Nearly every Friday I perform my regular “ritual of dinner,” making challah, bread for my family’s Friday night Shabbat meal. I’ve done it so many times now that I know the recipe quantities by heart. I can make it wherever I go—even when it means translating my recipes into Czech to find ingredients in the markets of Prague, as I had to do when I was there writing and teaching as a visiting rabbi at the liberal synagogue Bejt Praha in the summer of 2010.
Homemade food has a kind of friend-making power that comes from the labor, care, art, love and intention you put into it. My bread-baking ritual satisfies a twofold desire: It allows me to both embrace something familiar, comfortable and personally nourishing, as well as to reach out beyond myself to connect with others, by sharing the food I spend time preparing.
In a way, my latest project translating Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher’s Shulhan Shel Arba (Table of Four), a sacred Jewish text about mindful eating, is as much a “ritual of dinner” as my weekly challah baking. Rituals in general, and eating together in particular, prompt us to reflect deeply about the connections between what we’re doing, with whom, and why we’re doing it.
Not only is this kind of reflection at the heart of my classroom teaching, my scholarship and the translation of this book, it is also the factor that adds value to living and learning together as a small liberal arts college community, and on a larger scale, as a society.
I’m convinced that rituals, especially the rituals of eating together, make communities—regardless of whether they’re secular or religious. At Wheaton, we teach and learn, eat, drink and live together in close physical proximity. We assume that this closeness provides an invaluable educational benefit. However, that is only true, if and only if, we pay attention to what we’re doing.
That’s why Rabbenu Bahya’s book has had such an impact on me and why I want to share it with a larger audience. Shulhan Shel Arba reminds us that the possibility for the kind of examined life that a liberal arts education seeks to instill unfolds before us every day in something as seemingly mundane as cooking or eating.
I received Shulhan Shel Arba from my best friends and frequent dinner partners for my 33rd birthday back in 1992. It has changed my life.
It has helped me focus my passionate but scattered interests in meals—both inside and outside of academia; informed the many Shabbat and holiday meals my wife Maia and I have made; and has become central to my academic research on food and religion, as well as a subject for my teaching. I have been mining this book over the past decade or so for my research and publications on Jewish meals. It also has become an inspiration and a kind of model for the First Year Seminar “Rituals of Dinner,” which I designed and have taught since starting at Wheaton.
Shulhan Shel Arba reveals that meals can elevate our relationships with one another and the world around us, by cultivating our relationship with God. It develops in both imaginative and very concrete ways the famous Jewish idea that the dinner table is a “mikdash me’at”—a “mini-Temple.” Like the Temple service, the table’s purpose is to help people have a relationship with each other and with God. And that’s exactly what this book has done for me: It has deepened and elevated my most important relationships with other people, and through them, with God, through the physical and sensory experiences of food and talk at shared meals.
Rabbenu Bahya sensually describes the words to be said at a meal, like blessings and food-related Torah discussions, as if they were the smells and sights of aromatic oils and smoke wafting up to the heavens at the altar of the Temple. Likewise, he discusses how the physical gesture of raising the 10 fingers of your hands up for washing before a meal (netilat yada’im) kinetically turns your attention upward. The upward motion is key. He has you imagine energy flowing up from your 10 toes through your body, through your 10 fingers, reaching up to connect back to their Source, the 10 Sefirot (the kabbalistic symbolic terms describing God). What we see, say and sense at the table should stimulate our imagination, the author tells us.
He suggestively connects the imperative to go out of your way to be hospitable to both the mundane activity of lingering over your dinner table after a pleasant meal and to a powerful reminder of our own mortality:
“Whoever prolongs his time at the table, his days and years are prolonged for him…. By prolonging one’s time at the table, it is more likely that a poor person will come and he’ll give him a piece of food so he’ll be provided for.”
Inviting guests is in effect also “inviting” God to the dinner table. Through the author’s imaginative re-envisioning of the ordinary things we can do at the dinner table, we might truly experience our Jewish table as indeed a kind of “table before the Lord” (Ezekiel 41:22). Whether or not you take this literally, the words are meant to honor the human participants in the meal, as sharers in a special, emotionally elevating experience. Some religious communities call this “God” or “the gods,” others need no theistic or supernatural language at all for it. Regardless, Shulhan Shel Arba’s metaphors refer not to some unattainable Something “out there,” but rather to something we can experience palpably through our companionship with other flesh-and-blood people, and in the natural world around us.
The fact is, food makes a great conversation starter. Most people care quite deeply about what they eat, and if they don’t, that too prompts an interesting conversation. And the conversations are even better, more likely to go deeper, if they’re over a meal, a drink, at a table where we see each other face-to-face. Talking about eating while you’re eating pushes you to be both reflective and materially engaged all at once.
No matter how esoteric the reflections are (as they should be, if our imaginations are to flourish), the sounds, tastes, smells, touch and the sight of our food, drink and companions remind us to “keep it real.”
The meal surrounds us in a network of concentric circles: our senses, our bodies, our social commitments and the natural world. Through mental reflection precisely on what is right in front of us, we connect.
The pedagogical, the moral value of the pleasures of the table rests in the power of “storied food [to] feed us both body and soul, the threads of narrative knitting us together as a group, and knitting the group into the larger fabric of the given world,” to quote Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (Wheaton summer reading for incoming freshmen in 2007 and 2008).
Even religious rabbis and atheist evolutionary biologists can connect in lunch conversations in the Emerson Faculty Dining Room, or over lambic beer and smelly cheeses from La Laiterie.
Jonathan Smith, a leading scholar of comparative religious studies, has aptly defined ritual as “mode of paying attention.” In that, the rituals I do, I teach, I translate have an affinity with the practice of the scientists and artists I know. Though we may pay attention to different things in different ways, what we seem to share is a careful, focused attention to details, a sort of kinesthetic awareness that requires movement and registering what we gather through our senses, and a goal orientation without actually knowing exactly what our results will be until we get there.
There is a method, a discipline that we presume will get us from A to B. But while we imagine, envision and hypothesize what B might be, we have to remain open to whatever results present themselves, whether they are pretty much what we expected, or something quite different.
The rituals of dinner, and all the necessary rituals of living together, let’s say, on a residential liberal arts college campus like Wheaton, accustom us to a disciplined openness to the concentric circles of worlds right in front of our very senses.
While I find all the connections and associations in my translation (really a kind of meditation) incredibly exciting, the real challenge has been trying to convey this to others.
I think I turned a corner and got closer to that goal when I started to think about my translation of Shulhan Shel Arba as a work of art and a ritual object, rather than just an academic resource for a modern audience interested in food, culture and ethics.
This is where the illustrations of Rosemary Liss ’11 come in. Reading Rabbenu Bahya’s book, you can make the verbal and thematic associations only to the extent that you already have “acquired” in your mind the things, the sounds, the tastes to which he alludes. So a contemporary English translation and interpretation of Shulhan Shel Arba alone would not be enough to hook a modern audience unfamiliar with rabbinic and kabbalistic symbolism and ways of thinking. However, if Rabbenu Bahya’s “old” ideas can be visually associated with more contemporary images, the same visionary experience of “directed free association” might be evoked in contemporary readers.
That’s why I invited Rosemary, a studio art major who was in my “Rituals of Dinner,” to compose seven original illustrations for my translation.
Rosemary’s illustrations were informed by her sensibilities as a modern, nonorthodox Jewish woman interested in sustainable, local, slow food. By filtering Rabbenu Bahya’s Shulhan Shel Arba through her creative vision, Rosemary updated its allusive ideas in a sort of “visual midrash.” (All thanks to a Mars grant for student-faculty research collaboration.)
Her models for the illustrations were the illuminated Passover Haggadot (Jewish texts that set forth the order of the Passover Seder) by Rabbenu Bahya’s contemporaries in 13th- and 14th-century northern Spain, which she studied as part of this project, as well as the English text of my translation of Shulhan Shel Arba.
We also imitated the process used in the composing of these medieval illuminated Spanish Haggadot, which probably were commissioned collaborations between artists and rabbinic scholars somewhat similar to Rosemary’s and mine. Hence, for the duration of the project, we either met, or, when I was working on the translation in Prague, corresponded electronically to discuss which parts to illustrate, rationales for her artistic choices, and for general brainstorming and “give-and-take” about the art and the text.
Working with an artist like Rosemary helped me integrate my desire to create something that aims to be both a scholarly work and a work of art. The best part about the collaboration was that it inspired us to produce more and better work than I think we could have done on our own.
The whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Working with her supplied a whole set of internal motivations, built-in incentives that came not only from the rewards of camaraderie, but also from the mutual esteem we had for each other’s work. To be honest, whether you’re a graduating senior or a full professor, you both benefit from the mutual exchange of respect for each other’s work, talent and vision inherent in the activity of collaboration.
We’re still looking for a publisher who will share our vision of an art book for the dinner table, a sort of modern illuminated Haggadah, but our work-in-progress is publicly available online CLICK HERE to take a look .
No matter what happens, the collaboration and the translation process have been worthwhile for us both in our professional and personal development, and the reflection, like a good meal with friends, has been invaluable.
Professor of Religion Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, who is a rabbi, teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (in translation), on Judaism, Islam, responses to the Holocaust, comparison of religions, religion in modern literature, and “Rituals of Dinner”; conducts informal weekly Torah study sessions over lunch at Wheaton; and contributes to the blog “The Jew and the Carrot: Jews, Food, and Contemporary Issues”. He admits to being a little obsessed with food, both in theory and in practice.
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Photos by Nicki Pardo, challah photo by Maia Brumberg-Kraus
Illustrations by Rosemary Liss '11