What the Torah talks about when it talks about food

In ‘From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey,’ Diana Lipton compiles an extensive commentary on the themes of sustenance in the Bible

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Pictured: 'Jakob and Esau' by Dutch painter Matthias Stom. In 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey,' editor Diana Lipton offers commentary about the Bible and food, such as the lentil soup traded by one twin for his brother's birthright (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Pictured: 'Jakob and Esau' by Dutch painter Matthias Stom. In 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey,' editor Diana Lipton offers commentary about the Bible and food, such as the lentil soup traded by one twin for his brother's birthright (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The first thing to know about “From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey,” Diana Lipton’s commentary on food in the Torah, is that it isn’t a book about what people ate during biblical times.

In fact, most of the 54 scholars who contributed to this compilation of essays don’t usually write about food. They write about the Bible.

“That’s what made it so different,” said Diana Lipton, the Cambridge-trained scholar who compiled the book of essays (and a Times of Israel blogger). “It’s not what they usually write about, but everyone’s an expert, no matter what they think.”

The cover of Diana Lipton’s compilation of essays about the meaning of food in the Torah (Courtesy Diana Lipton)

What “From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey” (Urim Publications) does tackle is figuring out what the Torah is talking about when it talks about food.

“Food is a way for us to talk about a huge variety of other things,” said Lipton. “It’s how food connects and disconnects, its role in offering status and explaining our obligations to other people.”

So Lipton gathered a wide-ranging group of international Torah scholars to write 52 essays on the theme of food in the weekly Torah portion.

They’re a diverse group. All are academics, half from Israel and other half from the Diaspora. Half are men, half are women. And, emphasized Lipton, while none were invited to contribute based on their culinary expertise, many are passionate about food.

Each short essay — many of which read like a brief but complete dvar Torah or sermon that would be given in synagogue on a Shabbat morning — is followed by Lipton’s commentary on food and drink references that the essays did not cover. All the essays written in Hebrew were translated by Sara Tova Brody, and the book opens with a full glossary of Hebrew and biblical terms used by the writers.

The themes of food and the Torah can be obvious, said Lipton, particularly in certain classic biblical food stories, such as Jacob and Esau and the pot of lentil soup that proved to be a turning point in their journey as brothers. Another good example is the edict to leave the corners of one’s fields unharvested for the poor to come a glean, and in general the laws governing the harvesting of fruit and vegetables.

There are more esoteric angles as well. An essay by retired Vanderbilt University professor Jack Sasson about the Toledot weekly portion and Isaac’s blessing for Jacob — who was dressed in Esau’s clothing — pointed to the fact that Rebekah had years of experience in cooking for her husband Isaac and knew what would please his palate more than Esau’s simpe roasted meat, which resulted in Jacob receiving his father’s blessing.

Meira Polliack, a professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University, addressed the section known as Mikkets, when Pharoah dreamed of seven sturdy cows and then of seven skinny cows, portending years of plenty and famine. She used the biblical terminology of fullness, consumption and hunger as metaphors for Joseph, who spent years in exile in Egypt and then in prison only to experience a reversal of luck.

And Susan Handleman, who teaches in Bar-Ilan University’s English department, quoted food writer M.F.K. Fisher at the start of her essay, in which she discussed the connection between food, faith and philosophy in the Pinhas portion, which lists sacrifices made up of animal, meal and drink, which led her to reflect upon modern methods of animal agriculture and food production.

Bible thinker Diana Lipton brought together 52 scholars in her book, ‘From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey’ (Courtesy Diana Lipton)

Similarly for Lipton, the role of food in the Torah goes beyond the literal obligations, because “once you get that idea, it’s clear it’s not supposed to end there,” she said. “It’s building a connection with other people through very concrete acts that are internal to us. It makes us think about our own appetites and control, our responses to other people, what we’re putting into our mouths and who suffered or benefited from this?”

It was a project that began almost by chance, after Lipton moved to Israel from England, where she had lived for 17 years with her first husband, Peter Lipton, and raised her two sons.

In Cambridge, where her husband taught philosophy of science, Lipton earned a PhD based on her studies of Genesis. She also cooked many meals, both for her family and for many members of the burgeoning, non-Orthodox Jewish community that she helped foster.

Lipton writes in the book that when she finished her doctoral thesis on dreams in the book of Genesis, she placed her bound copy of the Cambridge University thesis on the shelf next to her cookbooks, where it stood for all the home-cooked food she’d sacrificed in order to write a dissertation.

Food for thought?

Years later, after Lipton’s first husband died suddenly of a heart attack and she had moved to London, she met her second husband, Chaim Milikowsky, then a professor and chair of the Talmud department at Bar-Ilan University. While Lipton was happy to consider moving to Israel, which she did in 2011, she didn’t see herself joining the ranks of Jerusalem Bible scholars.

“I like to teach really interactively and I have to understand people,” said Lipton. “I can’t do it in Hebrew. It would be okay in quantum mechanics but teaching Bible would be like teaching Shakespeare in broken English.”

She was, nevertheless, studying and teaching Torah and thinking about how parts of the Bible now applied to her as an Israeli citizen.

A longtime vegetarian who now cooks meat for her husband and other family members, Lipton found herself thinking about the place of kashrut in her life, how certain biblical agricultural laws now applied to her, and more universal food issues, such as the sources of her own food and the massive development of the global food industry.

Lipton also reflected on what she saw as the excess of Jewish food in the Diaspora, and thought that it wasn’t quite the same in Israel, where many go without enough food.

She ended up embarking on the book project with Leket Israel, Israel’s largest food rescue organization. She initially published the essays on the Leket website with recipes from food bloggers for each weekly portion, in order to bring together the issues of hunger, poverty and waste.

All royalties from the sales of the book are being given directly to Leket.

“It’s a way of making a dent in the food issues that surround us,” said Lipton. “It’s an overwhelming task, and this is one way to start thinking about it.”

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