parshat miketz (genesis 43)
Ancient Egyptians wouldn’t break bread with Hebrews and were known to have rigorous dietary restrictions….. How does this play out in the Exodus narrative and what does it mean for us? Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz for a live recording on Clubhouse December 2nd, 2021 for the first Madlik lunch & learn as we discuss the social power of food.
Sefaria Source Sheet: http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/365771
Geoffrey Stern 00:04
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey stern and at Madlik we like to light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host a weekly disruptive clubhouse, Torah discussion on clubhouse, typically on a Thursday evening, but today is a special first, of all time Lunch and Learn 12:30 Eastern, which happens to be about 9:30 in Dubai, which is where my sidekick Rabbi Adam Mintz is so welcome, Adam. In any case today, we are going to look at a very small little mention of eating habits in Egypt and of Jews. So I suggest you all get on your aprons put down those latkes, maybe take of a vodka. And join us as we discuss food fights and gastro diplomacy. Well, Rabbi Adam, welcome from Dubai a few weeks ago, I was in Israel and you were in New York. Now I’m in Connecticut, and you are in Dubai, how exciting.
Adam Mintz 01:13
This really exciting, really, really exciting, but the best part of it is that we’re able to continue this tradition even though we’re so far away. And I’m looking forward to discussing the this week’s parsha which is parhast Mikeitz together with everybody. Happy Hanukkah, everybody. And Geoffrey, why don’t you introduce the topic? And we’ll take it from there.
Geoffrey Stern 01:31
Absolutely. Well, it’s a lunch and learn and guess what we’re going to be talking about food. So in this week’s parsha of Miketz we’ve been following Joseph Story. And we’ve gotten to the point in this story where finally all of the brothers come back to Egypt. With Benjamin, the younger brother they’ve met met all the requirements of the visor, the prince of Egypt named Joseph. And in the beginning of Genesis 43 Joseph says to his servants, he said, When he saw Benjamin, “take the men into the house, slaughter and prepare an animal for the men will dine with me at noon”. And again, nothing really out of the ordinary here. He says, they’ll dine with me, which is fine. But then, as the story progresses, first of all we get an emotional response because Joseph now is going to have lunch with his brothers. So he says, after he saw Benjamin, “Joseph hurried out for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother, and was on the verge of tears, he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed, his face reappeared, and now in control of himself gave the order: ‘serve the meal’. They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians. KiTohavat hi l’mitzrayim’. So now already, we understand that when he said “they will dine with me”, there were a dietary restrictions, and we as Jews who are so used to having our own dietary restrictions cannot but be interested, intrigued by the fact that we’ve seen no dietary restrictions by the Hebrew people, but here they are in Egypt. And it seems like the Egyptians will not eat with the Jews either because of who they are, or what their diet is. And then if we continue on a little bit into a future parshiot, we see that when the 70 family members of these 12 brothers come to Egypt, and this favored nation is going to be given a place in the suburbs. It says, Pharaoh tells them to go live in Goshen, “you may stay in the region of Goshen”, it says in Genesis 46 “for all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians uses the same word, “ki tohevat l’mitzrayim kol roeh Tzon” And so now we’re starting to see a little bit of a trend here. And finally, and then I’ll get some comments from the rabbi is that much later on, when Moses is saying to Pharaoh, let my people go, we want to go into the desert to worship and sacrifice to our Lord. Pharoah says Nah, why don’t you just do it in Egypt? And here Moses replied, “That would not be right to do” he says in Exodus 8, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God is untouchable to the Egyptians the same word Toheva. “If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, they will stone us.” So this is a major, I would say sociological, anthropological statement that goes through the the Jews, the Israelites that he was 400 years sojourn in Egypt, there was a dietary wall between them and the Egyptians. Rabbi Adam, have you ever thought about this? How does it affect you? And what are your impressions?
Adam Mintz 05:40
Well, first of all, let me say, Geoffrey, it’s a fantastic topic. Because, you know, when you think about Joseph in Egypt, as the viceroy, and the brothers coming down to Egypt, there’s so much intrigue, you know, interpersonal intrigue, but to take a step back and to see how they fit in with the Egyptians, I think is a great topic. So let me just back up, you brought a couple of examples. One was the fact that in this week’s parsha be Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Jews. The last example you brought was the Moses said that we can sacrifice sheep in Egypt, because that would be a pourraient to the Egyptians. Let’s take the second thing first. The question is, why is sacrificing sheep abhorrent to the Egyptians? So I think the classic explanation is that the Egyptians used to worship the sheep. And therefore, for us to sacrifice sheep, which is their God, we would be considered to be totally inappropriate. Now, if that’s true, we can relate that back to here. And that is we can say that the Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Jews, because there are different dietary rules. Now, that’s interesting, because, you know, in today’s world, you say, okay, you know, I’ll eat the fish, or I’ll eat the salad. It’s okay, I can eat with anybody. But clearly, the Egyptians didn’t feel that way. Clearly, the Egyptians felt that if we eat differently than the Jews, then we can eat with the Jews. So that’s Possibility number one. Possibility number two is, of course, that is a social thing. And that is the Jews are beggars. They’re coming from the land of Canaan. We know that Canaan is a foreign country, we know that they look down on the people of Canaan, and maybe they just wouldn’t sit down with people they consider to be lower class. Now that Geoffrey is a whole different ballgame. That’s a whole different discussion, because that has ramifications in how they saw Joseph, meaning Pharaoh appoints Joseph to the viceroy. Why? Because Joseph interprets the dream, and he predicts the famine, and he turns out to be right, so he makes him viceroy. But what did they really think about Joseph? Did they really respect Joseph? Or did they think that Joseph was really second rate, or we would use the term second class, and maybe that’s reflected in the brothers. And maybe Joseph the whole time, is really worried that his position as viceroy is very fragile, that you know, because they don’t really respect me. And therefore, if I don’t act, just so I’m gonna get thrown out of my position. And maybe that can help us understand some of the ways that Joseph reacts to his brothers, and to Pharaoh and kind of being nervous about Pharaoh. So I think we want to today explore two options. One is the option of food. And that is the question of whether the Egyptians and the Jews share the same food. And the second is the social issue. And that is, did they sit together, even though they consider themselves to be more upper class?
Geoffrey Stern 08:52
Wow, you’re raising a lot of issues and it is complicated, like everything else in the Torah. So I want to pick up on on the two points that you you made. One is that you’re absolutely correct. The, the traditional explanation given by the Rabbi’s, is that kind of like in India, where the cows are holy and cannot be touched. It seems to be the impression that for the Egyptians, sheep were, it’s like taboo, is it because they were holy or they were untouchable. It’s hard to say, but But certainly, they could not be eaten. But I think the fact that we elevate our eating habits to a question of theology, and God really emphasizes the fact and I’ve called this week’s episode. The food wars is that eating food is is something that is so social and imbedded with emotion, that it ultimately does become a very primary battleground for distinguishing and identifying ourselves and ourselves, visa vis others. So so that, you know, I started by saying that Joseph wiped away tears went into another word, eating with his brothers was an emotionally laden experience. The other thing that you raise is it so much diet? Or is it a way of defining the Egyptians as opposed to putting down the Jews? So there is one of commentaries is an a guy born in the 1800s of the 19th century thinker called Shadal Shmuel David Luzzatto. And he references in the Hebrew that even Hordut, which is Herodotus, testifies to the fact that the Egyptians were very picky eaters. And so I went ahead and googled and found a study of what Herodotus says about Egyptian eating habits. And lo and behold, this is the case of that when Herodotus deals with them. He says that the Egyptians had many food avoidances, they have this pickiness, which was all foreign to the Greeks, they maintained food taboos, and it is the Egyptian ones who were expressing disgust at the practices of the Greeks. So here we go, and even a Greek who would find himself in Egypt. And of course, this might be many late years later after the Exodus, but the Egyptians had a very strong tendency of using food and eating and that social interaction as a way of defining themselves as superior it would seem to not only the Jews, but also to the Greeks so we don’t have to take it that that personally. But clearly, if we were leaving Egypt, and ultimately the whole story of Genesis and Exodus is to help us define who we were. So many times we focus on slavery and freedom. So many times we focus on, whether it’s the Egyptian preoccupation with death. But this does add a kind of fascinating new element to what the exodus from Egypt is and what it could be. In terms of the the ruling Egyptians, the Overlord Egyptians used food and looked at food as something that was very divisive. And that was kind of fascinating to me.
Adam Mintz 12:49
Yeah, that point, Geoffrey is a super interesting point, the fact that that food is divisive, it’s kind of startling, because we think of food is the great unifier. When you want to make up with somebody, what you do is you take him out to dinner. I don’t know how long that’s been going on going on for but it definitely has been the tradition for as long as we remember. Right? You take him out to dinner, because somehow food’s the great equalizer, even if we disagree about everything, but we can agree about the food that we eat, we can enjoy food together. So food is a is a tremendous unifier. And it’s been used that way let’s imagine centuries. So isn’t it interesting that in Egypt, food is the divider? That’s like a Wow, isn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 13:41
It is and it’s not because as I said previously, but I’ll kind of amplify now, food is something that unites us, but many times it unites us in counter distinction to others. And anyone who keeps kosher knows that on the one hand, you’re absolutely correct sitting down and having our latkes… there’s nothing more cementing in terms of relationships than that. On the other hand, by being kosher in many cases, one says I can’t eat with somebody else. And I think that the rabbis picked up on this I found a fascinating Midrash, in the MidrashTanchuma and it goes back to earlier in the Joseph story, and it says And Joseph poured an evil report of them to his father…. remember the Father gave him this multicolored ggarment, and sent him out to check up on the brothers. So he told his father, according to this Midrash my brothers eat the limbs of living animals. My brothers are doing what is called Ever min haChai, they’re breaking one of the seven Noahide laws, the only kosher law that presupposes the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Holy One bless it be he declared, continues the Midrash, be assured you will be such suspected of committing the very act you accused them of committing. And he says because he spoke slander against them his brothers became embittered, set into motion the chain of events that resulted in the descent of ancestors that their bondage in Egypt for 400 years. So talk about food being a part of this discussion, and the use of food to both unite but in this case to divide, according to this Midrash. That’s what started this whole exile…. 400 years of exile in Egypt was caused by Joseph telling his father, my brothers are not eating kosher, they went to a McDonald’s.
Adam Mintz 15:44
I mean, that is absolutely fantastic. Now, of course, you always have to take those kinds of things with a grain of salt, because what I was gonna say is, what’s also interesting is that the laws of Kosher don’t come up for another two books. It’s not till the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), that we’re actually taught about the laws of Kosher. So you wonder about that tradition that that’s what caused the 400 years of exile. Was it really kosher? Or was it really just this idea that certain groups of people eat certain types of foods, see we’re not even talking about that, but you think about, you know, different classes of people eat differently. We don’t have that so much in our day, because everybody has access. But when you watch television programs or movies, about British royalty, you always watch, I would say the help you know, the the butler’s and the servers and all those people, they’re always eating in the basement. And if you notice, they’re not eating the same food that is being served upstairs in the royal dining room, there was an idea that there was certain types of food that were special for royalty, and that not everybody else was allowed to eat that food. So when you talk about Joseph, and you talk about what they ate, there might have been a certain feeling that Jacob’s family was royalty. We know that actually, it’s interesting. I’m switching a little bit because visa vis Egypt, they might have been second class. But in Canaan, we know that they were royalty, right? Abraham is royalty. Isaac is royalty, Jacob is royalty, everybody’s afraid of them. Maybe they eat a special kind of food that other people didn’t eat, because just like the king eats special kinds of food. So I always wondered about that. Is it that they ate McDonald’s? …. Maybe McDonald’s is the kind of food that royalty doesn’t eat. Did they eat non kosher? Or did they just eat a food that wasn’t becoming of them. But that’s really a serious thing. And maybe just to take it one step further, maybe just maybe the laws of kosher and I know it’s always tricky to give explanations for the laws of the Torah, but maybe the laws and the Torah of Kosher also related to the fact that we’re God’s people, right. However, the Torah understands that, that God’s people need to eat certain kinds of food. I’ll just tell you that this is off topic, but it’s related because we’re talking about food, the Ramban? Nachmanidies one of the great Spanish commentators who lived in the 1200s. So he gives a great explanation. The Ramban says why is it that the animals need to have split hooves and chew their cud? He said, Because animals that have split hooves means that they have toes, the opposite his claws, he said, animals with claws, they devour their prey, right, they clawed their prey. We don’t want to eat animals like that you are what you eat. And the same thing with fish, we only eat fish with fins and scales. He says that fish with fins and scales tend to swim closer to the surface. And because they swim closer to the surface, therefore, they’re more human than the fish that swim all the way in the deep, the deep water fish. And so it might be related to the fact that that even the laws of Kosher are somehow connected to the idea that God says you’re gonna be my people. I want you to certain kind of food.
Geoffrey Stern 19:20
So I think that’s fascinating. I’m wanta pick up on what you said about we are way ahead of the laws of kashrut at this point, and I agree to a degree but I want to bring up what I think is the punch line. Now that we’re looking at this as a gastronomical. Journey, the punch line of the last night in Egypt, so we’ve gone through the 10 plagues, and now we’re ready….. We’re having the first mandated Torah mandated meal that ultimately developed into the Passover Seder. They are taking that lamb which is taboo either because it’s holy or for some other reason to the Egyptians, so they are taking the deity of Egypt, and they are going to slaughter it and eat it. But the Torah adds an additional restriction. And what it says is you have to form a family or a household. And then it says in Exodus 12, “o foreigner shall eat of it”. So the idea was, if you start with our story today, where we see Joseph is not allowed to dine with the Egyptians, the Egyptians are in charge. Here at the end of the 400 year Exodus story, it gets flipped on its head, and the Israelites are having a meal, and no, Egyptians are allowed to dine with them. So it truly becomes then a story of a food fight, so to speak. But I will add an additional element to this. And it’s a question that I must say, is bothering me. You know, it seems that if you were a slave in a land of Egypt, where they use food, and I use the word “use” in the sense of exploiting, they exploit food and eating as a way of distancing themselves from other people of degrading other people, you would have thought that the Israelites, the Jews would have rebelled against that. And in a sense, you can almost say, and this is the disruptive thought that I have of the week, is that we’ve absorbed it that it’s like the victim becomes the victimizer, so to speak, that we Jews have taken from our masters, the Egyptians, this sense of using food to divide us from other peoples in a sense, as much as we recognize that food is something that unites us. That was a question that came to my mind.
Adam Mintz 22:04
Good. So I like that. I mean, obviously, that’s disruptive Torah. I mean, what you’re suggesting is that we are still using food to separate us. There’s a very interesting law, there’s a law that wine needs to be kosher. Now, that’s a strange thing, because we all know that wine is the same wine, whether it’s kosher or not kosher, but kosher wine means that the wine is prepared by Jews. Where did that come from? So the rabbi’s. This is not from the Torah, the rabbi’s decided that basically, matches between men and women, boys and girls are made over wine. And therefore, and they didn’t want assimilation, they didn’t want intermarriage, they felt the best way to prevent intermarriage was to not allow us to drink wine and with non Jews. Now, first of all, that’s also interesting, because you know, alcohol is not included in that it’s only wine. That was because 2000 years ago, they didn’t drink alcohol. They only drank wine, but the but that idea, but here you go, Geoffrey, this is your disruptive point. And that is that we over time, have used food as the great divide as the great separator.And that law, that rabbinic law is so fascinating, because it recognizes the potential of food to be the unifier. And what we’re saying is no, we don’t want it to be a unifier. We want it to be a separator. Interesting thing, I’ll just tell you, the Conservative movement actually wrote that that’s ridiculous. You know, if a Jewish man wants to marry a non Jewish woman, you know whether or not they drink wine together is not going to make the difference. And therefore they did away with that prohibition. But just see that that’s really at issue here.
Geoffrey Stern 23:57
Yeah, I mean, it is fascinating in terms of historical development, and it started with Rav Moseh Iserles , the Ramah who found a whole community of Jews and their rabbis who were drinking regular wine, and he went out of his way and he said, You can’t use this in general terms. But you know, the the laws of, of making a wine libation and idol worship, they don’t exist anymore today. So we come down to a social question. And I think that’s where the Conservatives kind of said, if if we could stop into marriage by prohibiting wwine we would do it in a heartbeat. But guess what, that that’s not the answer. But again, this is gives us both an appreciation for the power of food. And here we are in Hanukkah, and we love the food associated with a holiday and know what it means to us and how it almost transcends so many other other things of the holiday, it’s part of our identity. So it shows the power of it. So I’d like to move a little bit forward and share wiyh you two amazing stories that I have kind of garnered and cherished through my life that kind of relate a little bit to this question of, of food and and what we call gastro diplomacy. So the first I heard from Rabbi Riskin, and it’s in the source sheet, and it’s of the great Mussatnik rabbi Yisrael Salanter. And he’s invited to the home of a very prestigious, wealthy person in the in the community. And he walks in coming back from synagogue on Friday night with this gentleman, and the gentleman is aghast, he sees that the challah has not been covered. And he screams to his wife, Yada, why is the hollow not covered and she embarrassed comes and covers the challah and Rabbi Yisrael Slanter turns to this person. And he says, Do you know why we cover the challah? And the guy says, Well, of course any child in cheder knows why we cover the challah. Because all through the week, we start our meals with a blessing on the bread. And on Shabbat, we start with wine. So in order not to embarrass the bread, we cover it. Rabbi Yisrael takes a breath. And he responds, he said, and you just embarrassed your wife. So you totally don’t understand the message that came out of your mouth. He says I’m sorry, the food in this house is not kosher, and he left. And of course that touches upon, you know something that Rebbe Jesus if you will said that it’s not important what goes into a person’s mouth, but that which coming out of his mouth that is what defiles a man, but certainly we Jews have taken in the concept of eating this ethical element. And you were talking a little bit about that when you talked about maybe what makes an animal Kosher or fish kosher. But certainly what we did was we took from the Egyptians, this understanding that food is a powerful vehicle of a philosophy an ideology and ethics and morals. And I think that is a positive takeaway that we took from our oppressor and we reirected it and maybe that’s a direction that we can take this in.
Adam Mintz 27:40
I think that’s good. I mean, first of all that story about Yisrael Salanter is a beautiful Rabbi Riskin story. And you know it says everything about what food is and what really matters when it comes to food. So I love that story. What’s your second story?
Geoffrey Stern 27:53
My second story is related to what is called the Maimonedian Controversy. So Maimonedes was a radical thinker with a capital “R”. And the Europeans, the Ashkenazim had many problems with Maimonedes. And at a certain point in time, they put a delegation together. And this again in the source sheet, and it’s well documented, they sent a rabbi Meir to go visit Maimonedes. And the first thing, Maimonedes, invited him to a meal. And the first thing is he put food on the plate that looked like human hands, then Miamonedes goes ahead, and he asks his servant Peter, to fetch the wine, please and pour some wine for everyone at the table. And finally, he takes a calf, and he slaughters it in a very humane way. But he doesn’t use a schita knife, he doesn’t slaughter it in the manner prescribed by Jewish law. And so then he sits down and of course, Rabbi Meir as all of us would says, Thanks, I’ll have the fruit cup. He doesn’t want to embarrass the rabbi. But basically, he assumed that Maimonedes was guilty of preparing the most treif of treif dishes. I’d like to think that we talk about kosher style food, which is food that looks kosher, but actually doesn’t necessarily fit all the prescriptions. What Maimonides did and this might be the first time in history this was done was made a treif style meal, and Maimonides explained to him exactly why everything was kosher. But I think in a sense, Maimonides understood this turf war that we all use in terms of determining what somebody’s standing is what somebody his relationship with God is with the law is and he rebelled against it. He probably rebelled against somebody judging him in general. But he explained why everything was kosher. But clearly he went out of his way to circumvent what many times is used by our kosher laws, which is to use them as a way of defining other people.
Adam Mintz 30:15
So I think that’s a great last story for this. I mean, I think today’s class, just to kind of summarize, since we have two minutes to go, I think today’s class is really is a kind of subversive kind of class, because it really highlights the fact that food which we take as the great unifier, is actually something that’s a lot more complicated. And back to the time of Joseph, and literally today, we have this idea that food is a divider. And the question is really how you use food. And I think Geoffrey probably what we want to say is that it’s kind of the combination of prohibited food, and the social aspects of food. So when I brought up at the beginning that there are two ways to understand this one is it the Egyptians wouldn’t eat sheep, and the other is the Egyptians wouldn’t sit with the lower class people. I think the answer is it’s both correct. And every story that we’ve told, and even the Israel Salanter story shows that there’s more of a social thing. That’s a cultural thing. So I think that’s really mean that really gives people a lot to think about. And I think it was a great topic for this week. Because Hanukkah, one of the things that brings people together on Hanukkah is of course the food, right? Every Hanukkah party has special foods for Hanukkah, and we know that Hanukkah actually is the holiday when you’re supposed to eat fried foods, because that’s the oil. You’re also supposed to eat dairy foods, because somehow they interpret the miracle that the that the general of the enemy was defeated, because there was a righteous woman by the name of Judith, who gave him milk and therefore got him thirsty. And then she got him drunk, and then she killed him and the Jews were saved. So we have we have fried food and we have dairy foods. So here you go. We have food again, as an equalizer, but I think Geoffrey will be able to go into Shabbat Kanaka appreciating the fact there’s more to food than just what goes into our mouths. So thank you, everybody. Shabbat shalom. Hanukah Sameyach from Dubai. We look forward next week again to doing our lunch and learn this was a great setup, at least for one more week. And Geoffrey enjoy. And I look forward to continuing next week.
Geoffrey Stern 32:25
Thank you so much rabbi. And I was inspired for the subject matter by last Shabbat last weekend. Michael is in the audience. I was with him. And we were basically in the kitchen for three days and there was a chef there, there was a wonderful woman named Anna Polanski, who is making a film on what has been called the Hummas Wars. And yes, there’s something called the Hummas Wars. And it is as cutting edge in terms of cultural adaptation, appropriation, these are issues that are on the front burner of so many people as food becomes more and more important to us and the planet. And I just want to thank so many people who are using food in novel ways. And we are just I think, at the cusp of how some of these stories become our stories. And so I wish everybody a Happy Hanukkah, enjoy your your latkes, maybe with some vodkas and Shabbat shalom. And please feel free to listen to this as a podcast on Madlik. And now we’re going to have the after-party, and I am going to invite any one of you who would like to make a comment or introduce a subject. Michael, welcome to the Bima
Michael Stern 33:55
Thank you. Such a wonderful Hag Samayach! This whole conversation reminded me of a story called which wolf do we feed and this is an internal concept where there’s the wolf, which is our ego, the wolf with switches our immediate gratification, the wolf, which doesn’t understand that some action might have a bad effect in the future. And the other wolf is kind and caring and takes into concern others and which wolf do we feed and so for me, in this internal family system, there are the Egyptians which is that wealth of ego, which disdains and even comes up with justification and stories and rationalizations and judgments and dividing concepts. And then there’s the Israelite wolf that honors not to eat the calf in the mother’s milk, that honors family, that honors and knows there’s cause and effect. And so which wolf do we feed? And I love seeing Torah as this metaphor. And for today, I really see an internal family, an internal universe, an internal planet, which has my own divides inside of me. And I want to learn from this to be more careful, more caring to know, am I the Israelite wolf or the Egyptian wolf, and do I feed my higher power? As you said the fish from the higher waters, God wants us to be our higher selves. So I have to feed by which thoughts will I build upon and digest and which thoughts will I throw out into the sea of thoughts? And we suffer in today’s world also from eating disorders. And I think eating disorders are known to represent a psychological emotional imbalance. So I love also taking it to this level of perception. Thank you. It’s beautiful.
Geoffrey Stern 36:32
Thank you so much. And again, happy Hanukkah to everybody. Feel free to check out our podcast and share it with your friends and family. Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Samayach.
Sefaria Source Sheet: http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/365771
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