There may be many funny Jewish food stories, but dietary laws are no joke

Leviticus 9:1-11:47
II Samuel 6:1-7:17

“Do not make a stingy sandwich; pile the cold cuts high! Customers should see salami comin’ through the rye.”

Allan Sherman’s song about Jewish food points to a startlingly large number of humorous Jewish food stories and jokes. For example, a remorseful, apologetic Jew once went to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I committed a sin and I want to know what I should do to make amends.”

“What was the sin?” the rabbi asked.

“It only happened once,” he replied. “I didn’t wash my hands and recite the blessing before eating bread.”

“Well, if it really only happened once,” the rabbi counseled, “that’s not so terrible. But tell me, why did you neglect to wash your hands and recite the blessing?”

“Uh, I felt awkward doing it. You see, I was in a non-kosher restaurant.”

The rabbi raised his eyebrows and further inquired, “And why were you in a non-kosher restaurant?”

“I had no choice. All the kosher restaurants were closed.”

“And why were all the kosher restaurants closed?”

“It was Yom Kippur.”

For some, even the pronunciation of Jewish foods evokes laughter. Steve Allen once commented that “Words like lox, herring, chopped liver, chicken soup and matzah are inherently more amusing than trout, bass, lamb stew, vegetable soup and whole wheat bread.”

Allen is not alone in the enjoyment of the sound of such words. It is reported that F. Scott Fitzgerald used to walk into delicatessens just to hear the word knish being bandied about.

An amusing connection between food and the Jewish experience is found in this oft-quoted nine-word summary of Jewish history: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” As fanciful as they may seem, these words are reflected in several biblical texts that focus on eating:

“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel, and bow low from afar. … Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He (God) did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:1-11; also see: Genesis 26:28-30; 31:54; and Ex. 18:10-12)

Although Jewish food may evoke laughter, Jewish dietary rules have a deeper meaning. Such taboos, rituals and laws fall into several categories, in addition to the minor customs of eating special foods on holidays: Temporarily restricted foods, such as unleavened bread of Passover or untithed produce, are forbidden because a portion of the crop has not been devoted to charitable purposes. “Unclean” or forbidden foods are referred to in Hebrew as tameh (Leviticus 11, as well as in Deuteronomy 14, outlines 42 forbidden/unclean animals). Some foods are considered traif, a Hebrew word that literally means “something torn” (Ex. 22:30 utilizes this term to refer to one animal killed by another), because of their manner of slaughter; animals must be killed swiftly and mercifully. Finally, there is the forbidden mixture of meat and milk. (Ex. 23:19, 34:26, Deut. 14:21)

The justification for dietary laws includes the preservation of boundaries between the Israelites and their non-Israelite neighbors, the maintenance of religious discipline, the promotion of hygiene and the humane care of animals. Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a rationale based on the text about fasting — “and you shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:29), suggesting it to mean, “You shall restrain your instincts.”

Thus, Jewish dietary rules are no joke because they are symbolic of the need to control impulses and instincts, controlling appetites by saying no to temptation, an important ethical consideration in today’s world.

Jews joke and laugh about food, but dietary rules play the important role of lifting a significant part of daily life to a higher spiritual frame. That is why the list of forbidden foods enumerated in Shemini ends with the edifying admonition, “You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy.” (Lev. 11:44)

Thus, Shemini reminds a reader of the Torah that it is possible to elevate eating to a level of holiness.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.