Pessah, to roast or to boil?

To believe that secular culture will provide the answers to Israel’s problems is a fatal mistake.

famous picture from 1907 used in the ‘American Heritage Haggada,’ the Heppner family of San Francisco has a Seder. (photo credit: Courtesy)
famous picture from 1907 used in the ‘American Heritage Haggada,’ the Heppner family of San Francisco has a Seder.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Torah’s dietary laws of kashrut, and those that instruct the Jew to remove all hametz (leaven) on Passover and to eat matzot, do not include instructions on whether food is to be cooked or to be roasted.
The only remarkable exception to this is the law concerning the Korban Pessah (Passover Lamb).
The Torah commands the members of every Jewish home to roast a lamb and eat it on the eve of the first day of Passover. This had to be done in the days of the Temple, and in a manner similar to the way it was done at the time of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28; 43-50; Deuteronomy 16:1-8).
While on all other occasions, the Torah leaves it up to the human being to decide whether he will eat his food cooked or roasted, the text, in this instance, is most explicit in its instructions that Jews should eat this meat only once it is properly roasted. It may not be eaten boiled.
“Then shall they eat the meat on this night, roasted over fire; with unleavened bread [matzot] and bitter herbs are they to eat it. You may not eat it raw or boiled in water, but only roasted over fire, including its head, its legs and its internal organs” (Exodus 12:8-9).
What difference does it make if the meat is boiled or roasted? And why does the Torah emphasize, in such uncompromising terms, the absolute prohibition to cook the Passover lamb? Maharal, in his commentary on the Haggada, explains that there is a basic difference between boiling and roasting.
Boiling is an act that assimilates, while roasting separates.
When boiling, we draw several other ingredients into the object we are boiling. These ingredients assimilate with the object, which absorbs the added components and even adapts itself to them. When absorbing the other ingredients, it also expands, becomes soft and begins to disintegrate.
Roasting, however, does the reverse: its main function is to expel. Not only does it remove all the blood, but it also separates all ingredients that are not essential to the meat. As such, it shrinks the meat and makes it tough and impenetrable.
This, explains Maharal, is the symbol behind the Korban Pessah. At the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel are to become a nation for the first time, it is not yet possible to allow any (spiritual) absorption from outside.
No outer influences that could compromise its essential spiritual nature may be permitted. The formation of the nation must involve both a courageous stand against the world in which it endured a 210-year exile, and a rejection of its culture.
Therefore, it cannot allow any expansion that will weaken its inner structure. It must be solid and impermeable.
This is the time to strengthen its identity and reject all foreign elements. For this reason, the Korban Pessah must be roasted. It symbolizes the need for inner strength and distinctiveness.
But this is not an ideal situation. No nation or religious movement can live in isolation, nor should it. It needs to develop inner strength so that it can open itself up to other cultures and ideologies without losing its own identity, even in the slightest way.
This is the reason why the Torah makes this requirement only once a year, at the time when we celebrate the beginning of Judaism. It doesn’t place a solid prohibition against boiling throughout the rest of the year. Not only that, but we are actually told about a positive commandment given to the Nazir (a person who for a limited amount of time denies himself some physical benefits, so as to better his spiritual situation). He is required to bring an offering that includes a cooked foreleg of a ram (Numbers 6:19).
This is characteristic of the Jewish tradition. Once its foundations have been well-established and the structure of Judaism stands like an unshakable mountain, it is able to weather any unwelcome influence from without. It can then absorb all forms of genuine human wisdom if they will add to a deeper understanding of Judaism and grant the Jew a greater commitment to his tradition. Judaism has never been afraid to confront human wisdom and has always proudly responded to attacks on its tradition. If it were afraid, it would admit its own weakness. Attacks by Spinoza, Hegel or Nietzsche have not shaken its foundations and fundamental beliefs.
Careful study of the famous work Hovot Halevavot (“Duties of the Heart”) by Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda, written in the 11th century, proves beyond doubt that it was influenced by non-Jewish ideas. Anybody who has studied Islamic mystical concepts will recognize that the author was deeply influenced by these thoughts.
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov wrote his famous book on character improvement, Heshbon Hanefesh (“Taking Stock of the Soul”), it was praised by the greatest rabbinical luminaries of the time. It is, however, certain that the book was based on the works of Benjamin Franklin, the famous 18th-century gentile inventor, statesman and author. In his books, he suggested the daily cultivation of 13 virtues – and it is clear that these found their way into Heshbon Hanefesh.
When Rabbi E.E. Dessler, author of the classic Michtav MeEliyahu, was told that some of his observations were similar to those in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he responded, “They are not similar; they are taken from there.”
Throughout Jewish history, great sages have borrowed from the wisdom of non-Jewish thinkers and scientists to explain and expand on Jewish concepts. Clearly, they were not afraid to do so and were convinced that God had sent knowledge via these non-Jewish scholars to help mankind advance itself, and to aid the Jewish tradition. (See the works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, especially Orot Hakodesh, where he approves of this approach.) All literature, even in its most secular manifestation, is in some respect a commentary on the Torah, since Torah is all-encompassing and all-inclusive.
The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, “ being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism.”
But to ensure that Judaism will succeed at this, it will first have to guarantee that it is well-grounded. When we Jews celebrate and reenact the beginnings of Judaism on Passover, we are reminded that we first need to solidify foundations.
Only then are we allowed, throughout the rest of the year, to absorb ingredients from outside.
One can clearly see this in the case of the Nazir. Only after he has completed the period of solidifying his commitment to Judaism is he allowed to offer food that is cooked.
First, he needs to reestablish his Judaism on a strong base and “roast” his spiritual diet. After that, he will have the strength and capacity to assimilate other ingredients into his spiritual condition.
These are difficult days in the history of the State of Israel, and Israelis will have to learn this lesson. To believe that secular culture will provide the answers to Israel’s problems is a fatal mistake. Now that Israel needs great strength and solidarity, it must first put its Jewish ideological foundations in order, which should include a fresh and creative approach to Judaism. Afterward, it will be secure enough to allow foreign cultural elements to integrate into its strong tradition.
Only then will they be of significant help.
If anything, Israel needs to export its own spiritual values to the gentile world. By doing so, it would earn great respect from the nations of the world and would be able to rediscover its self-respect.
Modern Orthodoxy may have become too impressed with secular scholarship and no longer able to offer its followers enough spiritual endeavors, consequently losing its grasp on our young people. On the other hand, the haredi community must learn not to be afraid of the outside world. While it is true that the secular world has many attractions that are not in the spirit of Judaism, it cannot be denied that there is much to learn from its wisdom. It may not yet be holy, but it carries the potential to become holy.
The attempt to prohibit more and more is futile. One can only overcome spiritual dangers if they are replaced by something that is more profound and enlightening. Fighting against something doesn’t work if one doesn’t fight for something much greater. And the element of fear is not a Jewish religious approach.
Judaism holds a vast reservoir of the most magnificent ideas, which if taught properly can easily overcome many negative aspects of the secular world. We need to give our young people so many reasons to be proud of their great Jewish mission that it will by far overpower non-desirable influences from outside. This, however, will require a different type of education from that which is offered by most Jewish high schools and yeshivot today.
There has perhaps never been a need for Judaism more than there is today. Cherished hopes of mankind lie crushed, and Judaism holds profound solutions to many of these problems. If we inspire our youth to be pioneers instead of fearful people, we could create a new movement that young people would love to join. If they would realize that the future of mankind depends on them as religious Jews, many would be equipped to overcome the often hollow challenges that some aspects of the secular world offer.
A Jew’s gravest sin is to forget what he needs to fight for.
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books and an international lecturer.