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May 20, 2016  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

If you are what you eat, who are we?

By RABBI DAVID WEIZMAN Congregation Beth Shalom, Clearwater

For one glorious week, or two back in April, the Jewish world turned its attention to food, the one subject that could trump any other conversation. The miracle of Pesach is that every Jew suddenly becomes a mashgiach about two weeks before the holiday. But what was different about this year’s debates was that the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly approved a responsum that permits Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Never before have rice and beans gotten more attention than gefilte fish. The fifth question was: do I have to eat edamame at the Seder Table? The answer was: you may. While some people’s dreams were fulfilled with the new ruling, others were really worried that the foundation of Jewish custom was cracking like a matzah. There are certain things we do that define us, and that is the basis of the expression, minhag avot k’din, the customs of our ancestors are like law. However, the customs are actually more powerful that the law itself. In between the text of Joseph Caro’s code of the Shulchan Aruch, Moshe Issrerles introduces many of the Ashekenazi rulings with the word, nohagin … it is our custom to do such and such-and that what we have been doing now for centuries. Don’t try to bring a swordfish into my house, mister! However, there do arise social circumstances that influence customs. Centuries ago, there was a blessing that the groom would recite before the community on the Shabbat after his wedding. He would raise a cup of wine to announce the virginity of his new bride. One day the parents looked at each other and realized how embarrassing this was. Not only was this practice abolished, but references to it were destroyed. It took forensic research by our teacher Shmuel Glick to bring to our attention how vital social circumstances are in the evolution of Jewish Law and practice. So it was, that another of our teachers from Machon Schecter in Jerusalem, David Golinkin, wrote a teshuvah in 1989, permitting the use of kitniyot for Ashkenazi Jews on Pesach.

Why did it take 27 years for the Risner-Levin teshuvah to pass that said the same thing? Because nowadays, we have a lot more vegetarians. Golinkin did not want us to perpetuate a custom based on erroneous principle that was recognized by the rabbis of the Talmud. He said that minhag shtut (stupid customs) would undermine the respect for the law itself. But who wants to hear that? Somewhere along the way, the Jews of Ashekenaz defined and differentiated themselves from Sephardic Jews by eating different foods. We have a long history of that sort of thing.

Last week we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day with a falafel in pita. Why not a slice of pizza? They are eating a lot of pizza now in Israel. The film that was screened at the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, attempts to answer that question, what is Israeli food? Felafel and humus, tehina and eggplant, those are foods that the Arabs have been eating in the Middle East for a long time.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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