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From Parsha to Halakha: Miketz, Chanukah, and Decrees of Separation

Kislev 5783 | December 2022


Food Culture

There’s truth in every joke, such as the popular summary of every Jewish festival: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” There’s a mitzvah to eat 2 meals on each festival. On Shabbat it’s 3 meals. These meals begin with kiddush (sanctification of the day) over wine, and breaking bread. There are also special foods associated with special days – mitzvot such as matzah and maror on Pesach, and traditions such as latkes and svinge on Chanukah. Life events such as brit milah and weddings are also celebrated with seudot (meals) mitzvah. Even mourning has a special meal, the seudat havra’a eaten when a mourner first begins sitting shiva after the burial.

Every culture, every religion has their own food traditions and ethos. Countless studies try to understand the part that sharing food has to do with social connections and community building, not to mention conveying culture, religion, and heritage; all acknowledge its significance.

Breaking bread with the Egyptians

In Parshat Miketz we are told of a curious meal. Yosef, his brothers, and some Egyptians sit to dine – but not together. The Torah relates that Yosef was served separately, his brothers were served separately, and the “Egyptians that were eating with him separately; because the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews since it was abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (Bereishit 23:32)

Several explanations are offered for this threefold separation. Based on Targum Onkelos Rashi claims the reason was religious; the Egyptians refused to eat with Hebrews because Hebrews would eat the animals the Egyptians worshiped. Rashbam sees the root in prejudice – the Egyptians thought sheep were disgusting and looked down on the Hebrew shepherds. Others explain it was political – to maintain honor and distance between different classes. (Bechor Shor) Meanwhile, Yosef dines alone – to maintain his secret identity Yosef could not dine with his brothers, and either due to his lofty stature or his Hebrew identity he could not dine with the Egyptians. (Seforno)

Yosef is the second most powerful man in Egypt. He has an Egyptian name and Egyptian clothes. According to the plain meaning of the text he married an Egyptian woman. (41:45, 50-51) Yet he is still Yosef – he is not one of them.

Shadal cites the historian Herodotus’s description of Egyptian prohibitions surrounding food, and particularly the laws that prevented them from sharing certain foods and utensils with Greeks, and ventures that there may have been similar issues here, although predating Herodotus by over a millennium. Yet Shadal questions how it was possible the Egyptians hadn’t developed a way to maintain their laws while sharing a meal with an important person from another religion or culture. As he states, “Today we do not refrain from inviting a foreign person to our home and eating with them at our table.”

Rabbinic decrees prohibiting food prepared by non-Jews

Shadal states that Jewish people do not hesitate to invite people from outside our religion to dine in our homes, but the opposite is not true. There are numerous halakhot that make such a thing difficult, to say the least. Aside from the Torah and rabbinic laws of issur v’heter – prohibited and permitted foods (generally referred to as laws of kashrut) – there are several rabbinic decrees expressly meant to prevent mixing over food. The original decrees, enacted around the end of the Second Temple Period, prohibited consuming bread, oil, and wine made by non-Jews.[1] The gemara describes these as part of the controversial “18 davar,” 18 decrees that were issued on the one day that Beit Shammai forcefully maintained a majority over Beit Hillel.[2]  At a later point some cooked foods and some alcoholic beverages were prohibited.  Oil was later permitted. The gemara relates that Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi’s Beit Din checked and found that the oil prohibition was not widely accepted, and there was a preexisting rule that only validates decrees that most of the public can accept.[3]

Some Rishonim point out that the reason behind these decrees is alluded to in the Torah. In Sefer Shemot (34:15-16) the Israelites are commanded not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of Canaan lest they be led astray by the Caananite’s gods – they make offerings and invite you to eat of it, and then you take of their daughters and they lead your sons after their gods. In Parshat Balak (Bamidbar 25:1-2) the prescience of this warning is evident; the Israelite men are intimate with Moabite girls who call them to sacrifice to their gods, eat with them, and bow down to their gods. The men follow.

Rabbinic decrees prohibiting relationships with non-Jews

The Torah explicitly prohibits intermarriage.[4] Rav Sheshet and Rava dispute if the Torah prohibition applies to all non-Jews or exclusively to the Seven Nations (perhaps even if the individual converts). Some explain that the former understands that the Torah is primarily concerned with the spiritual aspect of marriage – the bond of Jewish marriage is based in the sanctity of a shared covenant between God and the Jewish People. Respectively, the latter opinion (that the Torah only prohibits intermarriage to the 7 Canaanite Peoples) is a more practical consideration to prevent assimilation into what was then the dominant culture and religion. Nevertheless it is difficult to divorce the religious and cultural concerns, as it is generally understood that if a Jewish man “marries” a non-Jewish woman – any children resulting from the union will not be Jewish, and he will be led away from God.[5]

The gemara relates that subsequent decrees prohibiting further relationships with non-Jewish women were made by the Hasmonean Beit Din and then by Beit Shammai.[6] Those who maintain that the Torah prohibits all intermarriage explain that the Hasmoneans decreed that a man who has relations with a non-Jewish woman is liable for transgressing four prohibitions and Beit Shammai prohibited yichud with a non-Jewish woman.[7]

The gemara explains that these progressive sets of decrees that prohibit certain relationships between Jews and non-Jews and limit eating their food are intertwined:

“They decreed about their bread and oil because of their wine, and their wine because of their daughters, and their daughters because of something else (Rashi: worshiping false gods) …”

Decrees, decrees, decrees

Ramban questions the mechanisms at work here, citing the general rule that “we do not make a decree to [protect another] decree.” If drinking wine made by a non-Jew is a rabbinic decree to prevent intermarriage, how could bread and oil have been prohibited to prevent the rabbinic prohibition of wine? Decrees are a rabbinic mechanism used to ensure that a Torah law is obeyed – traditionally understood as a fence around the Torah. Our sages generally maintained that there was a mitzvah to strengthen Torah observance by adding one level of protection, but that further prohibitions would be harmful. So, what is happening here?

Ramban first explains that the language here may not be exact; it is possible that each decree was made to prevent biblically prohibited intermarriage and idol worship. Yet he seems to favor the idea that these decrees were not merely meant to prevent the Torah prohibitions of foreign worship and intermarriage; they were intended to ensure the Jewish people maintain their identity by maintaining some distance from others. The prohibitions of intermarriage and assimilation are so important because they are large determinants of Jewish identity, as we can clearly see today. So in this case, even “decrees to [protect other] decrees” are permitted – and necessary.[8]

This may explain why these decrees were added slowly, seemingly at times when there were major religious and cultural upheavals that presented new challenges to maintaining Jewish identity. We should note that these decrees were not imposed by a strict leadership without a firm grip on reality. With the exception of oil, these decrees were willingly accepted by the people – and the subsequent halakhic discussions over the centuries demonstrate how the leadership responded to changing realities and finding accommodations when necessary. These discussions tackle practical questions like whether commercially produced bread is prohibited. Is wine from a non-observant Jew also prohibited? Is food cooked by a non-Jewish servant in a Jewish home prohibited?

How important are these decrees?

The world has changed so much since these decrees were made, yet if anything, it has become more complicated to maintain Jewish identity. There are many Jewish people who consider themselves observant but are not careful about observing these decrees, sometimes deeming them too difficult or unnecessary. Yet there is something to be said for those who fastidiously attempt to obey them. Whether one is traveling or home, at friends or colleagues – if one is careful to abide by these rules they will be an “other.” But that may not be a bad thing. Perhaps this is the secret to how Yosef was able to maintain his identity as a Hebrew in Egypt. Perhaps these decrees have achieved their goals in maintaining Jewish identity through 2 millennia of exile.

The Hasmoneans were some of the first to make such decrees of separation. They understood the dangers of cultural assimilation and that it was not enough to physically survive – without Torah, Judaism dies. This is what they fought for – for independence, for the right to maintain a unique identity, for separation. And when we light our flames on Chanukah we publicize the miracle of the small overcoming the many, the purity and light of the Jewish People persevering, with the strength God gave us, despite overwhelming impurity and darkness.

Separation, not isolation

Avraham was chosen to be a source of blessing to all nations of the world. Our forefathers did not refrain from eating with non-Jewish people, yet as Shadal pointed out, this was generally done by inviting them into our homes. It is far more difficult to eat at their homes. In our own space, where we set the culture, we can let down our boundaries and share freely. There is no prohibition against eating with non-Jews or visiting their homes, but when we do there are strict borders, they remind both us and our hosts that we are different – and that that’s ok.

Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I?” Maintaining Jewish identity may mean separation, but it does not mean isolation. Rav Kook explains the verse “God gives beauty to Yefet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” as a declaration of an ideal.[9] Shem was an ancestor of the Jewish People, Yefet the Greeks. Greek culture has developed art and science and more, disciplines and tools that can enhance the world in general and Judaism specifically. But this must be done in the tents of Shem – the content is provided by the Jewish home, the ideas and values of the Torah. There is much wisdom in other cultures, but sanctity – the truth, wisdom, morality, spirituality, and Divinity of the Torah – is God’s gift to us and Judaism’s unique gift to the world. They share their gifts with us, we share our gifts with them. Like Chanukah candles shining from a Jewish home, “Ohr la’Goyim” – “A light unto the nations.”

[1] TB Avoda Zara, end of chapter 2. Some of these decrees may have additional reasons, and some are only prohibited in certain cases. Other decrees made that day imposed impurity on non-Jews and prohibited “their daughters” – the nature of this is disputed based on an ongoing dispute as to the original Torah prohibition of intermarriage and subsequent decrees discussed below.

[2] Mishna Shabbat 1:4 and the following gemara

[3] Avoda Zara 35b-36a. Cheese and milk are also prohibited, although that seems to be exclusively due to concerns that non-kosher ingredients were used.

[4] Shemot 34:102-16, Devarim 7:3-4. It should be noted that marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not halakhically valid – since Jewish marriage is only valid when performed “according to the religion of Moshe and Israel.”

[5] TB Kiddushin 68b, Shabbat 17b, Yevamot 23a, Yevamot 76a, Rambam Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah Chapter 12

[6] Rav Yaakov Meidan has a fascinating article exploring such laws as presented in The Book of Maccabees and the gemara. Originally published: בית דינם של חשמונאים, כתב עת סגולה, כסלו-נובמבר תשע”א 2010 גליון 7

[7] TB Avoda Zara 36b. While the Torah prohibited intermarriage for both men and women, these Talmudic sources seem to exclusively describe cases of Jewish men with non-Jewish women. There are, however, other sources that prohibit relationships between Jewish women and non-Jewish men – attributed to the Beit Din of Shem and the Beit Din of David.

[8] Avoda Zara 36b

[9] Bereishit 9:27, TB Megilla 9b, Ma’amarei Re’iya II pg. 496

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.