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Yom Kippur 5780 - DC Kosher

10/10/2019 01:22:13 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

I recently had an experience which helped me think differently about keeping kosher.  

I was invited to a well-known upscale restaurant called The Inn at Little Washington.  For what its worth it’s a Michelin Three Star restaurant, which of course means nothing to me as it's not a kosher restaurant.  Still, for very important reasons, I felt it was essential for me to attend.

The organizers insisted on ordering kosher meals for my wife and me.  Even though we protested that we could go two hours without eating, they really wanted us to partake in the festivities and so they ordered us kosher food to match their upscale menu.  I mean, they tried to match, but really, what can possibly match lobster?  

Our first hint of trouble came when we arrived at the restaurant and everyone was hovering around us nervously.  Then the manager came running over to us and said, “We are sooo sorry.”  It turned out that there was a mix-up and our kosher meals were not delivered. We didn’t care at all, because we were very happy not to have to mess around with layers and layers of plastic wrap with people staring at us struggle to get to our reheated food, while everyone else is in the middle of having an elegant dining experience.  

But the manager kept insisting on trying to get us something to eat.  Finally, I said to the manager, “Well, I guess I can go into the kitchen and talk to the chef.”  You would have thought I suggested revealing the nuclear codes.  Everyone’s jaw dropped.  Apparently you just can’t walk into a Michelin Three Star kitchen and make yourself at home. 

Instead the manager said let me bring the chef out to meet you.  So the chef comes out and is very polite and we start discussing options and I again say, “Why don’t I just go back to the kitchen and check out your set up?”  The chef was more than happy to let me back in and the next thing you know I am hanging out in a Michelin Three Star kitchen talking kosher.  These chefs were awesome.  One of them had even once worked in a kosher style deli.  We were really bonding in the kitchen over kosher food talk—taking selfies together and following each other on instagram.  Anyways, to make a long story short, we worked out a great menu that was 100% kosher ingredients and also prepared in a 100% kosher manner.  These courageous chefs agreed to prepare us the food in an incredibly generous manner. The way they described it to me was making me salivate.  They even had special unused wooden cutlery that they could use to prepare the food and which we could then use to dine.  We had turned an operational disaster into the experience of a lifetime.  I walked out of the kitchen as a conquering hero.  I told my wife and the other guests, everything is all set.  Overflowing smiles were filling the room.  My wife and I were all set to eat a gourmet kosher meal from one of the world’s finest chefs.

Around fifteen minutes later, the manager came running over to me, “Great news!  Your prayers have been answered.  The kosher meals we ordered were just delivered.”  And so, in the end, we never got to eat that meal from those amazing chefs!

This Yom Kippur I want to have a conversation with you about kosher food—about why we don’t eat food on Yom Kippur, and more generally about what should be our mindset when we do eat food the rest of the year. 
Before diving into this topic, I want to acknowledge that some people in this room have serious medical conditions, and are not allowed to fast today. While I am speaking about the physical experience of fasting, I hope that my message resonates spiritually with everyone; those of you who are fasting, those of you whose mitzvah today is to eat and drink to protect your health. Every one of us in this room is observing Yom Kippur, even if the physical observance looks differently for some. If you are feeling unwell please feel free to speak with either me or our Maharat individually for spiritual guidance about eating on Yom Kippur, and please note that the Maharat's office is open today for those of you who are obligated to eat or drink.

For the rest of us: why don’t we eat on Yom Kippur?

On a technical level we do not eat on Yom Kippur because there is a biblical commandment not to eat on Yom Kippur.

Nowhere in the Torah does it say, “Do not eat on Yom Kippur.” But it does say, “Shabbat Shabbaton hu lachem ve’initem et nafshoteichem, you must make this day a Shabbat of Shabbats, and you must afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:32).  The Sifra explains that this means, “inoi shel ibud nefesh, ve eizeh hu, zeh achilah u-shetiyah, this refers to an affliction which causes a diminishing of the soul, which is a reference to eating and drinking” (Acharei Mot 7:3).

That’s the technical explanation for why we fast on Yom Kippur.  But our rabbis often go deeper to explain the commandments of the Torah.

The thirteenth century, Sefer Hachinuch, offers the following reason for why we fast on Yom Kippur:

“It is not fitting for a servant, on the day one comes for judgment before our Master, to come with a darkened or confused spirit on account of food and drink” (Mitzvah 313).  

In other words, according to Sefer Hachinuch food is a distraction from the spiritual; and from all that is pure and wise.  

On Yom Kippur we come before Hashem and ask for our Creator to look at us in the present moment.  During these precious moments—for this one day a year when we come before our Maker--we do not want to be thinking about food.  Food is such a distraction.  Yom Kippur is a day for the purely spiritual without the physical. 

According to this approach, the reason we do not eat on Yom Kippur is in order not to worry about food and all the bodily physical consequences that result from eating and preparing food.  One day a year of absolute purity before Hashem.

Ironically, Yom Kippur is the only time during the year that we gather in shul for prayer on a full stomach.  It is the only time we eat before we pray.  The rest of the year it is possible that even in this holy congregation some people are thinking about the Kiddush while the chazzan is chanting mussaf.

Not only is there a mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur but there is also a mitzvah to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur.  According to this approach, the reason why there is a biblical commandment to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur is precisely in order that the fast on Yom Kippur not be too difficult for us. We eat beforehand so that we will not be hungry on Yom Kippur (see Rosh, Yoma 81b).  

The upshot of this approach is that when we fast on Yom Kippur we are not trying to hurt ourselves.  Yom Kippur is not a sad day in which we are supposed to walk around in hair shirts.  On Yom Kippur we abstain from food not to be hungry, but to concentrate more on Hashem. Sometimes we all love food just a little too much and its all we can think about.  On Yom Kippur we try to get rid of as many distractions as possible.  It is a time to stand before Hashem in prayer and for this reason we don’t want to spend our time on Yom Kippur in the kitchen.  

There is another explanation as to why we fast on Yom Kippur.  On Yom Kippur we strive to be like angels.  There is one day a year where we set aside our bodily needs in order to strive for an angelic like existence.  In order to achieve this goal we eat a lot on the eve of Yom Kippur so that we do not need to eat on Yom Kippur day.  We are not hungry.  We have no need to eat.  We are like angels (see Moadim Uzemanim 1:53).  Angels have no need to eat and on Yom Kippur we also have no need to eat.

By not eating food on Yom Kippur we have the ability to be like angels.  We can feel the presence of Hashem in a way that is more powerful than every other day of the year.  

But Yom Kippur is only for one day a year.  The Torah doesn’t ask us to fast on any other day.  What about the rest of the year?  How do we bring this angelic behavior into our lives on a daily basis?

Angels are not angels because they don’t need to eat. No, angels are like angels because they are not controlled by food. 

The rest of the year we are like angels, not by fasting but by eating in a proper manner and thereby showing that our approach to food is spiritual.  

How we eat and the manner in which we eat gives us the ability to be angelic.  Are we mindless in our eating habits or are we conscientious?  Do we pause before and after we eat to say a blessing of gratitude to Hashem?  Do we share our foods in a welcoming manner?  Do we use our food as a vehicle to pleasure ourselves or as a manner to serve our Creator?  If every time we encounter food we are using intentionality then every single day when we eat we can soar to our creator.  A meal will not just be a meal but a way for our entire bodies to serve Hashem. 

Food has been on my mind lately because along with our Maharat and many, many incredible volunteers from our community and along with other community rabbis who are also volunteering their time we have spent the past year developing and building up #DCKosher into a certification that is now having a major impact on our city.  We are now certifying more than 20 local restaurants and products.

The Maharat and I started DC Kosher because we felt that we have a responsibility to help our congregants and Jews in the city keep Kosher. We noticed that our congregants were having a hard time keeping kosher and we wanted to help them keep kosher. We didn’t think it was responsible to outsource this kosher certification to a Haredei community or a rabbi from a different city. So we did it our way. From the very beginning we expressed pride in the unique leadership role that the Maharat as a female spiritual leader plays in DC Kosher.  We said that we are doing this for our congregation and we don’t care if others accept our certification. We never imagined the incredible growth and impact it would have on the entire city. One rabbi in town told me that it has changed so many lives for the better.  He said he sees many students come to the city and the fact that they now only eat in kosher restaurants changes their whole spiritual trajectory. 

As a result of our work with DC Kosher I have been spending a lot of time with chefs and learning a lot about food.

What I have learned is that when we certify food as kosher it is an opportunity to engage with a whole world that otherwise would not be aware of our approach to Torah.  It is an opportunity not only to help more Jews eat kosher, but also to engage with the world.  

It is very sad that kosher food which is a concept that is supposed identify us with angels and is one of the holiest and core values of our faith has become for some a cash cow certification business.  This is backwards.  I feel very fortunate that our congregation’s approach has been for the Maharat and I along with our congregation’s volunteers to offer the certification for free as part of our community outreach. 

Kosher certification is an opportunity to raise awareness about our core values and to engage with the world in a consistent manner.  Every human cares about food.  It is the great equalizer. And most people have heard of the concept known as kosher. It is our job to offer the world a powerful explanation of what it means to be kosher. 

By living life as a kosher community we have the potential to transform ourselves and the world around us in ways far beyond food. 

Recently I visited one of the restaurants we certify.  It is the new PLNT Burger, which opened in Whole Foods in downtown Silver Spring.  Our certification now hangs in a frame in Whole Foods.  But that’s only where the story begins.

So I am sitting at the table and I see a woman and her husband.  She was dressed in traditional Islamic garb.  Normally I would never engage with a total strager in a supermarket, but I love to promote our DC Kosher restaurants. So I reached out and told this nice family, “You know this restaurant is kosher certified by our synagogue.”  Immediately, she and her husband stopped what they were doing and came closer to talk.  They were super interested in learning more about Kosher food.  It turns out that she is an Oncology Fellow and her husband is a man named Serhat who volunteers in interfaith activities.  He told me that after the synagogue was attacked in Pittsburgh he went and visited a local synagogue that Shabbat on his own initiative.  I invited them both to join us for services and learn more about our congregation with the hopes of building a stronger community.  

For much of Jewish history, Kosher has come to mean separation from the world.  We eat differently in order to separate ourselves from society.  But what if we have it backwards.  What if kosher doesn’t mean separation but integration!

What if we eat differently in order to transform the world by reminding the world to be conscious about our eating habits.  What if Kosher doesn’t mean that we are not allowed to dine with others, but a platform to dine with others and to influence the world for good. 

I understand that most people in this room are not going to go and evangelize about kosher food. Most people are not going to walk into the kitchen of a high class restaurant and try to teach the chefs about kosher food.

However, we each have the ability and responsibility to share our reasons for being kosher with the world in a way that strengthens all of us. 

One day a year the Torah tells us not to eat.  On this day—Yom Kippur—we show that we can master the daily spiritual challenge that food presents to us.

The real challenge is not to fast on Yom Kippur but how we eat after Yom Kippur. 

The very first thing the Kohen Gadol does after he finishes his services on Yom Kippur is throw a party for everyone where he would serve food and entertain.  Yom Tov hayah oseh.  The message of this party is that now that we have finished fasting we must take the values we learned from our fast and incorporate them into our food consumption in order to influence the world.

For the rest of the year, each time we put a morsel into our mouth we have the ability to eat with our values, to connect spiritually with our Maker, and by modeling proper behavior to transform everyone in our orbit.

The Malbim explains that it is harder to eat with proper intent and consciousness than even to fast without any intent.

Each and every time we say we are kosher—we make a statement of our values.  It should not only reflect our specific kosher options but every aspect of our life. 

We all must find our own path to consciousness as it relates to food, but here is one suggestion.  What if every time we ate in an upscale restaurant we immediately donated to a charity that helps poor people eat.  That’s a way of adding consciousness to our food consumption. 

A final story:  There is one store we recently certified that we had been in discussion with for many years.  The owner was at first very antagonistic to the concept of kosher and to rabbis.  The owner wanted nothing to do with kosher.  But then the owner started being exposed to members of our community and was inspired.  Not only is the restaurant now kosher certified but this person has become a #DCKosher evangelist and has been encouraging his friends to also get certified.

Recently he called and asked for a mezuzah to place on his store.  Gd willing this person will open many stores and in each one he will put up a mezuzah scroll declaring that he is a Jew; that he is proud to associate himself with Torah; and that he is proud to be certified kosher. And Gd willing that will inspire him to continue to find ways to use his food to strengthen all of us. 

That’s our real challenge this Yom Kippur. The real challenge is not just to go one day without eating, but to go 364 days of eating properly. Our job is to take the holiness of Yom Kippur and bring it to the world in order to show the world that kosher represents the best of our values and living a kosher life is a blessing not only for Jews but for our entire world. 

Mon, February 24 2020 29 Shevat 5780