Throughout the centuries of Jewish tradition, we have celebrated holidays by eating festive meals. In many homes meat is the centerpiece on the table at these joyous occasions. This tradition originates from the book of Isaiah, “If you call the sabbath ‘delight,’ the Lord’s holy day ‘honored’; And if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains — then you can seek the favor of the Lord.” (Isaiah 58:13-14). Jewish sages have interpreted this text to say that we should “delight” in Shabbat by eating food that is special— for many centuries this has meant meat, which historically wasn’t eaten during the week but only on the Sabbath.
However, Limmud NY 2011, a multidenominational Jewish conference focused on Jewish learning of all kinds, held last week in the Catskills, proved that meat is not necessarily the only way that we can delight in Shabbat through food.
When asked why the weekend was meatless, conference organizers said the decision was not made out of environmental concerns, or to appease the growing number of vegetarians in the community. Rachel Dor, Limmud NY Co-Chair said, “The decision to go meat-free this year was a financial one. Ordering a set of meat dishes and cutlery for Friday night dinner added several dollars per person to catering costs. Using paper goods and plastic cutlery to serve all 700 people seemed too wasteful.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, the conference participants didn’t seem to mind the lack of meat. When the delicious Moroccan style fish was served on Friday night, one of my tablemates seemed surprised that we were only being served fish, but he was not unhappy. In fact, many commented on the high quality of the food throughout the weekend. One participant noted that, “there was so much spiritual food for the soul, meat wasn’t necessary!”
Dor explained that, “We considered that many people eat chicken or meat for a traditional Shabbat meal and learned that this is in fact a minhag [tradition] rather than Halacha [law]. Once we learned more about what it means to delight in Shabbat, we realized that being at Limmud NY on Shabbat is fulfilling the law of ‘delighting in Shabbat’ in so many enriching ways, with or without roasted chicken.”
Yet it was surprising that Limmudniks were not engaged in much education about the multitude of ways that you can delight in Shabbat observance besides eating meat. Organizers attempted to foster the conversation by providing text from Isaiah and discussion questions about delighting in Shabbat, on a card placed on Shabbat dinner tables, yet the vague language went over many participants’ heads. Putting health and environmental benefits of eating less meat aside, the conference could have engaged participants with ways of bringing Shabbat joy into their own observance. Is meat necessary to delight in Shabbat? How else can we celebrate one of our most important holidays with joy?
Limmud NY is one of the few successful examples of pluralism in action. Jews of all walks of life and all levels of observance come together. Yet the food that we ate was an afterthought. Our tradition teaches us to delight in Shabbat through the food that we eat, and I would hope that in the future, we are all encouraged to eat more consciously, no matter what our food choices.
Daniel Infeld is the Food Programs Fellow at Hazon and he is a recent graduate of Clark University in Worcester, MA.