Sacred Food, Sacred Festivals: The Jewish Year as a Celebration of Nourishment

How Food Frames the Festivals: the Jewish Pattern

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The cycle of Jewish festivals has become intimately connected with specific foods, and the themes of the festivals lend themselves to focusing on specific aspects of what makes food sacred.

DAYS OF AWE: ROSH HASHANAH THROUGH YOM KIPPUR (Evening September 12, through September 22, 2007)

Rosh Hashanah is symbolically connected with eating apple slices dipped in honey. The apple evokes the round cycle of the year as it begins, and the honey hopes for its sweetness. The festival focuses on ten days (traditionally known as the Days of Awe) of tshuvah/ turning one's self in a new direction that culminate in Yom Kippur, a day of not eating or drinking at all.

Jews are already involved in making a cheshbon ha-nefesh -- a self-accounting -- during these 10 days. A Sacred Foods inventory could simply be another component of this work. Even before the10 days that begin with Rosh Hashanah, your congregation or each household within it might:

• Perform an assessment of how and what it eats and how to maximize the "eight dimensions" of sacred food:

Growing Food in Ways that Protect and Heal the Web of Life
Treatment of animals
Protecting the integrity and diversity of life
No One Should Go Hungry
Fairness toward and empowerment of workers
Responsible and ethical forms of business
Food as an Aspect of Spirituality
Reflection on our Actions and Impact

One could simply list the eight dimensions above and ask how to increase your level of observance in each of them. For example:

• Dimension One: Healing the earth:

Can I afford to increase the amount of organically grown foods I eat, especially in the produce most likely to be affected by insecticides (certain fruits and vegetables)?

Can I reduce the amount of meat I eat? (the UN FAO reports that livestock farming is one of the major contributors of methane to global scorching)

The ancient philosopher Philo Judaeus suggested that one of the reasons for a day-long fast on Yom Kippur is that the entire year's harvest is about to be gathered. Just as we pause in a brief prayer before every meal to bless the Source of food, so we must pause for the "year-long meal" to pray in a much longer "blessing." As we approach Yom Kippur, each evening we might:

• Single out a particular category of food that is one of the basics of our meals, to honor its Source and recount the process by which it reaches us: bread and grains, fruit, eggs, milk and other dairy products, spices, etc. The recounting could take note of sun, seed, soil, rain, human effort to grow and process and transport and sell and cook and eat it. We could then ask: How are the earth, the workers, the animals, the consumers treated?

On the morning of Yom Kippur itself, the prophetic reading from Isaiah calls for us not only to refrain from eating that day, but to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and break off the shackles on prisoners. In honor of this directive and in addition to the food inventory suggested above, households or congregations could embark on direct action and policy-change action during the days before and after Yom Kippur, to assure adequate supplies of nourishing food to the poor. Action could include:

• Taking food to nearby soup kitchens
• Inviting the homeless to join the congregation's post-Yom Kippur break-fast

• Organizing congregants the day after Yom Kippur to write letters to city or federal officials urging stronger efforts to abolish hunger.

SUKKOT (Evening September 26 through October 13, 2007)

Soon after Yom Kippur comes the festival of Sukkot. This is a time for honoring the harvest, preparing for and praying for rain to vivify the next crop, and giving the community an experience of eating – possibly even sleeping – in close contact with the earth through the leafy-roofed hut -- the sukkah.

There is an ancient tradition of blessing the prosperity of the "seventy nations of the earth" through this festival, and of welcoming guests into the sukkah. In keeping with this tradition one might:

• Host an interfaith gathering to celebrate the sacredness of food and the earth's bounty, where questions of the role of food in different communities of faith could be examined together. You might explore questions like:

How do our different communities address these questions?

How do our different communities face the danger that earth could lose its fertility through global scorching, or through the failure of species that are key to food production (endangerment of the North America honey bees that fertilize most crops, for example)

• Visit communities of farm workers harvesting various crops and try to experience their lives and learn from their efforts at unionization and other aspects of ensuring justice in farm work.

The last day of Sukkot and its follow-on festival of Shmini Atzeret address the need for rain to fructify the earth. Here some of the issues of climate crisis, pollution and its dangers to food production and the just sharing of food, including issues of expense, could be addressed. You might want to:
• Do a teaching on these topics

• Set up lobby visits on pending legislation

• Change congregational practices around water use (e.g.: creating a grey water system that allows for water recycling and re-use)

Along with the sukkah, one of the key symbols of Sukkot is a cluster of four plants -- date palm branch, willow branch, myrtle branch, and etrog (citron) that are held and "waved" together, symbolizing all the forms of vegetation that nourish life. The shapes of the four are understood to replicate the Hebrew letters of one name of God – "YHWH" – but they are held in an order that replicates the Name only if someone other than the waver is watching them being waved. Thus they teach how it takes an "I-Thou" relationship to embody the Divine energy that fills this nurture.

In many ways this teaching underlies the entire concept of the sacredness of food. To help lift it up even further, one might:

• Invite congregants after waving to sit in their sukkah and discuss how to make food more sacred by inviting God's name to appear in it through improvements in purchasing, eating and the sharing of food.

HANUKKAH (Evening of December 4 through December 11, 2007)

The next major Jewish festival is Hanukkah. In rabbinic tradition, it is centered on the story of olive oil that lights the Temple Menorah. In the story, one day's olive oil miraculously suffices to keep the Menorah lit for eight days, while fresh oil is being consecrated.

An examination of the Torah's description of the original menorah in the mishkan (wilderness sanctuary) shows that it was rooted in the anatomy of a living tree, and the Hanukkah prophetic reading from Zechariah envisions a menorah that receives its oil directly from two olive trees, one on each side of the great lamp.

The menorah was seen as a mixture of living tree and human artifact, bearing light precisely because it fuses adam (human) with adamah (earth).

The very word messiah means "anointed with oil" and this is one of the ways we know that olive oil has a profound theological significance. Perhaps the idea is that the oil that comes from a living plant reduces friction and lights up the world is necessarily the gift of the messiah who honors all life, reduces all social /political friction, and enlightens the world.

This aspect of Hanukkah has traditionally lent itself to cooking with olive oil, celebrating olives and making connections between earth's abundance and human cookery.

In our time, since we know that the over-use of oil and coal threatens our very existence by disrupting climate patterns and in turn disrupting a great many of the earth's agricultural practices, additional actions at Hanukkah could include:

• Doing an energy audit of the congregation's heating, lighting, and transportation;

• Making a major, visible, and publicizeable change in its energy sourcing and usage;

• Organizing congregants to join in a "Green Menorah Covenant" for their own household action, taking some of these actions on at home;

• Initiating adult and teen education sessions on global scorching and its prevention;

• Founding an "Oiloholics Anonymous" group of congregants to share the struggle to shed addiction to oil, and help back-sliders;

• Carrying out social advocacy for change in public policy on energy by putting together congregational delegations to lobby public officials, picket corporate or labor organizations, etc.

TU B’SHVAT (Evening January 21 through January 22, 2008)

In mid-winter, Jews celebrate the invisible renewal of life in trees as the sap begins to rise. The full moon of the month of Shvat honors the rebirthing not only of trees but also of the Divine Tree with its roots in Heaven and its fruitfulness manifested in our very existence.

The festival is celebrated through a sacred meal made up of fruits and nuts. Its eating requires the death of no life-form, not even a carrot or a radish. The meal is the meal of Eden.

This Tu B’Shvat Seder meal is also traditionally shaped by the Four Worlds of Jewish mysticism, symbolized by earth, water, air, and fire, giving an opportunity to address the healing of those four elements and therefore the healing of the earth.

Connecting this to the Sacred Foods dimensions, we have the opportunity to teach and take action on how to heal and protect the Web of Life on our planet, drawing on our farms and fields and oceans for sustenance without destroying the life in them. We are not likely to eat in this fruitarian way at every meal throughout the year, avoiding the killing of any individual life-form. But we can honor the Tu B'Shvat meal by taking on the joyful obligation to preserve and protect the collective life of each and every species, animal and vegetable, from voracious human appetites. Along these lines one might:

• Hold a Tu B’Shvat Seder interwoven with education and action options presented to protect the earth and the animals.

PURIM (Evening March 20 through March 21, 2008)

In the story of Esther that accompanies the festival of Purim, there are two nights of festive dinners that become the venue for Esther's exposure of the tyrant Haman and her convincing the king to prevent genocide. How can we use the sharing of food to create a sense of community in which all communities are sacred?
Just before the raucous celebration of Purim begins, when we are still in the space that tradition delineated as the Fast of Esther, commemorating her courage in committing nonviolent civil disobedience to grasp the king's attention, we could:

• Share an otherwise silent meal in which we hear poetry about the earth, farmers and farm workers, cooks, and the delights of nourishing food.

• Stand vigil at some center of danger to healthy, plentiful food.

PESACH/PASSOVER (Evening April 19 through April 27, 2008)

Passover is the consummate festival of food. For a full week Jews take on an entirely distinct system of kashrut, in which all leavening and leavened foods are forbidden. This in itself demands attention to food as an aspect of spiritual and religious life. The original intent seems to have been (at least in part) to experience the most basic and primitive of all human foods, just as Sukkot calls forth the most basic and primitive of all human dwellings.

Just as living under a tree fails to fulfill the precept of building a sukkah for Sukkot, eating a bitter herb straight from the soil is necessary but not sufficient for Pesach. We are the most technological of animals, and we must use our technology in each of these festivals. For Pesach, we must bake matzah. It requires that one of the earliest feats of human technology – fire – be brought to bear on the simplest of ingredients (flour, water, heat) without flavoring or leavening.

This teaching is thoroughly obscured by a modern development: the invention of foods that fulfill the traditional requirements of kashrut for Pesach through mechanical production, but end up being elaborate 'kosher' analogues for almost every conceivable dish. Rarely indeed do these dishes covey the sense of early shepherd or barley-farmer.

What to do? Reopening the primordial sense of Pesach food and experiencing a much more direct relationship with the agricultural world could prove powerful and might transform attitudes toward growing, cooking and transporting food. Along these lines one might:
• Try living for a week on home-baked matzah and rough-hewn vegetables and a bit of roasted meat if you are not a vegetarian.

It would also render the relationship between food and labor far more apparent. At Passover's heart is the legend of a slave uprising against brutal tyranny. The foods themselves become ideas, demands, feelings, of the oppressed. As one of the night's Four Questions hints, how do we create a society where all can recline while they eat? How do we transcend the ancient warning that human beings would have to work in sweated face to grow just barely enough food beyond the thorns and thistles of rebellious earth? This question comes into sharp focus on Passover, and we are invited to remember the first post-Exodus story. In it, time for rest – the Sabbath – comes with freely given food – the manna. How to broaden this legend into life could become a central concern of the Passover ritual. This could happen before Passover when people gather to bake matzah, or at the seder table itself, perhaps on the second night, as counting of the Omer begins. Along those lines, one could:

• Give a brief dramatic unfolding (drushodrama) of what we imagine were the biblical community's responses to manna or about the transformation of matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of freedom. (In a drushodrama, people actually take on the roles of characters in the traditional story – named and unnamed, Moses and a young mother in the tribe of Judah, etc. – and interact with each other as their own understanding of the moment moves them, rather than talking about the story.)

• The telling of the departure from Egypt, the core of the seder, could be enriched and embellished with stories of recent or contemporary oppression and liberation in fields and fisheries and slaughter-houses.

• Passages from modern classics of "food ethical consciousness" like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle could be interspersed with passages from the traditional Haggadah as well as relevant passages from biblical, rabbinic, and modern Jewish texts.

MAIMOUNA: (Evening of April 27, 2008):
For centuries in Morocco, Jews have brought Muslims the first food for the great break-fast festival of Eid Al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan – and Muslims have brought Jews the first leavened bread at the end of Passover. Jews called this "ninth night" MAIMOUNA, from the word for prosperity. A modern take with a Sacred Foods twist on this tradition might invite Jews, Muslims, and Christians everywhere to:

• Share the different foods of different locales and traditions, affirming the shared and overlapping traditions of what is permissible to eat, learning with each other and enjoying the joyful celebratory contact with each other.

COUNTING THE OMER (Evening April 21 through June 7, 2008)

For fifty days beginning the second night of Passover, we walk through the anxiety of uncertainty about whether first the barley crop and then spring wheat will flourish and whether we will be able to receive the harvest of the Torah as we stumble our way toward Sinai.

In these seven weeks of "Counting the Omer," we can learn how risky is our abundance and learn to celebrate how the weave of sun, seed, soil, and rain meshes with human work and our joyful journey in community. As we count, we learn how this mesh embodies the Divine inter-breathing of all life, and calls forth from the deepest Source of Being the rules and patterns of how a sacred community of earth and earthling can live together.

In Kabbalistic tradition, the seven weeks were understood to invoke seven manifestations of God, called the spherot. These are:

Chesed (overflow of lovingkindness);
Gevurah (rigor in boundary-making);
Tiferet/ Rachamim (the synthesis of the first two: strength that pours forth compassion);
Netzach (Perseverance)
Hod (Delight)
Yesod (Connection)
Malkhut (Ingathering / Summation)
In each of these weeks, congregants might:

• Gather for one evening to eat together and to address the aspect of food that is involved in each of the weeks. For example, for Chesed you could discuss outreach to the poor. For Gevurah, regulation to prevent poisoning of the earth and those who eat the food. For Tiferet, you could celebrate your community’s successes on this work or plan for how your community could achieve a success by bringing together its restraining energy (gevurah) with its outpouring energy (chesed) to create beauty and harmony (e.g.: when it saved money on utilities through its energy audit and donated the savings to feed the hungry.) For Netzach, how the congregants learned to persevere; for Hod, how they learned to infuse hard work with joyful celebration; etc.

SHAVUOT (Evening June 8 through June 9, 2008)
Tradition teaches that as we approach Sinai on the festival of Shavuot, we give up meat and live on the mammalian generosity that betokens El Shaddai – the Breasted God. Torah pours from Heaven like milk from Godly breasts; so we recognize our childlike hope of nurture by eating cheese and sour cream and yoghurt. How can we celebrate this Source more concretely? We might:

• Invite celebration of the roles of "Mother Earth" and of women in farming, cooking, feeding, discussing how not to reproduce gender stereotypes into the future.

TISHA B’AV (Evening August 9 through August 10, 2008)

As we move into the summer time, heat and thirst begin to overtake us. After several dawn-to-dusk fast days to recall painful moments of our wounding, we become full refugees – bereft of food and water and other pleasures for an entire day as we remember the ancient death march of refugees to Babylon. Once again food and water – or their absence – take the central place in our awareness. How might we make this holy day more powerful and relevant to the current struggles our world faces around food and water? We might:

• Connect our lives with those of modern refugees – the women of Darfur, for example, who must venture dangerously further and further to find the meager wood to cook their meager meals, and commit to giving support to them through campaigns like the solar cooker campaign.

After Tisha B’Av we complete the cycle of the year, moving toward the time of transformation as the smell of distant rain renews our spirits, and Rosh Hashanah's apples and honey bring new hope (Evening Sept. 29, 2009)

Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books on Jewish practice, especially including Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life and Seasons of our Joy.


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