Food’s Symbolic Burden

Toledot By :  David C. Kraemer Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Dec 3, 2005 / 5766 | Main Commentary

It has often been noted — and properly so — that Parashat Toledot is framed by two stories of deceit and dishonesty. What has been neglected, however, is the recognition that central to both stories is the symbolic manipulation of food and drink. The role of food and drink in these and other stories is more than mere convention, more than a mere “setting of scene.” In fact, food carries a heavy symbolic burden, and by taking note of the manipulations of food in these stories we gain access to meanings we otherwise would have missed.

Consider, first, the story of Jacob’s cruel manipulation of Esau (beginning at chapter 25, verse 27). The story begins by distinguishing the twin brothers on the basis of their relationship to food. Esau, we are told, is a hunter, and Jacob is a simple man, “dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). The import of Esau being a hunter is made immediately apparent: As a hunter, he provides meat, and on this account he is the beloved of Isaac (25:28). But what does it mean to be a “dweller in tents?” Again, the answer is not far off: unusually, Jacob prepares porridge — food cooked in the tent. Crucially, this is the sort of cooking we would expect of women in such a society (men barbecue, women cook). Esau provides the food of men, Jacob the food of women. Isaac therefore loves Esau, while Rebecca prefers Jacob.

Upon returning from the field, the exhausted Esau finds Jacob with prepared “comfort food” in hand. He begs for a portion, and readily sells his birthright to obtain Jacob’s food. Notably, having accomplished his goal of gaining the birthright, Jacob provides his brother with more than he asked for: in addition to the porridge, he gives Esau both bread and drink. Esau evidently takes it all eagerly, and though the text says nothing, we may be sure that Jacob looks on in satisfaction as Esau eats.

Is there significance to the fact that Jacob offers more, and Esau takes more, than Esau has requested? The answer lies, I think, in the consequence of such exchanges on relationships. An agreed-upon “sale,” such as the exchange of porridge for the birthright, creates a defined relationship, the details of which are negotiated in advance. But a gift, once accepted, creates unstated obligations, and puts the party who accepts in a sort of subservient or obligated position. For this reason, you are unlikely to accept a gift from someone you do not know. And you will insist on reciprocating a gift if you want to insist (symbolically) on remaining in a position of equality with the gift giver. But Esau accepted and did not reciprocate. His inferior status was thereby established. He was the dependent one, subject to the will of others. Jacob, on the other hand, provided in abundance. He was the master of his own fate.

The latter story (chapter 27) is different in many of its details. But it is one with the opening story in its centering of food and drink. In this well-known episode, Isaac, in his “blindness,” asks Esau to bring him “tasty things” (that is, red-blooded fleisch). His command is precise: “Bring it to me and I will eat in order that my soul may bless you before I die” (27:7). This connection is repeated over and over again — without the eating there can be no blessing. The one to be blessed must first provide the food, then Isaac will articulate the blessing.

Crucially, when Jacob brings food to Isaac, he again gives more than has been explicitly requested. Isaac had asked for “savories” made from what Esau would hunt in the field. But Rebecca also gives Jacob bread for his father (27:17), and Jacob further offers Isaac wine (27:25). Of course, Isaac eats it all — both what he requested and what he did not request — and, having accepted, he owes Jacob the blessing, which he conveys immediately. Notably, the blessing too includes a food: his blessing promises not only “the dew of the heaven” and “the fats of the earth” (translated literally) but also “plenty of corn and wine.” For Jacob, his own food generosity has paid off. By contrast, Esau brings his father only savories, and Isaac’s blessing of him excludes mention of corn and wine. In other words, he who gives much food receives much food — a sign of blessing and abundance — in return. He who does not so provide will similarly not be blessed.

The latter point — the connection of food and blessing — is repeated elsewhere in the parashah, which continues to focus on exchanges of food and drink. At the beginning of chapter 27, we are told that there was a famine in the land and that Isaac sought to go down to Egypt (the “breadbasket of the Mediterranean”) in order to avoid starvation. God appeared to him, though, and commanded him to remain in the land, promising to bless him and his offspring in that selfsame land. But how did Isaac survive the famine? The answer is found in verse 12: “Isaac planted in the land, and he reaped in that year one hundred fold [mea shearim], and the Lord blessed him.” Blessing is expressed through the abundance of produce, the produce that, on the table, helps assure length of days.

Why, then, is food so central to these narratives? The answer, I believe, is that food is religiously significant, far more than we might sometimes like to admit. Of course, on one level we know this: ours is a religion that has created an elaborate eating system, defining regulations and restrictions in abundance. Moreover, this eating system has always been central to Jewish identity — one thing almost all ancient writers know about Jews is that they (we) do not eat pork. But when I say that food is religiously significant, I mean far more than this.

Let me illustrate. I am the primary cook in my household. As a consequence, my Shabbat begins not on Friday night but on Friday morning. It is at that time that I go shopping, always at my favorite market, and imagine the Shabbat dishes I will prepare. Then, when the shortness of time demands, I undertake my preparations, which often take hours. But this is not a burden, it is a blessing. When I do not shop and cook, I feel that something is missing, that I have been cheated of a part of my Shabbat. Then, in the evening, when I watch my friends and family eating what I have prepared, I get great pleasure. It is at that moment that my Shabbat is complete.

Judaism is not only a religion of formal ritual and Torah. It is, and has always been, a religion of the kitchen, a way of life in which the masters of the kitchen — usually the women — were real religious virtuosi, sustaining the body and soul together (and Judaism has always believed in the importance of body and soul together). Food matters, and it has always mattered Jewishly. Do not imagine that the set table is any less important than the Shulhan Arukh (“The Set Table”).

Shabbat shalom,

David C. Kraemer

The publication and distribution of David Kraemer’s commentary on Parashat Tol’dot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.