parshat Sh'mini, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, April 18th, 2020
Eat, Savor, and Bless
On April 15, the New York Times featured an article entitled “Eating is Weird Now. Here’s How to (Kind Of) Get Back to Normal.” For many of us, both staying home throughout the day and the stress caused by going to work in a time of crisis causes us to visit the kitchen a little more often than we did just a few months ago. The New York Times article recommends bringing back the lunch break, cooking more often, and phasing out mindless snacking. While these are all great tips, I find that the food mindfulness that comes from living a Jewish life not only helps with establishing physical boundaries with food, but also, with establishing eating as a spiritual practice.
Parashat Shemini begins to examine the rules of kashrut. All mammals must chew their cud and have cloven hoofs. That means yes to beef and lamb and no to pork and rabbit. A list of birds establishes that bugs and birds of prey are out of the question. Chicken and duck are in. And when eating creatures of the sea and river, we must watch for fins and scales - yes to salmon and tuna, no to scallops and crawfish. In other chapters, we will learn that meat must be slaughtered in a specific way and that milk and meat should not be eaten together. Practically, what all this prompts is a whole lot of thought when going to a grocery store, looking at a menu, and meal planning for the week. Whether or not eating kosher is healthier than eating anything, kashrut requires a whole lot more thought. It requires us to think about the anatomy of the animals we eat, the recognition that they were once living creatures, created by the same God that we were. Our Torah teaches the reason for kashrut: והייתם לי קדשים כי קדוש אני ה׳ ואבדיל אתכם מן העמים להיות לי - And you shall be holy to Me, for I, Adonai, am holy and have separated y’all from among the peoples for me (Leviticus 20:26). We emulate God’s holiness, not just through the specific animals we choose to eat or not, but more importantly, through our special care for what we put into our bodies. Keeping kosher requires true mindfulness in every moment we decide to eat.
Beyond keeping kosher, the behaviors Judaism prescribes when we eat food fix our concentration even further. We say blessings before and after we eat, with separate blessings for fruits, vegetables, bread, grain-based snacks, and everything else. We are compelled at each bite to think - is it worth saying a full blessing before AND after I put this potato chip in my mouth. Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to wait until I have a full meal, or at least, take my time to enjoy a handful of potato chips instead? In choosing which blessing to say, we are compelled to think about the specific plant or production method our food came from. We are compelled to think - is my food mostly vegetables or pasta, mostly fruit or whipped cream? Sometimes, all it takes to embrace food mindfulness is just being aware that I am eating what I am eating right now and that I am okay with that decision.
In obscure Talmudic law, we learn that one does not eat until she has said her morning prayers. We learn that one cannot eat standing up; she must sit down, and she must start and finish her meal or snack in the same place. On Shabbat and other holidays, halakhah dictates that we eat a full meal, one that satisfies the Toraitic request, ואכלת ושבעת, you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. In Judaism, eating is seen as a holy act. Food is not something to simply stuff into your face, but is something to savor, to be truly grateful for, to take time out of your day to say loving blessings on its behalf. And in a bit of a pushback to the New York Times, in the Jewish tradition, food is not something to restrict. It is something to love, to share, and to truly enjoy.
At a time in which nothing seems stable, perhaps not even food, let us take a moment to savor the life-giving sustenance we do have. Before we take a bite, let us pause and give thanks for the plant or animal we are about to consume, for the work that it took to get this sustenance into our hands, onto our plates. After we finish a meal, let us not leave our seats until we take the time to give thanks for the joy and comfort that food provides for us and our families. And every time we make a decision about what to eat, let us ask ourselves whether or not that food lives up to the standards of holiness we keep for ourselves. When we sit down for Shabbat dinner tonight and for a mid-afternoon snack tomorrow, let us actively recognize that each moment of eating is a gift from the planet, from our community, and from God. V’akhalta, v’savata, u’veirakhta - Eat, Savor, and Bless. Shabbat Shalom.