This is the most ironic period of the Jewish year, from a gastronomic perspective. In order to fulfill the Purim day mitzvah of mishloaḥ manot, sending packages of food and treats to one another, as described in chapter 9 of the book of Esther*, many of us pack extensive and sometimes quite fancy bags full of stuff – candy, chips, fruits, nuts, and of course hamantaschen – and distribute them far and wide. And, of course, we get similar packages from others. It’s a lovely, friendly, neighborly project that has a downside: then you have piles of snack food sitting around the house.
Now, as happens every single year, Pesaḥ is exactly one month after Purim. Prior to Pesaḥ, of course, your house should be free of ḥametz, five species of grains identified in the Talmud. The most essential halakhah surrounding Pesaḥ is that from the morning of the day prior to the first seder, it is forbidden by Jews to eat, possess, benefit from and even see ḥametz. So all products containing even the tiniest amount of exposure to wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye, which is basically everything you received in those mishloaḥ manot bags, must be eaten (or regifted, although none of your friends are going to want their mishloaḥ manot stuff to come back to them, so to do that you’re going to have to pawn it off on your non-Jewish neighbors).
As I sat at my kitchen table last Thursday evening typing out this sermon, surveying the array of Purim goodies calling out to be consumed, I hatched a great theory about the origin of hamantaschen. Some Jew at some point in the Middle Ages, on the week before Purim realized, “Hey, I have lots of flour that I’m going to have to use up before Pesaḥ. I should make a bunch of cookies for Purim and give them to all my neighbors! Then the ḥametz will be their problem!” It was such a great idea that all the neighbors did it the following year, thus neutralizing the original intent. But a fabulous Ashkenazi custom was born.
It is clearly NOT ironic, however, that foodstuffs and eating are an essential part of Jewish holiday practices, be it Adar or Nissan or Tishrei or whatever. On the contrary, it is hard-wired into the Jewish year. We are the people for whom what you put into your mouth is as important as what comes out of it as words of prayer.
And it is also therefore not ironic that, as we honor Michelle Vines today, we must acknowledge that she has been the most important member of the staff here for many, many years. I will say a lot more on that in a few minutes, but first a word of Torah, brought to you courtesy of Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read today.
The subject of eating comes up at least six times in Parashat Ki Tissa.
- The Israelites’ first act after making the Molten Calf is to declare a festival, and so they offer sacrifices and then they sit down to eat and drink and perform all sorts of horrible acts (Ex. 32:6).
- Later on, when Moshe goes up Mt. Sinai a second time, God lays down the law about idolatry and intermarrying with the Canaanites, because it will lead to eating from their unholy, idolatrous sacrifices (34:15).
- Immediately after, there is a reminder of Ḥag haMatzot, the feast of Unleavened Bread which we associate with Pesaḥ, when we are obligated to eat matzah (34:18).
- In the same holiday passage, we also find a commandment to bring as a sacrifice the biqqurei admatekha, the first fruits of your land, which we associate with Shavu’ot, and in the same verse, the prohibition on boiling a calf in its mother’s milk, a commandment which yielded a whole bunch of practical laws which are in play to this very day (34:26).
- And near the conclusion of Ki Tissa we learn that in the 40 days and nights that Moshe was up on Mt. Sinai, לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אָכַ֔ל וּמַ֖יִם לֹ֣א שָׁתָ֑ה, “he ate no bread and drank no water” (34:28). (He must have been quite hungry when he returned.)
You might even say that the latter half of the book of Shemot / Exodus, following the Israelites’ having escaped from Pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds, is food obsessed. No sooner have they chanted Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea, that they are desperate for water (Ex. 15:24). And then they are pining for the “fleshpots of Egypt” (16:3). And then there are the manna and the quail. And so on.
When we comb through the text for this dietary thread, we see it everywhere. Why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us who is eating and drinking and why, what they are permitted and what they receive, what is forbidden and what is associated with idolatry or with proper festivals? Do those food references further the narrative?
The theme of food in the Torah reinforces the principle, which we all know, that eating is essential to what we do. Taken together, the episodes of eating and drinking remind us that this most mundane feature of our lives, the physical source of our energy and our spirit, cannot be overlooked. Our holidays surround food; our joy and our grief are expressed over platefuls of cookies and platters of smoked fish. Food is ritual. Food is an opportunity each day to frame an ordinary act in holiness with berakhot before and after. Food is the source of our strength, and our meals punctuate our lives. And, as you may know, it is food that enables us to perform the most fundamental mitzvah of Jewish life: learning Torah. As we learn in Pirqei Avot (3:17):
אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח
Im ein qemaḥ, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein qemaḥ.
Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.
The Maharal of Prague, a 16th-century rabbi, notes that the Mishnah here uses the term qemaḥ, flour, rather than leḥem, bread. Flour is a fine powder, he says, while bread has other characteristics: it can be rough and thick; flour thereby relates to the fine qualities of the soul, while bread, in its thick roughness, does not. Also, flour is a fundamental need, like Torah. If you have no bread, but you have a reserve of flour, you can make bread. If you have no flour in the jar, once you finish your bread, you are out of luck. Torah is the very source of our spiritual sustenance; when we have no Torah, we have nothing left.
But whether we are speaking of bread or flour or pareve cookies, food, like Torah, is essential to our lives. The Jewish army of God marches on its stomach. And we should remember this all the more so on this day when we are honoring Michelle in her retirement.
Now, this may surprise some of you, but Michelle is not Jewish. Yes, it is true that she knows as much about kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) as any rabbi in the neighborhood, and can almost cite chapter and verse of the Shulḥan Arukh, the 16th-century codification of Jewish law, in the original Hebrew regarding certain Jewish dietary practices. And not only that, she also knows which customs are in play in which communities – which hekhshers (kosher certification marks) are acceptable in which synagogues, who among us allows broccoli and asparagus, etc. And she has an encyclopedic knowledge, acquired over many years of dealing with benei mitzvah, weddings, beritot milah (ritual circumcisions), shiv’ah (mourning rituals), and every other lifecycle and communal event, of every aspect of every party. She has managed the most complex of build-outs for celebrations in the Ballroom; she has poured at least 8 million shot glasses of grape juice for Shabbat kiddush; she has been spotted at every type of affair imaginable, always with a friendly smile and a nod, always with a calm, reassuring attitude of understanding. Members of this congregation and throughout the community know that we can not only trust Michelle, but that she has long been the one to rely on. She is, and has been for half a century, the most-beloved Beth Shalom employee, bar none.
And we are extraordinarily grateful for her half-century of service to Beth Shalom and to the wider Jewish community. We want you to know, Michelle, that in addition to honoring you this morning, the Congregation Beth Shalom and other synagogue friends are also providing a special gift for you, and we hope you will use it to take a nice, comfortable vacation.
Michelle has helped carry us through all sorts of moments, the joyous and the painful, the holy and the mundane. She has been there for all of us; holding us all up. She has been maintaining that figurative flour jar of spiritual sustenance as we have drawn from it, for many years.
And we are so grateful. Kol hakavod! All the glory is yours.
When you see Michelle at kiddush today, please don’t ask her if we are out of egg salad. Instead, please just thank her for her many years of service, and wish her good luck.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/11/2023.)
* Esther 9:22
כַּיָּמִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר־נָ֨חוּ בָהֶ֤ם הַיְּהוּדִים֙ מֵאֹ֣יְבֵיהֶ֔ם וְהַחֹ֗דֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר֩ נֶהְפַּ֨ךְ לָהֶ֤ם מִיָּגוֹן֙ לְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמֵאֵ֖בֶל לְי֣וֹם ט֑וֹב לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֗ם יְמֵי֙ מִשְׁתֶּ֣ה וְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמִשְׁלֹ֤חַ מָנוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֔הוּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיֹנִֽים׃
[The 14th and 15th of Adar were] the days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.