Judaism (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
The phenomenon of fasting in the variegated history of Judaism has its roots in the biblical text. Though it is not entirely clear why and when this practice arose, it is certain that in ancient Israel, abstaining from food and drink on both the individual and communal level was considered an act of piety that one would (in most cases spontaneously) undertake as a means of entreating God's compassion or in the hope of averting divine punishment ( Judges 20:26; 1 Kings 21:9, 27; 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Sam. 12:16, 22; Jer. 14:12, 36:6, 9; Joel 1:14, 2:12, 15; Jonah 3:5; Ps. 35:13, 69:112; Esther 4:16; Dan. 9:3; Ezra 8:21, 23; Neh. 1:4; 2 Chron. 20:3) or as a sign of mourning and lament (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12; 12; Zech. 7:5; Esther 4:3; Ezra 10:6; Dan. 10:2; 1 Chron. 10:12).
The four fixed fast days mentioned by the post-exilic prophet Zechariah relate to calamities centered about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Zech. 8:19): the fast of the fourth month corresponds to what is celebrated as the seventeenth of Tammuz, which marks the breaching of the walls of the city (in 2 Kings 25:4 and Jer. 39:2 the date is the ninth); the fast of the fifth month, the ninth of Av when the Temple was destroyed (in 2 Kings 25:8 and Jer. 52:123 the date is the tenth); the fast of the seventh month, the third of Tishrei when Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah, was murdered (2 Kings 25:25, Jer. 41:1); and the fast of the tenth month, the tenth of Tevet, which marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Kings 25:1, Jer. 52:4). The custom to fast on the thirteenth of Adar, the day before the holiday of Purim, which celebrates the downfall of Haman and the redemption of the Jewish people, does not commemorate a tragedy in Jewish history but rather stands as a reminder of a precarious moment when disaster was averted (Esther 4:16).
By contrast, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month, which is enumerated as the first month of the new year), the one fast specified in the Pentateuch, is part of the afflicting of the bodyccording to later rabbinic law this comprises five forms of self-denial: abstention from eating, washing, anointing, wearing shoes, and cohabitation; Mishnah Yoma 8:1hat is a means of purification from transgression (Lev. 16:294, 23:272; Num. 29:71). From other verses we can deduce that refraining from eating and drinking was considered one of various methods of abstinence by which one could afflict the body, acts that were often accompanied by oaths and vows (Num. 30:26; Dan. 10:12). There is evidence to suggest that fasting was also practiced as preparation for communing with the spirits of the dead (1 Sam. 28:20). The narrative about Moses being with God for the forty days in which he wrote the tablets of law specifies that during that time he neither ate bread nor drank water, indicating that he was in a transformed state wherein the normal physical needs could be discarded (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 18), a theme that is applied as well to Elijah when he had the theophany on Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:82). In the case of Daniel as well, acts of prayer, which included fasting, were answered with a vision of the divine (Dan. 9:207, 10:71).
Abstention from food was considered one of the several typical acts of humbling oneself, which may have included renting one's clothes, lying in sackcloth, walking about in a subdued posture, sleeping on the floor, and not washing, anointing, or changing one's clothes (2 Sam. 1:112, 12:160; 1 Kings 21:27; Jonah 3:5; Ps. 35:13, 69:12; Esther 4:3; Dan. 9:3; Neh. 9:1). Fasting could also accompany weeping and the offering of sacrifices ( Judges 20:26; Joel 2:12) or the confession of one's iniquities (1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:2; Dan. 9:4), but on occasion it takes the place of the sacrificial cult ( Joel 1:134). The purpose of fasting as a ceremonial expression of remorse and supplication is underscored in the prophetic pronouncements against those who would fast without the proper intent as if God demanded of the Israelites external forms of self-affliction without commitment to act justly (Isa. 58:3; Jer. 14:12). Indeed, according to the messianic declaration of Zechariah, the fast days in Israel commemorating past suffering centered around the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would be transformed into occasions for joy provided there would be love of honesty and integrity (Zech. 8:19).
Fasting without repentance is of no value. In the Second Temple period, abstaining from eating and drinking continued to serve as a primary means of atonement, but in addition we have evidence that on occasion it functioned as an ascetic regimen that served to purify the heart and bring one closer to God, and even in some cases to induce an ecstatic state wherein a supernatural vision was granted (2 Bar. 12:5, 20:5, 43:3; 4 Ezra 5:130, 6:356). There is evidence from the rabbinic corpus that select individuals similarly fasted excessively in order to have visionary experiences (Palestinian Talmud, Kil'ayim 9:4, 32b), a phenomenon attested as well in the Heikhalot literature, the magical and mystical texts that began to take shape roughly during the time that Judaism and Christianity began to emerge as distinct liturgical communities. We know little about the social background of the individuals responsible for these texts, but we can conclude with some degree of certainty that they adopted ascetic practices, primarily fasting and sexual renunciation, as preparation for dream-vision, angelic adjuration, or heavenly ascent. In the tenth century, a leading rabbinic figure, Hai Gaon, summarized these older practices by saying that anyone who wished to gaze at the chariot must "sit fasting for a specified number of days, place his head between his knees, and whisper to the earth many prescribed songs and hymns." It is likely that fasting or even a restricted diet (together with sexual abstinence) was viewed as means by which the human could be transformed into an angelic being, a prerequisite for the attainment of the visionary encounter with an angel or the glory.
Perhaps some of the rabbis developed a critical stance vis-à-vis fasting as an appropriate form of piety to combat such individuals and their anomian customs. Thus, a dictum is transmitted in the name of R. Yose: "An individual is not permitted to torment himself in fasting lest he fall upon the community and they will need to support him" (Tosefta, Ta'anit 2:12). According to another statement attributed to Samuel, "Whoever sits in a fast is called a sinner" (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 11a). In the words of a maxim ascribed to Reish Laqish, "the scholar is not permitted to sit and fast for it diminishes the work of heaven" (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 11b). Finally, Rav reportedly declared that "in the future a man will have to give an account for everything that his eye saw but he did not eat" (Palestinian Talmud, Qiddushin 4:12, 66b).
An especially interesting concern for the rabbis was the abstinent woman whose constant fasting "causes her to lose virginity" (Palestinian Talmud, Sotah 3:4, 19a). Indeed, on account of the reduced intake of food she is called the "fasting virgin," a term that suggests that the challenge such a woman posed was that she disrupted the societal expectations by abdicating the domestic responsibility of child bearing. In contrast to early Christianity where virginity and fasting were considered virtuous acts of piety, the rabbinic sages castigated the woman who adopted an ascetic lifestyle with regard to sexuality and eating. According to one rabbinic ruling, the ascetic woman is enumerated among those who bring destruction to the world (Mishnah, Sotah 3:4), an expression meant to convey that female celibacy results in the breakdown of marital life and the bearing of progeny.
The basic approach to fasting was continued by the rabbis who, in their characteristic fashion, codified specific regulations to fashion the biblical references into binding rituals. In addition, the rabbis decreed additional fasts in the course of the calendar, generally associated with the fixed fasts and other calamitous events in biblical and postbiblical history. Yet, the rabbinic authorities were opposed to extreme forms of abstinence, including fasting, as we find, for instance, in the Therapeutaue community described by Philo, early Christian communities, and the individuals whose experiences are preserved in the Heikhalot texts. It must be pointed out, however, that the rabbinic sources themselves yield proof that some members of the academies were more positively disposed toward voluntary abstinence as a way to cultivate the highest form of piety. Thus, there is substantial textual evidence to indicate that sages (many from the third and fourth centuries) undertook excessive fasts as part of an ascetic lifestyle, to attain an extraordinary experience (usually of a visual nature), or for penance (Palestinian Talmud, Kil'ayim 9:3, 32b, Ta'anit 2:13, 66a, Nedarim 9:2, 40d; Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 68b, Hagigah 22b, Qiddushin 80b, Baba Metsi'a 85a, Nazir 52b).
Additionally, there is verification that some rabbis preserved an ancient custom, apparently initiated in the land of Israel, to fast every week on Monday and Thursday (Palestinian Talmud, Ta'anit 1:6, 64c; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 24a, Ta'anit 12a), and there is as well confirmation of the fact that some considered fasting appropriate for Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 68b, Beitsah 15b) even though others clearly thought the opposite and prohibited fasting on Sabbath (Palestinian Talmud, Ta'anit 3:13, 67a, Nedarim 8:10, 40d), maintaining that Sabbath is a day of joy and rest, the sanctification of which involves physical pleasure, encompassing eating and drinking (Palestinian Talmud, Shabbat 15:3, 15a; Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 32b). A residue of the former orientation is found in the ruling that fasting because of a troubling dream (ta'anit halom) is allowed even on Sabbath (Genesis Rabbah 44:12; Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 31b, Ta'anit 12b). Interestingly, the routine of fasting on Sabbath was revived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by figures like Judah he-Hasid, the leader of the Rhineland German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz), who adopted an ascetic form of devotion, and we even have a report by Avigdor ben Elijah ha-Kohen that Judah fasted on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a practice followed by other rabbis connected to this group, such as Abraham Haldiq of Bohemia, though by no means accepted by everyone. Finally, there are rhetorical flourishes in rabbinic literature that assign supreme theurgical significance to fasting as a means of atonement. Perhaps the best illustration of this approach is the prayer offered by Rav Sheshet before God, which is predicated on the symbolic equation of fasting and sacrifices: "May it be your will to account my fat and blood, which have been diminished, as if I sacrificed them before you on the altar, and you should find favor with me" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 17a).
In spite of the admonitions against excessive fasting, it must be said that an ascetic tendency is well entrenched in the classical rabbinic corpus, an orientation that served as the foundation for pietists and mystics at later stages of Jewish history. In particular, the Rhineland Pietists and the Provençal and Spanish kabbalists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries cultivated ascetic practices to attain a state of holiness and removal from the bondage of the corporeal world, in part based on earlier mystical tracts. An especially important part of the pietistic regimen was fasting, which, together with sexual abstention, was viewed as the mechanism by which the mortal being could be transmuted into an angel. For example, Eleazar of Worms, another leading member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, chronicles an elaborate ceremony for the transmission of the divine name, which involved ritual immersion, being clad in white clothes, and fasting. Acts of self-denial and self-affliction were considered to be the way of fulfilling the hidden will of God.
In kabbalistic literature as well we find a central concern with fostering an ascetic piety predicated on acts of behavior that transform the human into an angel. Moreover, kabbalists articulated a contemplative goal of union with God, which is often described as the merging of the finite and infinite will, as we find in Azriel of Gerona, Jacob ben Sheshet, and the authors of the Zohar. The rabbinic analogy comparing fasting to sacrifice played a crucial role in shaping the mystical sensibility of offering one's heart fully to God and subjugating desire (Zohar 2:20b, 119b, 153a). From the symbolic vantage point endorsed by kabbalists, fasting is the instrument by which one becomes a sacrifice and is submerged thereby in the Godhead. In somewhat different terminology, but expounding a similar ascetic ideal, in zoharic literature the members of the mystical fraternity engaged in Torah study are said to partake of the spiritual food that angels eat, the "bread of the mighty" (lehem 'abirim) (Ps. 78:25), the overflow of divine wisdom, rather than the coarse food of this world (Zohar 2:61b). With this idea we reach the paradoxical reversal characteristic of mystical insight: abstention is genuine consumption.
Utilizing an older midrashic gloss (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10) on the verse "And they saw the God of Israel, and they ate and drank" (Exod. 24:11), the kabbalists affirm that this refers to an "actual eating," which does not entail physical ingestion, but deriving sustenance from basking in the visual presence of God, a state applied to the righteous and angels in the world to come (Zohar 1:104a, 2:126a). By fasting the kabbalist anticipates that condition in this world and thus has a foretaste of the food that is perpetually fulfilling.
See also Buddhism; Christianity; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Hinduism; Islam; ; Judaism; Middle East; Religion and Food; Sin and Food.
Fraade, Steven. "Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism." In Jewish Spirituality from the Bible to the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Green, pp. 25388. New York: Crossroad, 1986.
Hecker, Joel. "Eating Gestures and the Ritualized Body in Medieval Jewish Mysticism." History of Religions 40 (2000): 12552.
Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.
Swartz, Michael D. Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Weinstein, Sara E. Piety and Fanaticism: Rabbinic Criticism of Religious Stringency. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997.
Wolfson, Elliot R. "Eunuchs Who Keep the Sabbath: Becoming Male and the Ascetic Ideal in Thirteenth-Century Jewish Mysticism." In Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey J. Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, pp. 15185. New York: Garland, 1997.
Elliot R. Wolfson
Judaism (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
JUDAISM. Jewish food is primarily defined by the dietary laws of Judaism. The Judaic religion is prescriptive in the selection, cooking preparation, and consumption of specific food items. Daily practice is meticulously structured to comply with Jewish law, the Halakhah, and the community of Jews is organized as a community of religiously complying eaters. Specific dishes, food combinations, and cooking preparations are prescribed for religious festivals. Throughout their history of multiple migrations and diaspora (dispersion), the Jews have been in contact with different cultures, languages, and cuisines. This has generated a diversified Jewish cuisine.
Under the classifying terminology of kosher versus nonkosher, the system of dietary prescriptions and prohibitions in Judaism primarily involves the consumption of animal flesh, and is codified in the Pentateuch, in Leviticus (chapter 11). Typical edible animals are domestic, have a vegetarian diet, and are physiologically "plain," that is, not affected by any disease or anatomical or physiological defect. In fact, as Mary Douglas has pointed out in Purity and Danger, the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus include a biblical narrative logic. They are organized along the mythological lines that structure the cosmological section of Genesis. Thus the animal kingdom is classified into three categories: those living on the earth, those living in the water, and those living in the air. In the first category, only mammal quadruped ruminants with split hooves are allowed on the Jewish table. Striking exceptions to this rule are emphatically mentioned in the text. Among the animals living on the earth, the swine, the camel, the hare, and the rock-badger are specifically excluded from the Jewish table because they satisfy only one condition for edibility; that is, either they are a ruminant, or they have a split hoof, instead of both
In addition to these dietary prohibitions concerning the selection of animals based on anatomical and physiological criteria, biblical law forbids the consumption of blood (Deuteronomy 12:23) and the mixture, in the kitchen and at the table, of dairy foods and meat dishes (Exodus 23:19). The former rule thus requires the strict observance of slaughtering techniques designed to evacuate the largest amount of blood from meat cuts before they are distributed to the marketplace. Some secular scholars have interpreted the regulation of Jewish food practices by religious law and sacred scriptures as evidence that the idea of God is at the core of the Jewish table. This spirit, although viewed by some as being motivated by hygienic concerns, has generated a complex system of community institutional organization that involves the technical training of rabbinical slaughterers (shohatim), their appointment in slaughtering houses, and the establishment of a system of verification of the
Jewish Festival Foods
At the core of all Jewish festival tables is the sanctified bread, or challah. Oven-baked and usually excluding dairy ingredients, the loaves are braided, though other shapes can be found in various Jewish traditions. Another typical festive dish is the Ashkenazic gefilte fish (Yiddish, "stuffed fish"), opening sabbath or holiday meals as a good omen. Most holiday menus are linked to the religious festivals and have a narrative function. Examples include the fried pastries served during Hanukkah. The holiday of Hanukkah is a ritual celebration of the biblical section narrating the Maccabees' victory over the Seleucid Greeks in the second century B.C.E. and the following miracle that kept the ritual oil lit for eight days in the Second Jerusalem Temple after it had been devastated by the Greek armies. Thus, in the Jewish communities of central and eastern European origin, the tradition requires that latkes, fried potato pancakes, be served. The equivalent in the Jewish traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East is usually fried buns served with honey. Purim celebrations include the baking of multiple pastries, a playful reminder of the defeat of Haman. Thus, Ashkenazic families serve hamantashen or "Haman's hats," poppy seedilled triangular pastries.
The Jewish festival of Passover, a ritual narration of the Jewish slaves' exodus from Pharaoh's Egypt, includes special food prescriptions. During the eight days of the holiday, the only bread allowed for consumption is unleavened bread, to commemorate the bread that the slaves took in their hasty overnight flight from slavery. This unleavened bread, called matzo in Hebrew, is industrially baked today as a thin square flat cracker according to the Ashkenazic (eastern and central European) tradition. In Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) traditions, matzo has a round shape. The Passover food restrictions also require that no leavened substance be included either in the kitchen and menus or in the household at all. Some North African Jewish communities exclude rice from their Passover diet. Some also exclude chicken for fear of finding grain in the gizzard. Thus most Passover pastries and carbohydrate dishes are prepared with matzo flour or cracked matzo. Ashkenazic Jews traditionally serve matzo balls boiled in chicken soup, matzo brei (a fried, egg-coated matzo pancake), while North African Jews often enjoy the flavors of a couscous made out of cracked matzo.
Shavuot, or festival of the Torah, is marked by the consumption of honey and dairy foods, with which the Torah is allegorically identified. Blintzes, cheese pancakes, are displayed on Ashkenazic tables, while Sephardic traditions include yogurt or baklava. The favorite dishes served for Rosh Hashanah ( Jewish new year) include heavily sweetened dishes such as the Ashkenazic tzimmes (a sweet carrot and raisin stew) and honey cake, all of which are designed to welcome a good and sweet new year. The fall festival of Sukkoth (also Sukkot) includes borsht, a beet and cabbage-based soup, served in households of Polish origin.
The Jews' food history is characterized by their many migrations and their status as a minority group. From this viewpoint, it is as diverse as Jewish cultures, languages, and community experiences have been, as Jews have related to the multiple cultures and populations they have been in contact with throughout the world. Jewish food has operated, both practically and symbolically, and not unlike Jewish languages, as Jewish versions of local nutritional habits. An illustration can be found in most dishes served for the most important holiday of the Jewish ritual calendar, the Sabbath. The tshulent is the Ashkenazic version of this sabbatical dish. The Yiddish name of this dish includes two French words, chaud ('warm') and lent ('slow'), a linguistic combination testifying not only to the many influences on Jewish culture and languages, but also to the specifically Jewish character of this dish's cooking technique. It is in effect cooked slowly for about twelve hours between the beginning of Sabbath (Friday night) and the Saturday lunch. This long and slow cooking is the result of the sabbatical prohibition on lighting fire during the twenty-four hours between Friday night and Saturday night. This implies that once the Sabbath candle is lit on Friday evening, any food starting to cook then will end up being overcooked when it is consumed on Saturday. In North Africa and the Middle East, this dish is called by either of the Arabic terms dfina or tfina ('buried'), skhina or hammin ('warm'). The first set of terms refers to the burying of the pot underneath blankets or even in an underground oven designed to keep warmth in. The second set of terms refers to the permanent warmth of the dish. All Sabbath dishes are composed of heavy and varied ingredients found in the local marketplace: beef, grain, potatoes, vegetables, peas or beans. In eastern North Africa, the tradition was to use green vegetables such as spinach or Swiss chard, fresh fava beans, or cardoons. This ingredient use is probably a custom borrowed from local Muslim neighbors. Muslims of these regions serve very green dishes for major holiday dinners, in the belief that green was the Prophet's favorite color. Thus local Jews have integrated this color symbol into their own major holidays.
The many migrations that have affected the Jews of eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East throughout the twentieth century have resulted, in the early twenty-first century, in the massive secularization of the Jewish migrants in the hosting countries. Traditional Jewish food has thus become a marker of ethnic identity rather than a part of religious observance. On the other side, these traditional dishes, because they are the last ritual items to be given up in the process of Jewish secularization, constitute practical and social frameworks allowing religious observance to be maintained, even in its minimal scope.
See also Bagel; Bread, Symbolism of; Christianity; Diaspora; Fasting and Abstinence: Judaism; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Islam; Passover; Religion and Food; Taboos; United States: Ethnic Cuisines.
Bahloul, Joëlle. Le culte de la table dressée: Rites et traditions de la table juive algérienne. Paris: A.-M. Métailié, 1983.
Cernea, Ruth Fredman. The Passover Seder: Afikoman in Exile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger; An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.
Fried, Joseph P. "Court Ruling Highlights Divergences on 'Kosher.' " New York Times, 5 August 2000, B3(L).
Milgrom, Jacob. "The Biblical Diet Laws As an Ethical System." Interpretation 17 (1963 [Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia]): 28801.
Nathan, Joan. The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. New York: Schocken Books. 1988.
Roden, Claudia. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Soler, Jean. "The Semiotics of Food in the Bible." In Food and Drink in History, edited by Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.