July 15, 2024
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Chacham Yosef Chaim of Baghdad was the great posek, Kabbalist and community leader of Sefardic Jewry at the turn of the 19th Century. He wrote extensively and is known by the title of his most popular work, “Ben Ish Chai,” an exposition of the laws of everyday Jewish life interspersed with minhagim, mussar and mystical insights—all arranged by order of the weekly parshiyos.

An ascetic who fasted regularly to remove distraction and weaken his physical desires, the Ben Ish Chai was known for his unwavering dedication to personal and communal kedusha. He would also rise each night to recite “Tikkun Chatzos,” lamenting the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, after which he continued learning until Shacharit prayers at sunrise. In all, he was widely-respected as a great chacham and tzaddik of the generation.

Once, the son of a prominent family in Baghdad had left home and abandoned mitzvah observance. All the “interventions,” pleading and threats were to no avail. On the verge of conversion and intermarriage, the man’s family finally begged for an opportunity to meet with the elder Chacham of Bagdad.

The Ben Ish Chai agreed to the meeting and set the time for Shabbos morning following davening. “But let’s not meet at the beit knesset; perhaps, you’ll be more comfortable at my home.” The young man arrived at the set time, the elderly tzaddik welcomed him, made Kiddush for him and served him a heaping, steaming portion of hamin (cholent). As the aroma of meat, rice and beans—spiced to perfection and cooked overnight—tantalized his senses, the Chacham asked, “Would you like to taste the haminados as well?” Haminados is a Sefardic dish of eggs browned in the hamin which have absorbed all the flavors of the stew, as well as the exquisite light of leil Shabbos. “Thank you! Of course, it’s the tastiest part of the hamin.” As the young man—alienated from Yahadut—sat relishing the feast, the Ben Ish Chai looked into the man’s eyes and asked, “My son, if you go through with this, you will not have a Jewish wife, nor a Jewish home. How will you be able to go through life without ever enjoying haminados again?!”

(Based on Sefer Ben Yehoyada, Maseches Shabbos, 119.)

~

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi once hosted the future emperor of Rome, Antoninus, at a Shabbos meal. As—according to the halacha—he could not cook new food on Shabbos, Rabbi Yehudah served him cold foods. At a later date, he prepared a more lavish feast on a weekday, in which he served Antoninus a more extensive menu, with freshly cooked, hot food. “Hey,” the emperor frowned with surprise, “this food is not as good as the first meal; you omitted something!” Rabbi Yehudah understood: “Indeed, there is one spice we omitted, but it’s not something the emperor has at home … ” “Really?” grunted Antoninus, “is it possible that the emperor’s kitchen is lacking any particular spice?”

.אָמַר לוֹ שַׁבָּת הֵן חֲסֵרִין, אִית לָךְ שַׁבָּת

“Rabbi Yehudah responded: The missing ingredient is Shabbos. Do you have Shabbos?” (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah, 11.)

We all know this to be true; no matter how carefully one follows the recipe, mid-week cholent or challah is just not the same.

~

Our sedra recounts the strange fixation we had on seemingly inane menu items Jews had enjoyed “on the hous”’ in the “good old days,” when we were slaves in Mitzrayim:

זָכַרְנוּ אֶת־הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר־נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים
וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים וְאֶת־הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת־הַבְּצָלִים וְאֶת־הַשּׁוּמִים׃

“We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt … Oy, the cucumbers,

the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic!” (Bamidbar, 11:5)

Considering the immense suffering, slavery and exile we experienced in Mitzrayim, it is hard to understand this sudden wave of nostalgia. The irony may seem laughable—or tearfully tragic. The deepest form of exile is taking comfort in the “stability” of incarceration and slavery. Even while we had been miraculously redeemed—and then wined and dined with manna that fell from heaven and tasted like anything we wanted—we were gripped by a sort of “Stockholm syndrome.” We yearned for the cuisine we had known for so long as hostages.

Yet, the Gemara explains that חִנָּם, “free,” means we considered ourselves “free” of any obligation to be thankful to the Source of the food. Under the unimaginable pressure of slavery, we felt free from having to consider the benevolence of the Giver of Sustenance. We were paradoxically “free” from commitment. When we were no longer in bondage and under external oppression, we had entered a new stage of our development. We were suddenly responsible to thank Hashem, to keep mitzvos and to have a grown up, committed relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam. The food we ate then represented much more than just a meal. It was now laden with our story, our identity as a nation, and our mutual commitment and connection with our Sustainer.

גדול לגימה … שמקרבת

“Food is great … in that it brings people near … ” (Sanhedrin, 13b)

Whether it is the sweetness of the charoses, the crispiness of Chanukah latkes, the particular aroma of hamantaschen coming out of the oven, or the haminados brewed in the cholent, our traditional foods mysteriously bring us close to a sense of home and connection to our family, ancestors and religious engagement. Much of the avodah of our lifecycle events is awakened just by tasting the unique foods we are commanded to eat or accustomed to serve.

Aromas and tastes create a primal, direct link to the collective cultural and spiritual memory bank of Klal Yisrael. They can help bring us near—not only to family, community and tradition, but to faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu itself. In this way, the “special sauce” and not-so-secret ingredient key to our nation’s spiritual sustenance is always to serve up Yiddishkeit with warmth and sweetness, abundantly spiced with love and simchah:

טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי־טוֹב ה׳

“Taste and see how good Hashem is!” (Tehillim, 34:9)


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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