Category Archives: Mitzvot

Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (well, sort of.)

Note: this is the 2nd post in a 3-part series on kashrut. Click here for Part I, and here for Part III!


Dear Josep,

Welcome to Part II of the Great Jew Food Tirade! (Here is Part I in case you missed it.)

In this part we’re going to talk about plants.

Now, if you can recall what my plate looked like while you and the rest of the press team were happily devouring your “pimp salmon” 😛 you will remember that fruits and vegetables, as a general rule, are just fine within the laws of kashrut. So why am I writing an entire section on them? Well…

Mitzvot HaTluyot Ba’Aretz (Commandments Connected to the Land of Israel)

Observant Jews indeed wander freely through the produce aisles of supermarkets in the USA and Europe. Ironically, it is actually in the land of Israel that we have to be more careful. Because while there is no problem inherent to any plant, when the land is owned by a Jew and is located in Israel, there are a number of commandments that apply that must be observed for the plants to be okay to eat. These are the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, which I mentioned briefly in the entries about shmita (which is one of them) and the Jewish New Years (because Tu B’Shvat is used to calculate “fiscal years” for these commandments).

I am not going to elaborate on what all these commandments are, because there are a lot of them and the details will probably bore you. But they basically split into two categories: mitzvot that involve giving to the poor (such as leaving fallen grapes or stalks for them to collect, leaving a section at the corner of the field unharvested for them to harvest, etc.), and mitzvot that are connected to the Temple service (such as bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Cohanim at the temple; terumah and ma’aser (tithing); challah (which is probably where the name of the Shabbat bread came from), separating a portion of the bread dough for the Cohanim) or other issues of sanctity (such as the prohibition against crossbreeding plants or eating fruits from a tree in the first three years after it is planted).

Now, the ones connected to the Temple are no longer relevant; some of them are observed sort of symbolically (like terumah, ma’aser and challah), but they still must be observed for the produce to be considered kosher.

For fields owned by non-Jews or located outside of Israel, these commandments are not relevant.

However, there are other problems associated with products produced in non-Jewish settings…

Wine

So, for instance, you have known for a long time that there is such a thing as kosher wine, by which one would logically (and in this case, correctly) deduce that there is such a thing as non-kosher wine. But think about this for a minute. We’re talking about 100% pure crushed grapes, fermented in barrels that hold nothing else. Grapes are inherently kosher, and given that the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz are not in the picture, what could possibly be non-kosher about wine?

According to the Talmud, there are a number of things that must be avoided under the general prohibition of idolatry. One of them is drinking wine that used for some kind of ceremonial practice by idolaters.

Buuut, I hear you say, that would explain why you couldn’t drink wine made in, say, India. But what about wine made by Christians or Muslims, who are, for the most part, not considered idolaters? (“For the most part” because the concept of the Trinity makes us go :-/ . But the sages who actually lived among Christians did not consider it idolatry. That’s a topic for another e-mail. 😛 We have no such debate regarding Islam.)

So, the sages extended the prohibition to include all non-Jews and non-observant Jews, pretty much because you don’t really have any way to know what their beliefs about the wine are, and because of the severity of idolatry, we need to be extra, extra careful about this. Idolatry is one of the only three commandments that we are not allowed to transgress even if it means our only other option is to die. The other two are murder and sexual immorality.

Digging through my archives, I discovered that you actually provided another answer to this question when we first discussed this issue many years ago. I told you that our editor-in-chief in Spain had asked why we still observe this law about wine if there is no longer idolatry in the Western world. You said: “I disagree with [her] about the idolatry thing. Maybe we don’t have idols like in the old times, but there’s still a lot of idolatry with things like the TV, supermodels or superstars, money, fame, sex… And it’s caused by the same basic principle: the emptiness of the soul. When you’re full of God, you don’t need anything more. So you don’t have to put the TV at the center of the house, or the sex in the center of your life. The old people put other gods instead of Him in the center of their lives because they had empty souls. That’s what I think.”

Well, I’m definitely not arguing with that. 😉

In any case, not so very long ago, you couldn’t get really good kosher wines. (Ever heard of Manischewitz? If not, good.) Today, though, there are some really great wineries in Israel and abroad that produce a wide selection of good kosher wine. Like, for instance, the one you bought us last time you were here, which we finally opened a couple days ago. (And is, by the way, delicious. Thank you. 😉 )

L'chaim. (Thanks for this, BTW. It's delicious. :) )
L’chaim.

Baking and Cooking by Gentiles

Another issue that comes up here is bread that is baked or food that is cooked by a gentile. This is a rabbinic restriction based on the idea that it is difficult to trust someone who does not keep kashrut himself or see any importance in it, to be careful enough about it when cooking for you.

There are ways around this. According to Ashkenazi custom, it is enough for a Jew to light the fire for the food to not be considered bishul nochri (food cooked by a non-Jew). That’s how kosher restaurants are able to employ non-Jews in the kitchen.

Another restriction I should mention here, even though it concerns an animal product, is chalav nochri. The Sages ruled that we may not consume milk produced by non-Jews (…that is, their cattle…) out of concern that milks of other, non-kosher animals might be mixed in. The famous American rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that this is no longer a concern in places of modern industry where there is strict regulation and supervision, and you can be certain that what you’re getting is cow’s milk. (This is actually not true in all Western countries, by the way… including Spain. I was told that I couldn’t rely on this ruling regarding even plain milk in Spain.) Most Americans hold by this ruling, but many Israelis don’t, because of the wide availability of chalav yisrael (milk produced by Jews) in Israel. The Rabbinate of Israel holds that derivatives of chalav nochri (a.k.a. avkat chalav nochri), such as powdered milk, are okay, but not straight milk. So there was a big scandal in recent years about the Rabbinate removing Haagen Dasz ice cream from the shelves, even though it is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union in the USA, because of this difference in halakhic observation. (Ben & Jerry’s, the other really good foreign, kosher brand, has its own factory here that uses chalav yisrael, so we can still buy decent ice cream. Fortunately, Eitan and I are American and hold by Rabbi Feinstein, so we can eat Haagen Dasz too. 😀 )

Anyway.

In all of the above, beside the practicalities of trusting non-Jews with kashrut… I also see an agenda on the part of the sages to make it more difficult for Jews to get socially intimate with non-Jews. Jews not being able to eat at non-Jews’ tables makes it harder for them to develop the kinds of relationships that could lead to conversion, intermarriage, and assimilation. That may not be so politically correct, but assimilation is the biggest threat to Jewish continuity in the modern era, and… well, this is a topic for a different e-mail. 😛

Little Friends

So the last issue to do with eating fruits, vegetables, and grains, is the fact that we are not allowed to eat bugs (see part I), and therefore they must be thoroughly checked to assure that no creepy crawlies have found their way into our food.

Now, someone who has peeked ahead and knows the 1/60th rule that I will explain in the next entry, might ask: unless we’re talking about the kind of bug that would make any housewife run screaming, we’re talking about tiny, almost microscopic creatures, that are certainly less than 1/60th the volume of the food.

I refuse to post a picture of a bug. Have a puppy instead.
Photo credit: Andrea Schaffer under CC BY 2.0

So why aren’t they batel (“nullified”)?

Because they are a briya shleima, a “whole creature”. Meaning, that because it’s the bug’s whole body, it cannot be nullified.

But then how do we ever eat anything?! What about microscopic bugs?!

So this rule only applies to bugs that can be seen by the naked eye. If you need a magnifying glass, let alone a microscope, to see it–it doesn’t count.

Still, you can imagine, checking for bugs can be incredibly labor intensive and frustrating. For some kinds of fruits and veggies it’s no big deal–fruits, including fruits that are generally thought of as vegetables (like cucumbers and tomatoes), only require a once-over to make sure they don’t have wormholes or something like that. By contrast, leafy green vegetables must be pulled apart, soaked in water with soap or salt or vinegar, and then examined–leaf. by. leaf. (I should mention that there are different standards, and some are more lenient–allowing to check a representative sample, for instance, but checking each leaf individually is the mainstream view.)

One way of getting around this problem is growing the plants in special conditions where bugs are extremely unlikely to come in contact with the vegetables. In Israel, Gush Katif vegetables are grown hydroponically, meaning in that they are grown in greenhouses, detached from the soil:

Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0

The environment is carefully controlled to assure that no bugs will get in. In this case, we are permitted to eat the produce without checking for bugs (but most authorities still require a thorough soaking and rinsing before use). There is also an opinion that frozen vegetables are not a problem because any bugs that may be in there will explode in the freezing process (…) and therefore are no longer “whole creatures”. This is not exactly reassuring, but our bug-free standards are way more OCD higher than pretty much anyone else’s, and you have to draw the line somewhere…

So that concludes Part II! Stay tuned for the third and final installment. 😉

Love,

Daniella


Missed Part I? No problem! Click here to read Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes.

Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Note: this is the first installment of a 3-part series on kashrut. For Part II, click here; for Part III, click here.


Dear Josep,

One of the very first topics we discussed to do with Judaism was kashrut. A little reminder, pulled from the post about how we met:

At lunch that day, while I picked at my sliced cucumbers, he asked me, “What if we went to my house and I bought kosher ingredients and cooked for you?”

I looked over at this person who had literally just offered to bring home a random girl from another country, whom he had known for a grand total of 72 hours, and cook her a meal. I shook my head. “No… all the pots and pans would have to be kosher…”

“What if I bought a new pan?”

He couldn’t be serious.

“That’s very nice of you to offer… but it’s not just the pans… it’s all the utensils and the oven and everything…”

“Is there a way to make them kosher?” he insisted.

I smiled ironically. “Uh… yeah…. but trust me, that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? What would I need to do?”

“Just trust me. You don’t wanna know.”

“Tell me. I want to know.”

I eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

I shrugged. “Okay… you asked.” Thereupon I launched into a long, rambling explanation of how one kashers a kitchen, which for the uninformed among you, is a long, painstaking, arduous process that involves a lot of scrubbing, boiling water, and otherwise heat-treating everything. The goal of this tirade was to illustrate just how crazy an idea this was, and I assumed that after a few sentences his eyes would glaze over in boredom and that would be that. As predicted, everyone else who had been listening quickly lost interest and began chatting among themselves as I rambled on. But when I glanced at him somewhere in the middle of expounding upon mugs and soapy water in the microwave, he was still watching me as though I was giving him a thrilling play-by-play of the latest Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer game. I skidded to a stop and exclaimed, “Why are you even still listening to me?”

For reasons I can still not fathom, you are still listening to me, and I think it is high time I gave you a proper explanation of this whole crazy business called kashrut. Or, in the immortal words of the guy at the supermarket in Barcelona upon being asked where the kosher section was: “Jew food.”

This is such a broad topic we are not going to cover it in one entry. We’re going to start with a general overview and then get into detail about animal products. In Part II, we’ll talk about the various issues involving fruits, veggies, and grains, and in Part III we will talk about the nitty-gritty details, like how to make vessels or dishes that were kosher, non-kosher, and vice versa, as a somewhat more organized recap of that rambling speech I gave you eight years ago. 😉

So:

What Is Kashrut?

Kashrut is the observance of the dietary laws of Judaism. The adjective is “kosher”, and these words come from the Hebrew root כ.׊.ר, k.sh.r., meaning “proper”, “fit”, “appropriate”. “Non-kosher” is also known in Yiddish as treif, from the word treifa in Hebrew, which means “carrion”.

The rules of kashrut are derived from the Torah, and it is one of the very basic commandments that–along with Shabbat observance–draws the line between observant Jews and non-observant Jews.

There is no reason given in the Torah for why these laws must be observed. Many sages have tried to explain it in various ways, but ultimately, this is what we call a chok–the type of commandment that has no known reason. In other words, a “Because I Said So” commandment. 😉 We observe it out of loyalty to God and the belief that there is Divine reason behind it, even if we humans don’t or can’t comprehend it.

For a practice with no obvious explanation, it is fairly remarkable how strongly kashrut has held within the Jewish community. Many people who don’t consider themselves religious make some effort towards kashrut, such as avoiding pork and shellfish. As you know, many of the practices that survived in families of crypto-Jews were practices to do with kashrut–checking eggs for blood, separating milk and meat, separating the fat from the meat, etc. This is testimony to the deep importance and significance of this mitzvah.

At its very basic, kashrut involves:

1) Only eating meat, milk, or eggs produced by animals that are designated as kosher, and then, only if they are slaughtered in a certain way;

2) Not eating forbidden parts of animals (namely: blood, certain parts of fat, the sciatic nerve, and a severed limb from a live animal);

3) Complete separation of dairy products and meat products;

4) Eating only produce that has been grown and harvested in accordance with the agricultural laws (if the land is in Israel and owned by a Jew. Otherwise those laws don’t apply), the laws regarding tithing (separating portions to give to the poor, and in the days of the Temple, to the Cohanim and the Levites) and properly checked for insects (as per item #1);

5) Other “fences” put in place by the rabbis to prevent various issues or commemorate practices which are no longer practiced without the Temple, which we will get into as they come up.

This may sound simple enough, but if you are really committed to keeping these laws to the letter, some difficult questions are going to come up. For example: how do we eat meat but not the blood, especially in an organ such as the liver, which is completely saturated with blood? Is it okay to eat a piece of kosher meat that was cooked together with a piece of non-kosher meat? How many measures must we take to make sure our food is bug-free before resigning ourselves to the fact that we aren’t going to catch everything? What counts as “meat” anyway in terms of separating from dairy? Does poultry count? What about fish?

And this, my friend, is why a huge chunk of rabbinic literature is devoted to answering these questions and setting down the principles on which to answer further questions. And this is also why we need rabbis. Rabbis are basically experts in Jewish law. Because you can’t expect your average Joe (-seph?) to know all the details of these laws, you have these experts in every community who have studied the laws thoroughly and can answer questions that arise on a day to day basis. That is the main function of the observant rabbi.

So, let’s get to it:

Which Animals Are Kosher?

Mammals

Most people know that Jews can’t eat pork. Pigs are one of the animals listed explicitly in the Torah as not being kosher. But the pig is actually the last in a list of four animals that are mentioned explicitly: the camel, the rock-badger (also called the hyrax), and the hare. All other mammals are ruled out by exemption.

Kosher mammals must meet these two criteria: 1) They must have split hooves:

Clockwise starting at upper left: goat hooves (kosher), horse hooves (not kosher), cattle hooves (kosher), pig hooves (split, but not kosher)
Photo credit: DRosenbach, under CC BY-SA 3.0

2) They must chew their cud.

Chew their what?

…Right. So, there are certain herbivores that have a curious way of digesting food. Plants are pretty hard to digest because of all the fiber. So these animals have multiple stomachs, and the food gets swallowed, brought up again, and chewed multiple times before it is fully digested. This multi-chewing process is called “chewing one’s cud”.

Practically speaking, this means that cows, sheep, goats, and deer are kosher. (So are… giraffes. There’s an urban myth that the reason we can’t eat them is that their necks are so long we don’t know where to cut it to slaughter them in the kosher manner, but that isn’t true. We don’t eat them for the same reasons everyone else doesn’t…) Pigs are specifically mentioned as non-kosher because while they do have split hooves, they don’t chew their cud. Camels, hares, and rock-badgers chew their cud, but their hooves are not split.

Birds

In principle, kosher fowl do not have “criteria”. There is a list in the Torah (Leviticus 13-20) of birds that are not kosher, and all others are assumed to be kosher. The problem is that over time, the names referring to specific birds have been forgotten, so we aren’t sure what some of them are. The sages came up with a number of criteria that the kosher birds seem to have in common, such as the structure of the foot and the presence of a crop (a little pocket of skin for storing food before it enters the stomach), etc. One obvious thing that kosher birds have in common, is that none of them are birds of prey.

Probably a good thing. I wouldn't want to mess with this guy.
Back off, buddy. I’m treif.

Kosher birds commonly eaten are: chicken, turkey, goose, and duck. Quail, pigeons, doves, and swans are also kosher.

Seafood

Kosher seafood is once again identified by two criteria: it must have fins and scales. So commonly eaten fish like salmon, tuna, carp, mackerel, sardines, perch, etc., are fine. Exotic fish like swordfish and sharks are not (they don’t have scales), and neither are shellfish of any kind (no shrimp, lobster, or crab).

Okay but seriously, with all due respect, WHAT is appetizing about these marine cockroaches exactly?!
Photo credit: Elapied

Speaking of which…

Creepy Crawlies

In our Western world this makes us all go “uugghh”, and indeed, most bugs, worms, etc. are not kosher. Frogs, snakes, and lizards are also included in this category (“shratzim“=creatures that creep on the earth). But, there are certain kinds of locusts that are kosher. I am told they are a delicacy in some parts of the world. I am not sold. :-/

Kosher Slaughter: Shechita

Very simply, kosher animals must be slaughtered by slitting their throats quickly, with a very sharp knife, in a way that strikes major blood vessels leading to the brain, leading to immediate and irreversible loss of consciousness. This must be done very precisely so as to cause minimal suffering to the animal, and therefore shechita is a craft that must be studied carefully for one to be able to slaughter an animal in a way that renders it kosher. The purpose, obviously, is to slaughter to animal in a way that is as humane as possible. A certified Jewish ritual slaughterer is called a shochet.

What is the difference between shechita and dhabiha (slaughter in accordance with the laws of halal)? For meat to be halal, the name of God must be invoked before the slaughter. It so happens that there is a blessing Jews recite over the mitzvah of shechita, meaning that the name of God is usually invoked, and that is why many Muslims feel comfortable eating kosher meat. There is a whole Wikipedia article comparing and contrasting kashrut and halal.

Preparing Kosher Meat

So once the animal is dead, the blood of the animal must be covered with earth, and then the blood must be removed from the meat. This is done through a process of salting, which is where “kosher salt” got its name. A more accurate name would be “kashering salt”, as its purpose is to kasher (=make kosher) the meat. All salt is kosher.

I am told that kosher meat is thus drier and saltier than non-kosher meat.

As to our question about livers before, salting is not enough to remove the blood from liver, and therefore liver must be broiled in a way that draws out the blood. Other meat can be kashered this way too.

Milk and Meat

One very common question among newcomers to Judaism–or skeptics–is, how on earth did we get from “don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21), to waiting several hours after consuming any kind of meat, until consuming any kind of dairy?! This is one of the prime examples of the importance of the Oral Torah, the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation through the sages and rabbis, that we believe has its source at Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Through the oral tradition we know that this phrase refers to all cattle meat and all milk. There are a number of different explanations given for why the Written Torah specifies “kid in its mother’s milk”, but this is one of the things in the oral tradition that the rabbis are in completely unanimous agreement about, which as you know, isn’t to be taken lightly! 😉

The sages did expand cattle meat to include all other kinds of meat and poultry–but not fish or locusts.

Why do we wait between eating meat and milk? That also has a number of explanations, but it also comes to demonstrate the severity of this practice and how very careful we are to maintain this complete separation. There are different traditions about how long to wait, ranging from one hour to six hours. We wait three.

That’s quite enough for now! Stay tuned for Part II. 🙂

Love,

Daniella

 


Don’t miss the other two posts in the Jew Food series:

Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of)

Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated

Shmita, or: Holy Bananas, Batman!

Dear Josep,

Because of how hectic things were for both of us around Rosh Hashana this year I never got a chance to tell you about what makes this Jewish year so special. You know, other than the fact that it’s a lovely palindrome (5775).

I know I have mentioned in the past (and I’m sure you have no recollection whatsoever) that there is a whole category of commandments that have to do with the land of Israel and its agriculture. (In Hebrew, mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz.) But for two thousand years, there were no Jews working the land. The Jews who had been living here throughout history, in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed, were not farmers and lived mostly off of donations from Jews in the diaspora so they could study Torah full-time. As a matter of fact, no one was working the land for the most part. It was basically an infertile wasteland. When Mark Twain visited Israel in 1867 he described it as “a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” It is said that the Land of Israel only blossoms when the Jews are tending it, and whether or not you believe these prophecies, historically, this appears to have held true. In any case, when the Jews began to return to Israel in the 19th-20th centuries and tend the land again, it had been 2,000 years since the last time the commandments relating to the Land of Israel had even been relevant. Just like the revival of Hebrew, calling these commandments “back from the dead” and suddenly implementing them in a world completely different than the one in which they were last observed was quite a challenge. The most challenging of all, is the commandment of shmita.

Six years your shall sow your field, and six years you shalt prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; your shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of itself of your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” –Leviticus 25:3-5

Shmita is that seventh year. (This year!) We’re not allowed to engage in our usual agricultural activity for profit. We’re allowed to tend plants to make sure they don’t die, but we’re not allowed to do things that improve production. And all plants must be hefker–public property. We must leave the gates open and anyone who is hungry may come and take whatever he wants.

“‘And during the seventh year you shall rest’
The fruits are hefker (public property)
You have permission to enter”

Now I know what you’re thinking: “What?! You’re not allowed to sow fields, prune vineyards, or reap any harvest? You’re supposed to let anyone come and take whatever does grow? What are you expected to eat?

Well, that’s exactly what the Romans said, and if I recall correctly, there is a record of a play they put on mocking those crazy Judeans. It involved a donkey (or was it a horse?) complaining that he had no grass to eat because it was shmita, and all the Jews were eating his grass, because they couldn’t grow any produce. Very funny, Romans. (They and the Greeks also thought the idea of a Sabbath–not working one day a week–was a riot. Who’s laughing now? 😛 )

Anyway. As with everything in halakha, things are not nearly as simple as they first appear. And especially given the universal halakhic concept of pikuach nefesh–according to which we are allowed to transgress almost any commandment if it endangers a life–and the fact that civilization has changed so dramatically in the way food is produced and distributed in the past 2,000 years, some creative solutions have been required to address this mitzvah. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate, came up with a temporary solution that is similar to the “legal fiction” we use to solve the problem of businesses owning chametz on Passover (…don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a few months. 😉 ). Shmita only applies if the land is owned by Jews. Therefore, he proposed, the Jews could “sell” the land to a non-Jew, so it is technically owned by a non-Jew, and then work the land as usual. At the end of the year we would buy the land back. This solution is known as heter mechira, and the reason it is temporary is that it only works while the commandment of shmita is considered rabbinic and not Biblical. That is, it’s Biblical, but only applies as a Biblical commandment when a majority of the nation of Israel is in the land. That is not true yet, but it may apply already in the shmita following this one, given our population growth and the shrinking Jewish populations in the USA and Europe due to assimilation and emigration to Israel.

So there are two other solutions. The first is the one that the ultra-Orthodox tend to use, because it avoids the entire issue of dealing with shmita: using only produce grown outside of Israel, or grown in fields that are owned by non-Jews. The second, and the one that I favor, is something called Otzar Beit Din. I can’t get into the details of how or why it works, but here’s the general idea: it takes advantage of the loopholes in the law to continue to grow, harvest and distribute produce (in ways that are different than usual, and therefore permitted) using a special alternative system. This year, this type of produce is sold at our local grocery store. And the special thing about it, is that produce grown in Israel during the shmita year has a special status: it is endowed with kedushat shvi’it, the “sanctity of the seventh year”. Just as this produce must be treated differently in the fields, it is treated differently in our kitchens. We are only allowed to prepare it in a way that is accepted–so for example, we’re not allowed to cook vegetables that are generally only eaten raw (like, say, cucumbers), or eat vegetables raw when they are usually eaten cooked (like, say, sweet potatoes). We are not allowed to throw it away or damage it purposely in any way while it is still edible, so we have a special garbage pail for only kedushat shvi’it fruits and vegetables, where we put scraps and stuff and only throw away when they have rotted on their own.

2015/01/img_0976.jpg
Yes. I decorated it. What?

I favor this solution because I love feeling the connection to the land and its “additional” holiness during this year, and because I believe it is the closest to what was originally intended by this mitzvah. God clearly did not want us to starve. The purpose of this mitzvah is very similar to another “seventh” you already know about–Shabbat. To remind us that this land belongs to Him first and foremost, and that no matter what we have done to make the land blossom and bring forth produce, it all really comes from Him. When I hold one of these “holy bananas” in my hand, it feels, even more than usual, like God Himself put this in my hand, smiled, and said, “Enjoy.”

Holy bananas, Batman!
Don’t mind if I do. Mmm, sanctity.

There is much, much more to say about this topic, but it is very complicated and legalistic and not being a farmer myself there’s a lot I don’t know about it. But since the month of Shvat begins in a few days, I will probably elaborate some more on the other mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, so stay tuned. 😉

Wishing you a Chodesh Tov (a good month) and a refrigerator full of goodness. 😉

Love,

Daniella

P.S. …If you’re asking yourself what on earth Batman has to do with any of this, you’re missing this cultural reference. 😛

Blessings: Finding God in an Apple

Prefer to listen? I read this post for the Jewish Geography podcast:


Dear Josep,

You may have noticed that in many of my explanations about the way we perform certain commandments, I mention that we say a blessing beforehand, that always starts with the same formula: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who…

Reciting blessings is as regular a part of daily life as prayer. (Well, technically, it is, in itself, a form of prayer.) Most of the blessings I’ve mentioned are the kind we recite before performing a mitzvah. But there are other categories too, and in this e-mail I will address the different kinds of blessings. But first, what do I mean by “blessing”? These “blessings” are short statements that express gratitude for something. So why are they called “blessings” and not, I dunno, “thankings”? And even stranger, why do they all start with the statement, “Blessed are You”? Isn’t it we who are blessed by Him? The Catholic “grace before meals” prayers I have seen usually include some form of “Bless us, O Lord”, not the other way around!

Well, first things first: what does the word “bless” mean anyway? In Hebrew, the root that means “bless” is ב.ר.כ, b.r.kh, and the sages explain that it means “to increase” or to “bring down Divine abundance”. When I “bless” you, I am asking God to increase your health, wealth, happiness or whatever it may be, to shine His light on you… in essence, to give you more of Himself. So what could it possibly mean for me to “bless” God for creating the apple I’m about to eat?

The key to understanding this is to recognize the purpose of these blessings. It is not merely to show gratitude. The purpose of a blessing is awareness.

When I hold an apple in my hand and say, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree“, what I am really saying is a lot more than just “thanks for making this apple”. What I am saying is, “Your presence in this world has been made that much greater, has increased, through this fruit you created that I am about to enjoy”.

I am declaring that whatever it is I am making the blessing for–whether it’s a food I’m enjoying, a roll of thunder I heard, or a mitzvah I am about to perform–is increasing God’s presence in the world, through my recognition of His role in creating or commanding it.

So we’re back to what I have always said is the main theme of Judaism–channeling the Divine into the mundane and revealing the spiritual through the physical. Through this worldly experience, I experience God; and when I declare that recognition, I make His presence in the world that much more known.

Very simply put: in this apple, I see God.

And He looks delicious.

There are three main types of blessings.

Blessings of Enjoyment

These are blessings we make over something we enjoy with our senses. The most common ones are, of course, blessings over food. We recite blessings both before and after eating. There are different blessings for different categories of food–bread (“…who brings forth bread out of the ground“), grain products that are not defined as bread (“…who creates different kinds of sustenance“), wine (“...who creates the fruit of the vine“), fruit (“…who creates the fruit of the tree“), vegetables (“…who creates the fruit of the ground“), and everything else (“…from whose word all came into being“). If that sounds complicated, wait until I tell you that bananas and pineapples are halakhically “vegetables” because they are non-perennial plants… or that food can switch categories according to how it is prepared or eaten (for instance, orange juice). And don’t even get me started on what defines a grain product as bread, or why we say “the fruit of the vine” for wine, but “the fruit of the tree” for grapes! The point is that to make the correct blessing, you have to have a basic awareness of how that food came to be on your plate. And making the blessing gives you an opportunity to reflect on this process. The apple came from a tree, which grew from the ground, thanks to sunlight and water and nutrients from the soil, and it’s God who made all this happen.

“After” blessings are also divided by category: the long birkat hamazon (“blessing for sustenance”/”Grace After Meals”) for after eating bread or a meal with bread (this is the blessing we made after the meal on Shabbat), a shortened version called me’en shalosh for grain products that are not bread, or fruits that fall under the category of the “Seven Species”. These are the seven species referred to in Deuteronomy 8:8; the fruits that the land of Israel is especially celebrated for. Those are: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives.

These are a popular decoration motif in Jewish art.

The last “after blessing” is boreh nefashot. It’s one of the most disregarded blessings because it is so short, but in my view, it is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. It goes like this: “Blessed are You…who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies; for all that You have created with which to maintain the life of every being. Blessed is He, the life of worlds.”

The profundity of this blessing lies in its first section: “who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies“… why would we be thanking God for creating a deficiency? Because the very reason we are thanking Him for giving us something to eat, is that He created hunger. If we were not hungry, we would not enjoy the fulfillment of that lack. Take this idea beyond physical sustenance, and you will have a lot to think about. 🙂

Enjoyment blessings are also made on smelling something pleasant. These ones are very specific too, ranging from pleasant scents from flowers and trees, to the scent of herbs, to the scent of fruit, to the most specific–balsam oil. This, too, is a moment to pause and reflect on where this pleasant experience comes from, and using it to channel Godliness into the world.

Another blessing in this category is shehechiyanu: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” This is the blessing we make over new experiences (such as wearing new clothing), or occasions that are rare enough that we especially enjoy them when they come around (such as holidays, or eating the first fruit of a season).

Blessings for Commandments

Jews consider the Torah to be the greatest gift of all, and as I’ve mentioned, the act of performing a mitzvah is an act of channeling Divine energy into the mundane. This is a very appropriate time to declare God’s increased presence in the world through this act.

Blessings of Experience

They are called “blessings of sight” or “of hearing”, but I would call them “blessings of awe”. These are the blessings we make when we see or hear something that reminds us of God’s presence in the world. For example, when I hear a roll of thunder, I recite: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, whose strength and might fills the world.” When I see a streak of lightening, or experience an earthquake, or see an especially mighty mountain or river, I recite: “…who performs an act of creation.” When I see the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in 30 days, I say: “...who created the Great Sea.”

There is a special blessing for seeing a rainbow, which refers to the story of Noah: “…who remembers the covenant, and is faithful in His covenant, and keeps His promise.” The promise and covenant being: “And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:14-15)

photo (3)
We get some pretty magnificent rainbows out here on the edge of the desert!

There is another special blessing that we make on flowering fruit trees, only during the month of Nissan (your birth month!): “…who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created within it good creations and good trees for the sons of Adam to enjoy.”

Another blessing of note is Birkat HaGomel; a blessing we say when we have been saved from a potentially life-threatening situation, such as surviving a dangerous illness or childbirth. We are required to say this blessing in front of at least ten people, because when God performs a miracle, we have an obligation to spread knowledge of it as much as we can. (This concept–pirsumei nisa, “publicizing the miracle” in Aramaic–is familiar from the holiday of Chanukah. We display our chanukiyot in a prominent window facing the street for this reason.) The person who was saved says: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed kindness upon me.” Those in attendance answer, “Amen. May He who has bestowed kindness upon you, always bestow kindness upon you.

There are blessings for seeing an especially wise person; for seeing a king; for seeing a group of 60,000 Jews gathered in one place (it has to do with the number of Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai); for seeing a place where a miracle happened for the Jewish people (such as the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, or the Jordan river crossing); for seeing a place where a miracle happened to that individual or to his parents; for seeing especially beautiful people or creations, or for seeing especially unusual-looking people or creations… and for hearing good news, (“…hatov h’hameytiv“, “...who is good and does good“), or bad news (“…dayan haemet“, “…the True Judge“).

There is even a blessing for going to the bathroom! “…Who created man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is exposed and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You for even one hour. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.” As we are painfully reminded every time we have a stomach virus, properly functioning personal plumbing is definitely something to be grateful for!

…Basically, as the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, there truly is a blessing for everything.

Or should I say… in everything.

Because the whole purpose of making a blessing is to look deep into the world we live in, and find God in it.

Amen

When one hears someone else recite a blessing, s/he is required to answer “amen”. Ever wonder what the word “amen” means? The root of the word in Hebrew, א.מ.× , a.m.n., is the same root as the word, אמונה, emunah, “faith”. Basically, it is a statement that means, “What you say is true”. When you answer “amen”, it is as if you had made the blessing yourself; you are confirming the declaration of the increase of God’s presence, and thus, increasing awareness of God’s presence yourself.

And now, of course, a blessing from me to you: may you always find God, even in the most mundane and unlikely places.

And a joyful Three Kings’ Day! 😉

Love,

Daniella

***

Blog readers: Which is your favorite blessing? If you could create a new blessing for something that doesn’t have one yet in Jewish tradition, what would it be for and how would you phrase it?

On the Doorposts of Your Home: All About Mezuzot

Dear Josep,

So before I explain about mezuzot, I must first begin with the Shema prayer. Something tells me you have heard of it. 😉 Here is a translation of the full text of the first paragraph of the prayer:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

—Deuteronomy 6:4-9

That last verse is the source for the mitzvah of mezuzah.

So first of all: what is the Shema? Why is it so important? And why did God command us to say these words morning and evening, to bind them “as a sign upon your arm” and “a reminder between your eyes” (that’s the mitzvah of tefillin, which I’ll hopefully get to in a future e-mail!), and to have them hanging at every doorpost?

The crux of the prayer is the opening verse. It is our declaration of allegiance to God, and our belief that He is one. The rest of the paragraph explains how that allegiance manifests in our daily lives.

Okay, so we declare our allegiance to God. “The Lord is our God”. Why “the Lord is one”? What does his oneness have to do with our allegiance to Him and love for Him?

Well, first there’s the obvious: we were the first nation to believe in the oneness of God, and this was our unique characteristic at the time. And though this may seem totally basic in a world so strongly influenced by the three monotheistic faiths, it’s actually really not that intuitive an idea. When we look at the world all we see is contrast. Everything is defined by its separation and distinction from everything else. A tree is not a rock. The sky is not the sea. Dark and light. Good and evil. These things are so mutually exclusive that it doesn’t make sense at all that they could be all truly part of one unified thing. But they are. They are all God. This is a very difficult concept to grasp. So difficult, that the ancient peoples assigned different gods to the different forces in the world. This made sense. Even the Christians felt a need to do this to some degree. Mainstream Christianity assigns all evil in the world to a being separate from God—the Devil—because God is supposed to be pure good; how could evil come from Him as well? But according to the concept of the Shema, this is a mistake. The good and the evil in the world are both a part of God, and all are part of the same reality, which is all ultimate good. This is very hard to understand.

But that concept is central to our mission in this world, and thus central to our identity as the Jewish people. Our mission in the world is to help reveal God’s oneness and goodness. To lead the human race in its pursuit of Him, so that together, we can bring the world to a point where He can bestow His goodness entirely. The message of the Shema is our raison d’être.

And that is why we surround ourselves with its words. We recite it morning and evening. It is the first prayer we teach our children, and the last prayer we say before we die. (This is why you hear stories of Jews crying it out when facing death.) We bind it—physically or mentally—to our arms and minds when we pray (tefillin again!). And, yes… we hang it on every doorpost.

If you look at the first verse of the Shema in a Torah or mezuzah scroll, you will see that the last letter of both the first and last words of the verse are enlarged:

The mezuzah scroll. Note the beautiful calligraphy; it is actually a requirement that this scroll be especially written by a scribe, a sofer, who has learned this special calligraphy that we use for holy texts (namely: the Torah, mezuzah scrolls, tefillin scrolls, and the Scroll of Esther for Purim). The letters must be perfect, otherwise it cannot be used. We have to have our scrolls checked by a sofer from time to time to make sure they are still kosher.

These two letters spell the word עד, ed, which means “witness”. Our mission in the world is to bear witness to God’s oneness.

Okay, so that’s the first paragraph of Shema. What about the second paragraph? It reads like this:

“And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord Your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

—Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Very similar to the first paragraph, but with one major difference: this one talks about the consequences of not loving God and following the commandments. In Judaism we talk about two motives for loving God: ahava and yir’a, love and awe (sometimes translated as fear, but awe is a better word for it). Both are important components of our service of Him, but love, obviously, is the highest level. The first paragraph of Shema corresponds to ahava. It is unconditional. We love God with all our hearts and all our souls and therefore we perform these commandments. This is really ideal. But when we are not on that level, we need the second paragraph of Shema, which corresponds to yir’a, so we perform the commandments out of fear of the consequences. The concept of Divine reward and punishment is very complex and I won’t get into it now, but suffice to say that according to many Jewish philosophers such as Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, it is not as simplistic as it seems here. (…And there’s another topic for another e-mail! 😛 Apparently I’m never going to run out!)

There is a third and final paragraph of Shema, but it is less relevant here because only the first two paragraphs are included in the mezuzah.

So what is the mezuzah? The word “mezuzah” actually means “doorpost”. The mezuzah itself is a scroll of parchment on which the first two paragraphs of the Shema are inscribed on one side, and the word Sha-dai is inscribed on the other. Sha-dai is one of God’s names in Hebrew, associated with kindness, and it is also an acronym for shomer dlatot yisrael, “Guardian of the doors of Israel”. The scroll is rolled up from left to right with the words of the Shema on the inside. It is then affixed to the doorway. As you know, usually it is placed inside a nice protective case, one which has the letter ׊ or the word Sha-dai on it. Archeologists always know they have found a Jewish building when they see an indent carved into the doorway to hold the mezuzah.

The purpose of the mezuzah is, of course, to help us maintain an awareness of God and of our purpose in the world, every time we enter or exit a room.

“Psst! Hey Jew! The Lord is One! You may now carry on.”
Photo credit: 00dac, CC BY 3.0

The minimum halakhic requirement is to place one just on the main entrance of the home, but most of us affix a mezuzah in every doorway (except the bathroom, out of respect for the holy text), and also in buildings people don’t live in, like office buildings. There is a custom to kiss it as we walk past; most of us do this by touching it and then kissing our hand. (You probably saw me do this a few times…) This helps us maintain an awareness of it. Though it becomes something of an automatic reflex. Whenever I’m in a place with a doorway that doesn’t have a mezuzah, I find myself automatically reaching for a mezuzah that isn’t there! I call this “Phantom Mezuzah Syndrome” 😛

The mezuzah is affixed to the upper third of the doorway, on the side that, upon entering the room, is to the right. The Ashkenazi custom is to affix it tilting towards the interior of the room; the Sephardi custom is to affix it vertically. Why the difference? Well, because, of course*, there are differing opinions on the proper direction. 😉 According to one opinion, it should be vertical. According to the other, it should be horizontal. Sephardim go by the first opinion; Ashkenazim go by a compromise of both!

When affixing a mezuzah, the following blessing is recited: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

And with that, my friend, I bless you that only goodness, harmony and peace should cross your doorways, and awareness of God and His love for you should ever be in your mind.

Have a peaceful St. Stephen’s Day and a restful weekend.

Love,

Daniella

***

*You will find within these letters many references to the irrefutable truth behind the classic joke, “Two Jews, three opinions”. 😉

Blog readers: What surprising places have you seen mezuzot? What physical objects in your life help you focus on what’s really important to you?