By Gil Marks
The Torah reading of Shofetim notes
that that the tribe of Levi, who are to minister to and teach the people,
received no territorial portion of the Land of Israel, rather "They
shall eat the offerings of the Lord."
In addition, "And this shall be the priests' due from the
people, from them that offer a sacrifice (from unconsecrated animals),
whether it be ox or sheep, that they shall give unto the priest the
shoulder, and the two cheeks, and the maw (the first part of the
intestines). The first fruits
of your grain, your wine, and your olive oil, and the first of the fleece of
your sheep, shall you give him." (Deuteronomy XVIII 3-6)
Ramban (Nachmanides) in his Commentary on the Torah explained, "From the Midrash the Sages said, The shoulder (is given to the priest) because 'he (Pinchas) took a spear in his hand' (Numbers 25:7); the two cheeks because of his prayer, as it is said, 'Then Pinchas stood up and prayed, and the plague was stopped' (Psalms 106:30); the maw because of what it states, 'and he thrust both of them through' (Numbers 25:8). [God} rewarded the entire tribe for the merit of Pinchas when he earned the privilege of being a priest with them." Ramban continued, "And the Rabbi (Rambam) said in Moreh Nebuchim (The Guide to the Perplexed III, 39) that the cheeks (are given) because they are the first part of the (animal's) body, the shoulder is the first of the extremities of the body, and the maw is the first of the guts, for the first of them all is given to the ministers of the Most High in His honor."
Neither Rambam nor Ramban, however, explained why grain, wine, and olive oil are singled out from the agricultural products as gifts. Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik once mused that instead of testing semicha (ordination) students on Yoreh De'ah (primarily dietary laws), he would prefer to ask them to explain a section of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:14), "And I will give the rain of your land in its due season, the autumn rains and the spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your olive oil, and I will give grass upon your field for your cattle; you will eat thereof and you will be satisfied." For although Jews recite this line twice a day, too many are not cognizant of its meaning.
Grain, wine, and olive oil, the three promised rewards in the Shema as well as the three non-consecrated agricultural items requiring special gifts to the priests, formed the basis of the diet and economy of ancient Israel. In recognition of the import of these three agricultural items, the Anshei Knesset Hagadolah (“Men of the Great Assembly,” an enigmatic legislative body that functioned from about 500-300 BCE) incorporated them into the introductory Shabbat and festival rituals in the form of challah, Kiddush, and ner (light).
Shabbat dinner possesses a singular ambience. The table is set with the family's finery. Lamps sprout dancing flames, casting a genial glow over the celebrants. Two loaves of challah, covered with a special cloth, dominate the table. After reciting the Kiddush and sampling the wine, the challah is uncovered and the hamotzi (blessing over bread) recited. A repast of favorite and traditional delicacies follows and lively zemirot are sung. School children commonly repeat some of the Torah lessons that they learned during the previous week. Thus, a profoundly religious activity and enjoyably gastronomic experience become one and the same.
Originally, the fuel for the Sabbath and festival lights consisted of olive oil. Later, as many Jews found themselves in areas where olives were expensive or even unavailable, other oils and, especially in Eastern Europe, wax were commonly substituted. Clay lamps, as attested by the many found in archeological digs, were standard in ancient Israel. During the Middle Ages, multi-wicked star-shaped lamps, called Judenstern, came into popular use among Ashkenazim. Metal versions were commonly suspended from the ceiling on a chain. As European Jews began substituting candles for oil, metal candlesticks accordingly replaced oil lamps. By the 17th century, candlesticks were widespread and the Judenstern a rarity.
Kiddush, literally sanctification, is the benediction recited at the onset of Shabbat and yom tov in fulfillment of the biblical injunction “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The sages (Pesachim 106a) interpret “remember the Sabbath” as meaning “remember it with wine.” If wine is unavailable, which was all too often the case with our ancestors living in the northern parts of Europe, Friday evening Kiddush is recited over the two challot (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 272:9), symbolizing the double portion of Manna gathered on Fridays. Although women are usually exempted from positive commandments whose performance is bound in time, they are obliged to fulfill Kiddush because the dual phrases “Remember the Sabbath” (Exodus 20:8) and “Observe the Sabbath” (Deuteronomy 5:12) include women (Berachot 20b).
As Jews, whether in Eretz Yisrael or the Diaspora, perform each Shabbat and yom tov ritual, they transcend time and space. The seemingly simple acts of kindling lights, sipping wine, and eating a piece of bread link the participants not only to the Torah, but also to ancestors and descendants through the ages. Perhaps the greatest lesson of a seudat mitzvah (ritual meal) is the development of an emotional attachment to Judaism that has been the key to its continuing survival. In the words of Ahad Haam, “It is not so much that the Jews have kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Thus the challah, Kiddush, and ner (light) continue to teach the people.
For a taste of ancient Israel, here are some traditional Shabbat recipes characteristically incorporating all of the above items in one dish. Rambam would certainly recognize them, as similar dishes were common in Sephardic households during his time.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
2. Place lamb, boned side up on a flat surface and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and, 1 teaspoon cumin. Roll up jelly roll-style and tie with string. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. If desired, dredge in flour.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot or roasting pan over medium heat. Brown lamb on all sides (15 to 20 minutes). Remove lamb and pour off excess fat.
4. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and sauté onions, carrot celery, and garlic until softened (about 10 minutes). Add remaining 1 teaspoon cumin and tomato paste and stir until darkened. Stir in rosemary.
5. Add wine, stirring to remove any browned particles and bring to a boil. Return lamb, add broth, and bring to a simmer.
6. Cover, place in oven, and cook, basting occasionally, until tender about 25 to 35 minutes per pound or until thermometer registers 145 degrees for rare (about 2 hours) or 150 degrees for medium (2 to 2½ hours). Serve with couscous.
Soak 4 ounces dried apricots and 4 ounces pitted prunes in hot water until soft. Add to the lamb cooking liquid and heat through.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Pat meat dry with paper towels. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. In several batches, add lamb and brown on all sides (about 5 minutes per batch). Remove lamb.
2. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Stir in onion and garlic and sauté until soft (about 5 minutes). Add tomato paste and stir until darkened.
Return lamb and add tomatoes, wine, vinegar, cinnamon, allspice,
cloves, cumin, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.
Bring to a boil, cover pot, and cook in a preheated 350-degree (175
C) oven or simmer over low heat until tender (about 2 hours).
Stew can be stored in refrigerator for up to 3 days and reheated in a
covered pot. Serve with orzo or
Guvetch de Carne (Turkish Vegetable Beef Stew)
(5 to 6 servings)
This Turkish vegetable and beef stew, also spelled ghivetch and yuvetch, is named after the pottery in which it was originally cooked. It is popular in areas influenced by the Ottoman Empire.
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes). In batches add beef and brown on all sides (5 to 10 minutes).
2. Add tomatoes, wine, carrots, potatoes, celery, peppers, garlic, sugar, and enough liquid to just cover meat.
3. Bring stew to a boil, cover, and simmer over a low heat or cook in a 300-degree (150 C) oven, stirring occasionally, until meat is almost tender (about 2 hours).
Add parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer until tender (about 30 minutes).
Stew can be prepared up to 3 days ahead, stored in refrigerator, and
reheated. Serve with bulgur or
Balkan Guvetch: Add 1 cubed medium eggplant, 1 cup okra, ½ cup cut green beans, ½ cup green peas, and, if desired, 3 to 4 whole allspice.
Rumanian Guvetch: Add 1 cubed medium eggplant, 2 cups cut green beans, and 3 to 4 zucchini cut into 1-inch pieces.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to email@example.com