Savoring each chapter in the Torah

A fund-raising tome takes a culinary lens to each of the 52 parashot.

A 1615 painting by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder titled ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A 1615 painting by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder titled ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Originally created as an online project to support national food bank program Leket Israel, From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey comprises short essays on gustatory themes in each weekly Torah portion.
A scholar or educator contributes the “main course,” if you will, while Diana Lipton – an adjunct lecturer in Bible at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School – adds thoughtful “side dishes” to round out every chapter’s meal.
Digging into food and food metaphors in the Bible is a brilliant concept for the ages as well as au courant in light of heightened culinary awareness pervading pop culture. It turns out that modern catchphrases such as mindful eating, forks over knives, food security and sustainable agriculture all have firm roots in Jewish scripture.
In some Torah portions, the food connections are abundant and obvious.
The fruit (whether an apple, a fig, an etrog or something else) that led to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is a case in point. But that example is only the low-hanging fruit in the parasha, so to speak.
A careful reading of the initial chapters of Genesis yields many more insights.
The description of newly created plants as “seed-bearing” emphasizes that food is intrinsically sustainable, writes Princeton professor Melissa Lane. Later we learn that human effort is needed to enhance and support that sustainability, in Eden no less than in today’s world.
Lipton points out that by designating seed-bearing plants and fruits as “yours for food,” with no mention of animal products, the Torah seems to imply that veganism is the ideal diet.
In contrast to the creation story and other food-centric sections of Scripture such as the laws of kashrut, some weekly Torah portions don’t have much connection to eating. However, Lipton and the 52 essayists never fail to find a relevant nugget or two.
SOMETIMES THE connection is the lack of food. Ohio State University lecturer Alexander Kaye writes in his essay that the Book of Genesis “is framed by famine.”
A dearth of produce in Canaan forces first Abram and Sarai, and then Jacob and his sons, to seek sustenance in Egypt.
“This juxtaposition of abundance and scarcity is very familiar to us,” he writes.
“Even when the earth produces enough, too much food ends up in some places and too little in others.”
Sometimes the connection is so remote it must be sought outside the verses, as in Amit Gvaryahu’s essay on Tazria.
Tazria discusses the skin affliction of tzara’at, which is evaluated on parts of the body “wherever a priest can see.”
The Mishna elaborates that the postures to be struck by the diseased person for evaluation are “working positions” involved in preparing food: for men, “as one who hoes and as one who harvests olives,” and for women, “as one who kneads and as one who nurses her son.”
“The human body, in its abstract form, is the body engaged in feeding,” Gvaryahu posits.
Speaking of nursing, this serves as the focus of a fascinating piece on Vayera by the University of Minnesota’s Hanne Loland Levinson. The description of Sarah suckling Isaac is compared to other biblical nursing pairs (Jochebed and Moses, Hannah and Samuel) as well as metaphoric references to breastfeeding in Numbers, Isaiah and Lamentations.
Isaiah reassures the people that just as a woman cannot physically or emotionally forget her nursing baby, so too God cannot forget Zion.
Lipton relates that the Land of Israel is described as a land of milk and honey 15 times in the Five Books of Moses and eight more times in the books of Prophets and Writings. In the portion of Kedoshim, the reference is “embedded in a warning against adopting the practices of the nations that God drove from the land” before giving it to Israel, she writes.
“The reward for rejecting the foods that God finds bad, and eating those He finds good, is a land that flows endlessly with two kinds of good, pure food.”
Stefan Reif, former director of Cambridge University’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, uses his essay on Vayeshev to explore instances throughout the Bible where food references may reasonably be taken as sexual metaphors.
In the Torah portion at hand, we read that Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s hands... save the food that he ate,” whereas in Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife’s advances he states that his master “withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife.”
Yitzhak Peleg takes the food metaphor idea a step further in his essay on Vayelech, providing a fitting near-end to the book by comparing the enjoyment derived from textual study to the enjoyment derived from a good meal.
“In order to enjoy a good meal one should eat slowly, bite by bite,” he writes. “One should treat each and every word in a text in a similar manner, giving each word the attention it deserves.
Even more so is this true in the case of the biblical story, which, while it uses few words, carries with it a world of meaning to be savored, taste by taste.”
I thoroughly savored From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey, though it contains an occasional sour note in the form of typos or, less frequently, outright mistakes such one essayist’s assertion that the first mention of bread is in Genesis 28:20 when in fact lehem (bread) appears five previous times.
Whether or not you find this book satisfying, however, all royalties from sales go to Leket Israel so it is well worth a taste.