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 The priority of food

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PostSubject: The priority of food   Mon Oct 15, 2007 1:06 am

World of the Sages: The priority of food

By LEVI COOPER

Between the recital of the benediction before eating and ingesting the food, we do not interrupt with idle chatter. Such a disruption would require the recitation of a new blessing, for the benediction previously said is rendered invalid by the interlude.

Our sages explain that certain pertinent phrases may be said in the interim, since they are not considered a digression of thought (B. Berachot 40a). Thus one who pronounced the benediction over bread but is yet to taste the food, can pass a piece of bread to someone else and say: "Take, recite the blessing." According to another sage, even if the one who recited the blessing said: "Bring salt, bring relish," the initial blessing is not rendered null. The final opinion brought in the talmudic passage allows one to even say "Mix the food for the oxen," without voiding the initial blessing.

Offering someone else a piece of bread or asking for condiments to season the bread is clearly connected to the task at hand - eating the meal. Why is preparing fodder for animals not considered an interruption? It is hardly connected to partaking of the meal.

Our sages explain this rule by recalling another meal related directive: People may not eat before they have given food to their animals. In fact, the Almighty says: "And I will give grass in your field for your animal; and you will eat and you will be satisfied" (Deuteronomy 11:15) - first feed is supplied for the animals, then God ensures that humans will eat and be satisfied (see also B. Gittin 62a). We see that ensuring that the animals have been given fodder is related to human meals and therefore is not considered an interruption that requires a new blessing.

Why must we give our animals food before we sit down to eat? Traditionally, animals have served the needs of humans; examples abound - cows for milk, sheep for wool, chickens for eggs. In recognition of the benefit animals render humans, we are enjoined to ensure their physical welfare.

There are, however, biblical verses in which human sustenance is considered before animal fodder. Thus when the servant of Abraham arrives to find a wife for Isaac, Rebekah offers him to drink first and then fetches water for the camels (see Genesis 24). Similarly, when Moses is instructed to bring water forth from the rock, he is told to quench the thirst of the Jewish people and of their livestock. Later in this passage, when the Divine directive is carried out, the same order appears - first the people, then the animals (see Numbers 20:8, 11).

These verses led the medieval pietists to offer a distinction between eating and drinking: Animals should be fed first, yet humans take precedence when it comes to beverages (Sefer Hassidim, 13th century, Germany). Indeed when the servant of Abraham enters the house of Rebekah's family, straw is first given to his camels and afterward food is placed in front of him (Genesis 24:32-33). While this distinction is borne out in a careful reading of the biblical passages, what is the logic behind it? One possibility is the more immediate peril of dehydration compared to the danger of starvation. Perhaps this is at the root of the words offered by one commentator, who explains Rebekah's actions toward Abraham's servant: Animals always come first, unless the human is in danger; Rebekah offered the servant to drink in consideration of his thirst, thus recognizing the risks associated with dehydration. Once he had drunk his fill and any danger had passed, she watered the camels and fed them before offering the servant food (Rabbi Haim ibn Atar, 18th century, Morocco-Jerusalem).

A further approach highlights the food chain as the explanation for the animals-eat-first rule. If there is no more available food once the animal has eaten, the humans will still not starve for they can always slaughter the animal and eat its flesh. This logic cannot be applied to water. Moreover, the liquid inside the animal - blood - is forbidden according to Jewish law.

This explanation explains the unexpected verse where the Almighty commands Noah to gather all types of food so that the ark would be stocked "for you and for them" (Genesis 6:21), that is for Noah and his family and for the animals. Should it not say that the food was first for the animals and then for the people?

Permission to eat meat was granted only after the deluge; before the flood, humans were herbivorous. Had the animals eaten all the food supplies, the humans would starve. Hence human rations came before those of the animals.

In an unrelated biblical context, human nutrition appears to take precedence over animal nourishment. Describing the shmita sabbatical year, the verse says that the food that will naturally grow will be for us to eat and for the animals (see Leviticus 25:6-7). The verse appears to go counter to the required order. We might suggest that the obligation to give food to animals first only applies when the food belongs to humans. Shmita produce is ownerless and therefore is not subject to the standard rules.

Here we come to a further aspect of the animals-eat-first imperative: Though the food may be legally belong to us, our first obligation is to ensure that those who are our responsibility have eaten. In this spirit, the codifiers extend the requirement beyond animals to our servants (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo).

If we carefully ensure that those under our care - animals and humans - have eaten their fill before we do, we subtly teach ourselves the relative value of food. Though our stomachs may rumble, though we might claim to be famished, we are not to place ourselves at the front of the line when food is dished out. If we make sure that our animals have eaten before we do, if we ensure that our workers are satiated before we sit down to a feast, we will be placing care for others as a priority higher than food.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.
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