Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 9, 2018

After the Cheesecake

CheeseCake2Someone I spoke to before Shavuos ended an e-mail with, “I’ll talk to you after the cheesecake.”  He didn’t have to explain further, as I automatically knew he meant after the Yom Tov of Shavuos.  The food is so integrally associated with the holiday that the term cheesecake was almost interchangeable.  In fact, not only did it get the message across, but it did so in a light-hearted way that made me smile.

This isn’t the only holiday that has associated foods.  Purim has Hamantaschen, Chanuka has Latkes, Rosh HaShana has apple and honey and Shabbos has its chicken soup.  Let’s face it, as the joke says, most Jewish holidays can be described as, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!”

Traditionally, there have been “Jewish” foods over the years though they differ in different regions. Gefilte fish was created specifically to provide a fish with no bones to avoid transgressing the sin of borer/separating mixtures on Shabbos, and, just as the world learned at the 2013 Scripps Spelling Bee that a “knaidel” is a German-Yiddish word for a round, leavened dumpling, those of us in the know could have told you that Matzah Balls are a uniquely Jewish food.

I wonder.  What’s so important about food that it becomes inextricably linked to our Jewish observances?  Why should the focus of the holidays be on the food?  Isn’t that cheapening the experience of holiness that we should feel?  Isn’t it time I started answering questions instead of asking them?

The first point to make is that as Jews, nothing is purely physical.  Our job in this world is to take the physical and uplift it.  We eat food which is a physical act, but we make a blessing over it, which raises it into the realm of the spiritual.  We don’t just break bread.  At certain times the bread is flat and unleavened because of a miracle that took place (Pesach) and sometimes we have two loaves (Shabbos) to commemorate the Manna HaShem gave us in the desert.  By associating a food with a spiritual aspect, such as eating cheesecake on Shavuos because the Jews at Sinai ate dairy since their previously-used pots were not Kosher, we are doing much more than just consuming the actual food.

However, even if you remove the spiritual aspect or reason for the food, there is a great reason to celebrate Chag HaCheesecake.

We find in the Torah that food is a strong producer of positive feeling.  We are told that Yitzchak loved Esav because of the fresh meat he provided his father.  While there are other, less literal, explanations of this posuk, the simple one does not go away.  It’s likely the source of the expression, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  Because we associate good feelings with food, the source of that food also gains a fondness in our eyes.

That said, when we celebrate Shavuos by eating cheesecake, the cake itself is making us happy about the holiday, and in turn, about the Torah.  The mitzvah of being happy on Yom Tov is what guides us to eat meat and drink wine for Chazal say, “There is no joy without meat and wine.”  Is this true? Would one absolutely be unable to be happy on a holiday without these items? Perhaps not, but certainly one who enjoys a meal complete with meat and wine will be in a good mood and this positive mindset will spill over into the Yom Tov.

Much as a child riding a bike downhill gets enough momentum to help him keep going when he reaches the bottom of the hill, the external forces that give us joy can be converted into energy to push us forward in our performance of mitzvos with a smile.  It is said that Rabbeinu Tam, one of the authors of the Tosfos commentary on the Gemara, had an interesting practice when faced with a difficult piece of Torah that he needed all his strength to get through.

He would take out a stack of gold coins and start counting them.  The joy that he got from this, not just seeing on a spiritual level how much HaShem had blessed him, but from the simple satisfaction of having some money in his pocket, enabled him to focus better on the task at hand.

When approaching Judaism, the Torah, and the Mitzvos, the most powerful tool for finding joy in them is recognizing the opportunities they provide us for basic pleasure.  Eating delicious foods on Shabbos, enjoying conversation around the table (no Lashon Hara of course), spending time with people we love and who love us, and even getting dressed up for the holidays, are all ways for us to find tangible joy in our Yiddishkeit and use it to enhance our relationship with HaShem.  After all, He’s the reason for our celebration.

If you want someone to see the beauty of Shabbos, don’t talk about it.  Just give him a steaming bowl of cholent and a big smile.  You’ll get a lot farther that way.  And if someone wants to know what’s so great about being a Jew?  Tell him you’ll answer him after the cheesecake. 🙂

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