What We Eat (Terumah 02/05/22)
What We Eat
As I enter my kitchen for a snack, my hungry cat follows me. It wants a snack too. “I just fed you two hours ago, you insatiable feline.” I try to ignore the fact that I too just ate a full meal recently. My cat is a nagging reminder of just how often I open my fridge and pantry. If this behavior resonates with you, we humans then eat quite often; and what we eat speaks a great deal about ourselves.
A child in my “Hey ה“ Class (7th grade) asked me if it’s true that we’re not supposed to eat meat and dairy together. I replied that, traditionally, such is the case.
In three places in the Torah we’re adjured, “Don’t cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk.” Simply, the Torah is weaning us away from cruelty just like similar commands, “Don’t slaughter the bull and its calf in one day” and “Don’t take away the chicks in the presence of the mother bird.”
Yet, with regards to milk and meat, the rabbis forged a Jewish identity, so much so, it’s been embedded in the lore of Jewish humor:
In teaching the laws to Moses, God says, “You shall not boil a kid (calf or goat) in its mother’s milk.” Moses responds, “Lord, I think I comprehend what you are saying. You are saying that we cannot eat cheeseburgers.” God replies, “No, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Moses responds again, “Powerful God, I am nothing, but I think I understand. You mean that we should wait at least three hours after eating meat to eat dairy products.” God testily retorts, “NO, DON’T BOIL A KID IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK!” Moses tries again, “I am but dust and ashes but I think I get it. What you are saying is that we should have two sets of dishes. One set for meat and one for dairy. If we by accident put meat on a dairy dish we should bury that dish and not use it.” God says, “Oh, just do whatever the heck you want.”
Diet is one of the ways founders of Judaism created our ethnoreligious identity. Most countries have a cuisine we can identify: Italian, French, Mexican and Chinese foods speak for themselves. Even Americans have hot dogs and apple pie. Ashkenazic Jews can claim gefilte fish, matzah balls, and good deli, but all Jews share traditions of not eating certain species of animals and certain combinations together.
I was further asked if the prohibition of pork was to prevent trichinosis. I replied that it’s possible that’s the reason, but in truth, the same chapter in the Torah that forbids the meat of pigs also denies us the flesh of camels and rabbits with whom that disease is not an issue. I believe the real answer is topographical. Archeology in ancient Judea and Samaria (the south and north of Israel) has unearthed the bones of cows, sheep, and goats, but not of pigs. Northern Israel is very mountainous, and southern Israel is extremely hot; both are poor climates for raising pigs. Perhaps that lack of pork in the Jewish diet is just this simple, that the environment wasn’t conducive to it.
I told the kids that when I don’t add meatballs or pepperoni to my pizza, it’s an act of mindfulness. Through my choices, I’m connecting with the heritage of our people who observed this “diet/cuisine” for thousands of years. My decisions of what to eat make me feel my Jewishness. But it’s not just the kosher decisions that define us. Choosing to eat free-range eggs and chickens shows that we care about the treatment of animals. Selecting organic produce or a vegan alternative demonstrates that we care about the earth.
As my cat observes, we eat quite often, and our founders keenly understood that what we eat expresses who we are and what we believe. What we put in our mouths is certainly a statement about ourselves, but it’s also a mindset, a connection to our past and future.