JP Shabbat: D’var Torah on the occasion of a new minyan in Jamaica Plain

Originally delivered at the inaugural meeting of JP Shabbat, a monthly independent minyan that started in my living room in April 2009, and as of this writing is still going strong four and a half years later, in the hands of a new generation of organizers.

I closed on my condo in Jamaica Plain just over two years ago.  When I decided to move to JP, I knew I’d be entering a community where neighbors talked to each other, where acres of green space awaited just down the street, and where I’d be just a quick T ride from downtown and a quick car ride to my office.  I also knew that I’d be entering a community with a lot of Jewish people, but not a lot of Jewish activity.  As someone who works for the Jewish community, I have to admit I found the idea of JP as an island away from the Jews of my work week to hold more than a little appeal for me.

Of course, I don’t really want to live in an island away from Judaism… to paraphrase a rabbi I work with, I don’t hate Judaism, I just have a problem with Jews.  Luckily, JP’s lack of a major synagogue presence means that the Jews who move here tend to be like-minded.  It didn’t take long before many of us were murmuring to each other about starting some kind of Friday night… something.  A minyan, a dinner group, an occasional Kiddush club?  The common theme was “I don’t care what we start as long as I don’t have to be in charge.”

Well, God bless Jess Gould and Efraim Yudewitz for stepping forward and actually getting us all into a room together.  About two weeks ago, nine people assembled in Jess and Efraim’s living room and decided to start whatever this is that we’re doing now.

Our discussion covered a range of topics, from how often we’d meet to what the service might feel like.  But the one thing we could all agree on was that our Shabbat gathering would involve some combination of worship and food.

It seems like a nice bit of synchronicity that our first Shabbat together comes on the week of parshat Tzav, which also deals with worship and food.  At first glance, the parasha looks like a pretty dry description of how different sacrifices were to be made back in Biblical times.  I know when I talk about sacrifices with my students, their eyes glaze over and they ask why it takes so many words to say “we burned stuff for God.”  But as we here, today, begin to figure out what our Shabbat rituals will look like, it’s instructive to take a closer look at these early worship rituals.

Looking at these descriptions anew, I was struck by one particular aspect of the mincha, the meal offering.  In Leviticus 6:8, we read וְהֵרִים מִמֶּנּוּ בְּקֻמְצוֹ, מִסֹּלֶת הַמִּנְחָה וּמִשַּׁמְנָהּ, וְאֵת כָּל-הַלְּבֹנָה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הַמִּנְחָה; וְהִקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ אַזְכָּרָתָהּ–לַיהוָה., “A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken from it, with all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”  Did you catch that last part?  Only a token portion of the sacrifice actually gets burned up for God.  The Torah continues, וְהַנּוֹתֶרֶת מִמֶּנָּה, יֹאכְלוּ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו; מַצּוֹת תֵּאָכֵל בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁ, בַּחֲצַר אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יֹאכְלוּהָ. “What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes, in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting.”

Why do Aaron and his sons get to eat the sacrifice?  At first, I just assumed this was how the priests earned their daily bread.  A priest’s gotta eat, right?  But unleavened bread doesn’t sound like much of a meal.

W. Gunther Plaut notes that lesser sacrifices could be eaten by anyone, but this particular sacrifice was reserved for the priests.  In the Kuzari, Yehudah HaLevi’s medieval commentary, we find the opinion that this food is indeed nourishment, but not only for the body: “[Eating the sacrifices] is for their own benefit, as is also the proper working order of the digestion in the stomach and liver. The nobler ingredients of the food go to strengthen the heart; the best of all, the spirit. Not only are heart, mind, and brain regenerated by means of this.”

Baruch Levine, in the JPS Torah Commentary, suggests that the priests eating their portion is an integral part of the sacrificial ritual, not an afterthought.  In other words, in order for the sacrifice to “count,” the priests have to eat their portion.  Furthermore, they must eat it in the tent of meeting, in which Rabbi Nosson Scherman sees the priests becoming an extension of the altar itself.

Today, sacrifice has been replaced by prayer, so the idea of ritualized eating seems a little far off from us.  And yet, when we think of our favorite Jewish traditions, the Passover seder, the Shabbat dinner, even the latke and the hamentashen all merit mention.  Maybe we haven’t totally left this idea behind.

Although there’s plenty about the sacrificial system that I’m glad we’ve left behind, I wonder if we haven’t lost something by replacing a ritual that involved all our senses – the sights of the temple, the sound of the prayers, the heat of the altar, the smell of the smoke, the taste of the sacrifice – with a new ritual that we primarily interact with through sound and sight.  Maybe this flattening of our prayer experience has necessitated the building up of our gastronomic culture.

Even though we think of our system of prayer services as the substitute for sacrifice, I don’t think that’s the whole story.  Our Shabbat table is often spoken of as a reenactment of the temple altar, which is one of the reasons why some people sprinkle their challah with salt and distribute the pieces of bread in a particular way.  This isn’t an accident.

Just as the ancient priests had to share in their consumption of the food from the altar in order for the sacrifices to count, I’d like to suggest that we must share a Shabbat meal in order for our Shabbat prayers to have their full effect.  We can sing songs about the sweetness of the day, but can we really experience the sweetness of Shababt without wine?  We can thank God for providing for us so we don’t need to work every day, but can we truly appreciate sustenance without a belly full of challah?

So as we conclude our service, I hope everyone here will stay for dinner.  Not because it’s delicious – well, not only because it’s delicious – but because maybe in its own way, Shabbat dinner is another way we can offer our prayers to God.

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