Liturgy and Food Culture is the theme of the April-June 2017 issue of Liturgy, guest-edited by Jennifer Ayres. An essay by Rabbi Sonja Pilz, who teaches at Hebrew Union College in New York City, takes on the beautiful complexities of Jewish law regarding appropriate foods to eat and the appropriate blessings for them.
Pilz first discusses the texts of food blessings and then describes the culture that shaped Jewish food rituals. She uncovers the rabbinic theology of the blessings, making a strong link between Jewish theological understanding and eating.
Jews are famous for their food. . . Jokes are told about the Jewish fixation with food as a means to express festivity and happiness: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat
But behind the neon lights of kosher delis and the colorful covers of the latest Jewish cookbook hides an ancient stratum of Jewish theology. During the first two centuries CE (at the latest), rabbinic Jews began to observe a number of additional rules regarding their food choices and its preparation, and to accompany their daily meals with blessings. The new custom established a strong sense of belonging within the small group of rabbinic Jews.
Because we cannot include here more than a snippet of Pilz’s historical information, you are encouraged to download the essay from your library’s subscription to the journal. To whet your appetite, as it were, included here is a taste (puns intended) of Jewish food history.
. . . The Bible’s food laws implied that one should abstain from the consumption of certain animals, animals not slaughtered correctly, suet, sinew of the thigh-vein, and blood in general. But on a regular day, a man would eat two mostly cold meals, often by himself. In the morning, he had bread with some cold side dishes or dips like onions, leek, vinegar, or oil; in the evening, bread, a lentil dish, or some egg or cheese. Concerning the food itself, there was no difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish way of eating. The majority of Jews lived as vegetarians, just as their non-Jewish neighbors, and kept biblical kashrut [the system of eating kosher] at most. They would be able to share meals with non-Jews, and we have no reason to assume otherwise.
Meals could be shared without dividing markers of identity or mention of the God of Israel. Elaborate meals, eaten with guests on Shabbat, festivals, and other joyous occasions, were eaten reclining, and consisted of a number of sweet (e.g., fruit) and salty appetizers followed by the main dish of either fish or meat. Only on these occasions were the biblical rules of kashrut regarding meat and its preparation widely observed, marking the meal as distinctively Jewish. Possibly as early as during the last centuries BCE, some Jews began to say blessings over the different food stuffs before eating; most Jews surely did not. The rabbis themselves rooted the blessings over food in Deut. 8:10 (JPS): “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” Over time, the blessings after eating became mandatory; before the ca. 200 CE edition of the Mishnah, they were not.
That all began to change during the first and second centuries under the rabbis, The term “rabbinic Jew” refers to Jews who felt bound to the evolving rabbinic halakhah who evolved into an institution of relatively isolated master-disciples circles. These circles of less than a few hundred people met in order to study, to share meals on Shabbat and festivals, and to pray
In an atmosphere of a rapidly growing variety of Jewish identities among which rabbinic Judaism was only one, it was a natural concern to define and defend one’s identity by means of demarcation from others, both from non-Jews and nonrabbinic Jews.
Sonja K. Pilz, is an adjunct teaching liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, New York City.
Sonja K. Pilz, “The Earth is the Eternal’s and the Fullness Thereof: Jewish Food Culture and the Blessing before Eating,” Liturgy 32, no. 2 (2017): 14-23.