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Monday, February 22, 2016

The Fire of the Jewish Kitchen -- What is Jewish Food? -- Guest Post by the goyisherebbe

Looking ahead to Parshat Vayak'hel, in the middle of the details of the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), we suddenly find verses repeating the subject of of refraining from work on Shabbat.
Shemot (Exodus) 35:1-3:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃
שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיֹּ֣ום הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּתֹ֖ון לַיהוָ֑ה כָּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה בֹ֛ו מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת׃
לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּיֹ֖ום הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃ פ

1And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
2Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death. 3Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’

Before and after this passage about the injunction to keep Shabbat we have accounts of the building of the Mishkan. We also have a passage in Parshat Ki Tissa in Shemot 31 where the subject of Shabbat is in juxtaposition with the building of the Mishkan.

But right now we are going to discuss the verse concerning fire on Shabbat.
Making fire is one of the 39 forms of creative work used in the building of the Mishkan and therefore one of the 39 types of work forbidden on Shabbat. If all of these are derived implicitly from the placement of Shabbat next to Mishkan, then why is fire mentioned explicitly. One reason is because it is different in its penalty than the rest of the forbidden activities. That is a complex Talmudic discussion with disagreement between the Sages, and we can't go into it here. The other is that fire is forbidden in your habitations, but not in the Tabernacle or Temple. The sacrifices are brought as usual on Shabbat. But the issue of fire on Shabbat has been an area of contention between the Sadducees and later the Karaites as opposed to the Pharisees, who explicated what is now known as Rabbinic Judaism.

In any normative Jewish home on Friday afternoon before sundown the lady of the house lights candles with a blessing crediting G-d with having commanded this act. Actually it is a rabbinic enactment expressing part of the spirit of what is written in the Torah itself. Shabbat is meant to be joyous, with light and food prepared before the advent of Shabbat. That is, a Jew may benefit from work done, or fire made, before the action becomes forbidden. So, unlike the sectarians who eat cold food and sit in the dark on Shabbat, we rejoice in the light of the Torah. So the fire kindled in our houses before Shabbat has a central role in the quality of our Shabbat.

Now I am going to end with a small collection of foods which are quintessentially Jewish because they are solutions to problems in keeping particular Jewish laws. I am not including mere customs which allude to things Jewish, but only where there is a mitzvah act involved. I solicit comments adding any others that I may have missed.

Of course this is at the top of the list because it is the only food that we eat which is today a mitzvah from the Torah. It is distinctive because it is both forbidden to eat hametz, leaven, and a positive mitzvah to eat unleavened bread, matza, on the seder night. The rest of Pesach (Passover), according to most authorities, there is no longer a direct mitzvah to eat matza, although the GR"A, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, says there is a fulfillment of a mitzvah act to eat matza throughout the festival. I participate in baking matza every year, and it's great. If you can do it or see it being done, it is a fantastic experience!

Cholent or Hamin: 
This is the food which we prepare to sit on the covered fire overnight and eat hot the next morning or noon. As we explained before, it was designed in order to have hot food while being in accordance with the prohibition of lighting fire and cooking on Shabbat.

Gefilte Fish:
These are colorless balls of boned fish mixed with matza meal and cooked in water. This is an Ashkenazi food eaten mostly on Shabbat. The purpose behind the food is to avoid the prohibition of separating the bones from the fish on Shabbat. Eating fish with bones on Shabbat is more difficult because you have to take a bite out of the fish and then take the bones out. I have heard that at least one Sefardi authority is somewhat more lenient in taking some of the bones out, and maybe that is why the Sefardi Jews don't eat gefilte fish. There is a famous Israeli comedy film, Kazablan, with a scene with an Ashkenazi girl bringing a Sefardi boyfriend to her parents' house for dinner. He is served gefilte fish, which he finds himself unable to eat, and finally feeds it to the dog under the table. I've often wondered if there are Ashkenazi Jews who expect to go fishing and catch a gefilte fish in a pond or maybe a salted herring in the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem Kugel or other noodle kugel: 
Yerushalmi kugel is made of noodles which have been cooked in oil and caramelized sugar (some make it more peppery than others) and left in a pot on the covered fire overnight. In addition to being a hot dish on Shabbat (see cholent, above), the kugel is designed for eating at kiddush as opposed to the regular meal. The requirement of kiddush over wine is that it is to be said in the place in which one eats a meal. But many Jews are lenient in making kiddush where cake or some other non-bread product containing flour is eaten. But if you accidentally munch too much cake while talking to your friends and enjoying the various other delicacies, besides spoiling your appetite for lunch, you would be considered to have eaten a full meal, requiring washing of hands before and the full Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) afterward. But no matter how much Yerushalmi kugel you eat, since it is made of noodles and not baked like a cake, it will never trigger those requirements. It might give you a bellyache, though.

Everybody knows that the distinctive braided bread for Shabbat and holidays is called challa, but few are aware that its name is connected with the passage (Num. 15:18-21) regarding the dough "left aside" (Heb. challa) for the cohen in time of the Temple. The minimum requirement to separate this dough comes to about 1.2 or 1.6 kg., a little under or just over three pounds. Nowadays without the Temple we merely take off a small amount and burn it. That happens every day in a bakery, but a housewife will usually encounter this requirement on eves of Shabbat, holidays or other festive occasions. So the loaves themselves came to be called challa.

Yemenite soup:
This is one that even the most learned of Jews won't be likely to think of, because it is based on a relatively obscure ruling of the Rambam (Maimonides) concerning the preparation of meat. Kosher meat requires soaking and salting to remove the blood. Once upon a time, not so terribly long ago, Jewish housewives commonly bought meat from the kosher butcher and performed this procedure themselves. But nowadays the meat and chickens that you get in the supermarket or butcher shop has already been "kashered" and is ready to cook, with the exception of liver, which must be broiled first. Once the meat has been soaked salted and washed off, no blood is on the meat, and the blood still in the meat will not cause any kashrut violation because it will not move from place to place. But Rabbi Dr. Maimonides, concerned that blood might still move around inside the meat even after the whole salty process is over, requires that the meat be put into boiling water to "fix" the remaining blood inside the meat, a procedure called halita.  Since the blood outside the meat is already gone, the water used for this purpose is perfectly kosher. The Yemenite Jews, those who carefully follow Rambam's rulings,  were extremely poor in the "old country" are never going to throw that water out! So they traditionally make their soup for Shabbat with all the meat or chicken in it and serve most of the meal out of one big pot.


Jesterhead45 said...

Interested to know what baking old school Temani-style Soft Matza entails as opposed to recent hard Matza.

Batya Medad said...

Great post, thanks for posting!!

goyisherebbe said...

Jesterhead, good question! My son is a Rambamist, and he does bake soft matza. The advantage of soft matza is that is is fresh. He also bakes on Hol HaMoed, believe it or not! The disadvantage of soft matza is that it spoils incredibly fast if not kept under refrigeration, which they didn't have at the time. Nowadays they sell soft matza in freezers. My son follows the Old-Time Religion and keeps the fresh ones coming. I used to shudder, but I have gotten over it. Age helps.

Batya Medad said...

I eat it when at the Tunisian branch of the family on Passover-- no kitniyot