Sensitive food, sensitive people

People eat Challah bread (photo credit: REUTERS)
People eat Challah bread
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish food appears, at times, to be a little oversensitive.
The classic image of the Friday night Shabbat table is a pristine white tablecloth, a decanter of wine and a special cup prepared for the recitation of kiddush, two loaves of braided bread – hallot – perhaps peeping out from beneath a cloth cover, all bathed in the glow of candlelights.
One reason we cover the hallot is in commemoration of the manna that was covered, top and bottom, with a layer of protective dew. But there is also another reason: The covering of the hallot demonstrates our sensitivity to the feelings of this inanimate foodstuff.
According to the rules of blessings, the benediction recited before eating bread takes precedence over all other food blessings. Friday night dinner should, therefore, begin with the blessing over the hallot. But Friday night is an exception: Instead of starting with the bread, we fill a cup of wine and recite kiddush. Only once we have partaken from the wine do we turn to the hallot. The hallot, having just been relegated to second place, are likely to be offended. Following the practice mentioned in the Talmud (Pesahim 100b), we hide the hallot by covering them – as if they are not there at the time of kiddush, or as if they cannot see our Friday night shenanigans. Thus we protect the honor of the hallot and do not embarrass them.
But it is not just the sensitivity of the hallot that we consider. The hassidic master and rabbi of Munkatch, Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (1831-1893), would sing Shabbat songs and recite words of Torah at the Friday night dinner table – after those present had already eaten. We can imagine that his disciples may have wondered: Surely lofty, spiritual Torah takes precedence over lowly, physical food!? Shapira explained his practice by relating a tradition that he heard when he once visited Sanz. The tradition came from Rabbi Aron Halevi Epstein of Krakow (d. 1881), who related a tale about his father, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow (1751-1823) – known by the title of his seminal hassidic work Maor Vashamesh (Breslau 1842).
The Maor Vashamesh used to say words of Torah between each of the courses of the meal. As he related his deep teaching, the food would chill. It was revealed to him from Heaven that “they” – and it is not clear whether this refers to the heavenly hosts or to the Shabbat food – were displeased with him for letting food prepared especially in honor of Shabbat get cold.
When Shapira heard about this episode, he decided that henceforth he would be careful not to teach Torah during the Shabbat meal. Only once the food had been eaten, before reciting Grace After Meals – only then would he offer a Torah discourse.
This very practice – teaching Torah and singing Shabbat songs only after the hot food had been enjoyed – was adopted by Shapira’s grandson, the fiery Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871- 1937), author of a number of works, including the Minhat Elazar collection of responsa.
The disciple who reported the conduct of Hayim Elazar Shapira also noted that this practice was attested in the writings of one of the medieval authorities, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (ca. 1145-ca.1225) in his work Harokeah, who also suggested eating before singing Sabbath hymns at the table.
I might add that the great Baghdadi authority Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835-1909) – in his pseudonymous collection of responsa Torah Lishma – also discussed the timing of Torah at the Shabbat table.
Citing the practice of the great Safed kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572) – the Ari – Yosef Hayim also opined that Torah should be said after the food has been eaten.
We might be surprised to learn that food – even if it is specially prepared for the holy day – takes precedence over the exalted value of Torah study. It certainly sounds strange to think about piping hot food complaining before the Almighty about being slighted, or hallot being offended when they are forced to make way for kiddush wine.
Perhaps these practices are not really about oversensitive food; rather, we cover the hallot and we delay Torah teaching in a bid to inculcate sensitivity in us. As we sit down to Friday night dinner, before we launch into a long Torah discourse, we should consider those who spent so much time, effort and money in preparing a sumptuous feast; we should consider those who are sitting at the table waiting to eat. It is those people that we want to avoid hurting.

The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes Institute faculty and a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.