Food as Torah

By Sarit Wishnevski and Rabbi Jessica Minnen

In her article “Why Food Doesn’t Matter at your Next Jewish Event,” Anna Stern shared a compelling narrative of engagement and the work her organization has done to measure its impact. The article closes with the following: “We are in the business of building community, of connecting people to one another and to their Jewishness, of creating Jewish experiences. Food doesn’t make a difference.”

We respectfully disagree.

Being big into food ourselves, we at OneTable want to say yes and. Yes to the elements that Stern highlights (The Welcome, The Why, and The Who) and yes to food. Because food has the ability to create a lasting impact far beyond satiation in the moment, and because food matters in Judaism.

In the opening chapters of the Torah, God frames the Garden of Eden in terms of food: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat” (Genesis 2:16). Eden isn’t just an idyllic paradise, it’s a giant salad bowl… with one exception: “But do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, for on the day that you eat of it, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

In their fascinating article We Are How We Eat, Rabbis Yonatan Neril and Julian Sinclair bring a teaching by Sarah Yehudit Schneider on this verse:

Humanity’s first sin was not Adam and Eve’s eating of forbidden fruit, but rather the way they ate it. The Tree of Knowledge … was not a tree or a food or a thing at all. Rather it was a way of eating. Whenever we eat without proper kavanah (intention) we repeat this original sin. The primary fixing of human civilization is to learn to eat in holiness.

Food matters when we approach it with intention and here are three ways we see how.

1. Food enhances the practice of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests)

We encounter the value of hachnasat orchim in the Torah after Abraham’s recovery from self-circumcision. He is sitting outside of his tent waiting for passersby to arrive so he can welcome them (Genesis 18:1). A clear portrait of “The Welcome” immediately arises, the importance of being ready to greet, welcome, and be of service to others. Of the seven hospitality-laden verses that follow, four are about food. Abraham states his intention to serve a nourishing meal, we learn what’s on the menu, who’s involved in its preparation, and even get a glimpse of his guests’ enjoyment of the food.

The intention placed on food isn’t accidental (or the work of a hungry scribe). It’s a reminder that there are many facets of hospitality and that food – not just the food itself, but its preparation and service – matters.

2. Food can be thoughtful and intentional

Food is a small and powerful way to connect your mission and values to all aspects of the gathering. At OneTable, that means we are connecting OneTable Shabbat dinner hosts with social-mission driven organizations and businesses that share OneTable’s values. Across the country, we offer unique nourishment options and encourage hosts to consider elevating their Shabbat tables with intentional food choices.

Our partners at Repair the World have also done a wonderful job of modeling what this looks like. Repair the World strives to make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life and often host events around the United States. For these events, there is careful thought placed on the food being served. Along with Kosher options, they look to local and mission-aligned vendors like City Beet Kitchens, a food-based social enterprise that employs low-income and formerly homeless adults in New York City. These choices strengthen Repair’s connections with the community and add integrity to the work they do. Food has that power.

Food can celebrate diversity

Recently, Ilana Kaufman, Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, pointed out that there were bagels being served at an event where she was sharing the results of the 2019 demographic meta-study of Jews of Color. This event was attended primarily by Jews and was being hosted in New York City so bagels might have seemed like an obvious choice.

Ilana’s point was that bagels were only obvious to some people in the room and potentially unwelcoming to others. Bagels are a very white, Ashkenazi bread. What could it look like to walk into an event and see tables of food that are representative of our diverse communities? How might it change the energy and dynamics if everyone in the space felt that the hosting organization had thought about them equally?

In conclusion, if food is an afterthought for our gatherings, an aside, or something we feel like we have to offer in order to boost attendance, then the problem isn’t food – it’s our kavanah (intention) around what food can do. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria teaches in Pirkei Avot 3:2: “Without sustenance, there is no Torah.” Let’s take that one step further and imagine our gatherings with intention in which food is Torah.

Sarit Wishnevski is Associate Director of Community Partnerships and Rabbi Jessica Minnen is Director of Jewish Learning at OneTable.