When G-d decided to become a food writer: life without yeast and the Passover narrative

I wrote the following post last week for the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy where I’ll be teaching a seminar for its Master’s in Food Culture later this year.

When G-d instructed us to live without one of His miracles— yeast — for a week each year as we remember and retell the Exodus the story, He was and is reminding us of what He did for us when He redeemed us from bondage.

Christians and Jews, G-d did what He did for us so that we would follow His example and not turn our backs and cast our shadows on those who are suffering and those who are in need. The Hebrews of ancient Egypt were immigrants who suffered at the hands of a powerful tyrant. And G-d delivered them (and us) to safety and freedom. Please remember that this Passover and Easter season.

Chag sameach, yall! Happy Passover! The Passover begins tonight.

Above: Some of the classic foods that American Jews eat for the Passover. Matzah (unleavened bread) is described explicitly in the Bible. Gefilte fish, a type of ground fish loaf, actually has nothing to do with the holiday but it is a tradition for Jews of Central European descent to serve it with the Passover meal. Horse radish is meant to symbolize the bitterness and suffering and is also descried in Exodus.

For those of you not familiar with the Passover, it’s a holiday when Jews across the world tell the story of the Exodus through a symbolic meal (the Seder) where each of the foods and each of the courses, including wine service, represent an element in the narrative. It’s such a popular and powerful festival in the Jewish liturgic calendar that even secular and non-observant Jews take time out from their lives to partake in the ritual. And even though it tells a story full of pain and suffering, the outcome of the narrative arc is a happy one: G-d delivers the Hebrews from the Pharaoh and bondage. And the meal itself and the storytelling make Passover one of the most fun and most beloved holidays for Jews everywhere in the world.

You can read more about the Passover and the Seder plate and foods in this excellent Wikipedia entry. Be sure to click through to the Passover Seder plate entry as well.

The central food of the meal is the matzah (pane azzimo in Italian), unleavened bread.

Before the week of the Passover begins, observant Jews carefully remove any leavened foods from their homes and eat only unleavened foods, including matzah, because it reminds of the Jews’ haste in fleeing Egypt: They were in such a hurry to leave that they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. That’s true. But it’s only part of the story.

In the passage from the Book of Exodus where G-d instructs the Jews to observe the Passover ritual, He actually tells the Jews to eat matzah before they leave. In his instructions, He simultaneously gives them culinary direction; gives them a preview of what is about to happen (i.e., the Exodus); and he tells that them that they must commemorate the Passover and the story of the Exodus once every year for perpetuity.

It’s really fascinating (imho) to read the original text where the Passover is described. I’ve copied and pasted it below. And I encourage to read the entire story. It’s one of the most moving and compelling stories from the Bible and it continues to inspire literary and figurative art works: The Jews’ deliverance from bondage resonates not only as an analogy for subjugated peoples of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries but it’s also an allegory for personal redemption and resurgence. What a powerful archetype!

Here’s the passage where matzah is described and where G-d instructs the Jews how the holiday will be observed. Personally, I find it to be an amazing piece of writing. The conative component alone is brilliant: G-d is at once speaking to the Jews in the story and the Jews reading the story. Here it is… enjoy and chag sameach, happy festival!

“‘This will be a day for you to remember and celebrate as a festival to Adonai [G-d]; from generation to generation you are to celebrate it by a perpetual regulation.

“‘For seven days you are to eat matzah — on the first day remove the leaven from your houses. For whoever eats [c]hametz [leavened bread] from the first to the seventh day is to be cut off from Isra’el. On the first and seventh days, you are to have an assembly set aside for God. On these days no work is to be done, except what each must do to prepare his food; you may do only that. You are to observe the festival of matzah, for on this very day I brought your divisions out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you are to observe this day from generation to generation by a perpetual regulation. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzah. During those seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses. Whoever eats food with hametz in it is to be cut off from the community of Isra’el — it doesn’t matter whether he is a foreigner or a citizen of the land. Eat nothing with hametz in it. Wherever you live, eat matzah.'”

Learn more about the UniSG Master’s in Food Culture here.

3 thoughts on “When G-d decided to become a food writer: life without yeast and the Passover narrative

    • From what I understand, the wines have to be made with yeasts that only come from grapes (although, now we know that that’s not possible; they didn’t know back then). Part of the kosher for Passover thing about wine is that the rabbis make sure that the wines don’t come into contact with yeasts that are associated with grains (although that’s not possible either). Chag smaeach, Tony!

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