The act of eating in the Jewish tradition is never simply the consumption of food. Food is respected as fuel for sure, but food as a source of physical nourishment cannot be stripped from its other central roles as symbol, ritual object and identity builder. From Eve’s first bite in the Garden of Eden, food has assumed a unique place in our people’s collective meaning making project.
The role of food at the Pesach Seder is an example par excellence. The Seder is, at one level, the gastronomic event of the year. We cook for days in advance and relish having our taste buds becoming reacquainted with the familiar dishes of years (and generations) past. And, on another level, the Seder is clearly much more than a feast. We come together to tell our people’s story; we teach our children and remind ourselves, who we are, where we came from, and where we are seeking to head.
And, fundamentally, the eating and the storytelling are inextricably intertwined.
A Seder without food would not be a Seder. (Try to imagine sitting down to a Seder and talking about the meaning of karpas, maror and matzah without actually consuming them!) And a multi-course meal on Pesach night without the haggadah would simply be a fancy dinner. On Seder night, food is not peripheral to some other aspect of the evening. Rather, our intentional eating of specific foods is how we achieve the Seder’s primary aim — to experience for ourselves the movement from slavery to freedom, from degradation to exaltation.
On Seder night, the haroset, the Hillel sandwich, the afikoman, and the rest, all serve as texts in the form of food. While eating them in the context of their role in the haggadah, our minds, hearts and bellies are all three simultaneously engaged. The pungent power of horseradish and the parched, bland taste of matzo help make all the talk of slavery more than a cerebral exercise.
And Pesach aside, food is never simply food. Every piece of food has its own story that speaks of land and water, of workers and animals, of history and science, of politics and commerce. And, sadly, our food often also tells the story of exploitation and disease, of inequity and abuse. But, of course, by the time that our food arrives at our plate it becomes exceedingly difficult to access these stories.
As we recall our Seder this year, let us take full advantage of the traditional Seder foods to help us have the fully intended experience of degradation and exaltation, of slavery and freedom. And let us rededicate ourselves to reading the stories of our food every day of the year in the service of eating food that is not itself a product of injustice and oppression.
Rabbi Jacob Fine is the Director of Programs for the Jewish Farm School and an enthusiastic fermenter (not during Pesach).