by Tina Wasserman
I imagined her eyes smiling as her gleeful voice responded to my question over the telephone; I had just asked this Dutch-born Octegenarian, “What was it like to celebrate Shabbat growing up in Holland?
She told me how it was a special day for her. It began, in summer at least, with her older sister taking the children to a Jewish store before sundown to buy a treat–usually a pickle or the national Dutch addiction, licorice. They got dressed in clean clothes and the table was set in all the finery befitting the Sabbath “Queen”. They would recite the prayers over the candles, wine and challah. The children would be blessed, as was the custom, and after the meal they would sit around the table and sing songs.
“And what was the meal like?” I pressed.
“Ah the meal!” she squealed in her lyrical, Dutch accented voice. As if asking a young child to describe a favorite toy, Liny recounted the menu, course by course, and was sure to explain to me that each and every food was served on its own plate as its own course. Vegetables were served one by one after the meat course had been eaten. She cautioned me that the recipes were not always Dutch. Gefilte fish, which was not traditionally from Holland, was served because her paternal grandfather had come from Russia. (And the cooks were usually poor Jewish immigrants from Poland that her mother brought to their home and so their Polish cooking traditions migrated to the Dutch kitchen and influenced the Shabbat menu as well).
The family was also served chicken soup with noodles or kneidlach (matzo balls), roasted chicken, potato kugel, and a dish of endive mixed with a small amount of potato and lightly mashed. For dessert they would have fruit compote consisting of prunes and other fruits that Liny couldn’t remember. .
“Why is this a common Shabbat menu?” I wondered. Why was chicken often the Shabbat choice in Jewish homes in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, the western coast of India, Persia and Poland? What, if any, foods were prescribed in the Bible? Did Shabbat laws create tradition?
The Bible’s first reference to holy, kadosh, was in Genesis when “G-D blessed the seventh day and made it holy” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented on the fact that G-d could have made a mountain or a spring that he created holy, but he didn’t, he made Time holy, and “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn… ”
For most of us today, our spirituality is enhanced by the concrete activities of observance in our lives. On Shabbat, the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to rest– an activity that was never afforded to our ancestors in Egypt–and, like G-D, peruse all that we have created during the week. How we celebrate Shabbat gives us a spiritual connection to G-D, whether it is in the act of making challah, sharing a Shabbat meal with family, attending a formal service or chevrah Torah class or taking a quiet walk in the park. For many of our ancestors Shabbat was a chance to emotionally escape from the world of harsh abuse and persecution. For us, today, Shabbat can be the much-needed respite from material pursuit and instant electronic communication. So important is this respite that my rabbis at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, have created a Sabbath initiative for our congregants to actively slow down and find the time at some point in their busy scheduled time to, “Repair the fragmentation of the week.”
How does the Torah instruct us to “keep the Sabbath” with regard to food? And how have the interpretations of the laws in the Talmud affected our culinary traditions? We are instructed to eat three distinct meals on Shabbat. Since the Sabbath is often referred to as the “Queen”, all food prepared for Shabbat should be befitting of a Queen. Even the poorest of households would elevate their daily provisions. For members of Bene Israel living on the western coast of India, fish was plentiful, but on Shabbat they would prepare chicken, which was not readily available, to honor the Sabbath. Ethiopian Jews would serve the famous chicken stew, Doro Wat for the same reason.
Poor, Eastern European Jews living in shtetls in the Pale would elevate the foods of their daily diet for Shabbat. The daily consumption of herring, black bread, and onion was combined with a sweet apple, a biblical fruit, to create chopped herring. This dish is still served at Shabbat Kiddush and festive occasions. Weekday whole-grained dark breads were replaced with bread made from finely milled white flour as prescribed in Leviticus 24:5–“You shall take fine semolina flour and bake twelve challot”.
The many prohibitions related to Shabbat work and eating created some of the most well known foods associated with Jewish cuisine. The aforementioned gefilte fish, created in late medieval Germany is a perfect example. The Mishnah reinforces the rule of no work on Shabbat by including the prohibition of removing any inedible parts of a mixture from our food. This would include the bones of a fish. To enable fish consumption on Shabbat, the raw fish meat was removed; the bones discarded, and then the fish meat was mixed with eggs and seasonings and stuffed back into the fish carcass to be cooked. Gefullte means stuffed in German!
Food had to be put up on Friday afternoon and be able to withstand prolonged cooking over low heat if it was to be served warm on Saturday according to Halachic interpretation. The cholents and tzimmes of the Ashkenazi world, the Sephardic hamins in the Middle East and the tagines in the Maghreb (North Africa) all derive their roots from Sabbath cuisine.
Challah is referenced two ways in the bible. In Numbers 15:18, the Jews were instructed to set aside a portion of bread challah as a gift to the Lord (given in the Temple to the priests). In Leviticus 24:6 representatives of the 12 tribes were commanded to specifically set the loaves of bread “in two rows, six to a row on a pure gold table before the Lord.” The traditional six braids of a challah have been scrutinized for meaning. There are many Midrashim about the number of bumps on a challah and how the Gematria (numeric interpretation) of them imparts a message. I have my own theory. Braiding bread was common in Jewish and non Jewish communities in the Middle Ages and I think that in order to elevate the common bread for Shabbat, Jewish cooks braided the bread using six stands. The side-by-side placement of two, six braided challot, was symbolic of the commandment in Leviticus to the 12 tribes of Israel. Many see the origins of two loaves of bread for Shabbat in the double portion of manna that was given to the Jews in the desert on the sixth day. Because dew fell on that double portion covering and protecting it, it has become traditional to sprinkle seeds on the tops of the loaves of challah. Covering the challahs with a decorative cloth was also established in many Jewish homes to symbolize the biblical dew.
There is a Midrash that says that God told Israel that if they accepted the Torah and followed it, they would have a share in the world to come–not heaven, but the messianic age. When Israel asked what that would be like, God said to them, Shabbat will give you a taste of what it will be like.
May your Shabbat be peaceful, enlightening and filled with all the sights, sounds and tastes that bring you and your loved ones happiness.
Eat in Good Health!
Tina Wasserman is the author of Entrée to Judaism, a Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora published by the URJ Press. Tina is trained in Foods and Nutrition and has taught her love and understanding of cooking and Jewish culinary history to audiences in synagogues and Jewish organizations throughout North America and Europe. She is also the food columnist for Reform Judaism Magazine and serves on the URJ Camp Newman board in California. She lives in Dallas, Texas and is a member of Temple Emanu-El.
Learn more from Tina’s expertise about Jewish food with a free module for adult study: The Way to the Heart of Judaism is Through the Stomach.
Originally posted in Ten Minutes of Torah