The Sabbath Spice

When I was a child, I always used to look forward to Friday night and the Sabbath evening meal. In my memory, it almost invariably consisted of egg and onions for hors d’oeuvres, followed by chicken soup, sometimes with kneidlach (matza balls) or kreplach (ravioli) or lokschen  (noodles) and, for the main course, braised or roast chicken (occasionally stuffed) and roast potatoes. I don’t have any recollection of sitting down for a hot, meat meal on weekdays, when everybody returned at different times from school or work. In any case, until I reached the sixth form, when we were allowed to bring packed lunches, I dined mid-day at school and was obliged to make do with vegetarian school dinners for the sake of kashrut. So the Shabbat meal was always special and between courses and at the end of the meal, we would sing zemirot (Sabbath songs traditionally sung at the table during the festive Sabbath meal) and, as a modern Zionist addition, Hebrew and Israeli folk songs. In my adult years, I have, of course, eaten those same dishes mid-week also, but they just don’t taste the same, even when I prepare them using my mother’s exact same recipe.

Well, obviously nothing can compare to one’s mother’s cooking, but even now, the same food prepared mid-week just doesn’t taste like that prepared for, and served up on, Shabbat.

Almost two thousand years ago, the Roman emperor was wandering in disguise through the Jewish quarter in Rome on a Friday evening. He peeked into the houses and saw the Jews enjoying their Sabbath evening meal, with such evident relish that he decided he must find find out what it was they were eating that gave them such pleasure. Accordingly, he summoned the great rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, who enjoyed favour at the imperial court, and expressed a wish to savour some Jewish cooking. Accordingly, the Rabbi invited the Emperor to dine with him at his own home the following Friday evening. The Emperor came with his retinue and was royally feasted by the Rabbi. The Emperor enjoyed the meal, but still could not understand why it would induce such seeming ecstasy in the Jewish guests  and therefore demanded of the Rabbi the recipes for each and every one of the dishes he had tasted. The Imperial cooks were summoned and the Rabbi’s wife carefully explained how each dish was prepared, giving detailed instructions, while the imperial cooks diligently noted down every word and went back to the palace to prepare an identical meal for the Emperor.

The following day, the imperial cooks prepared a banquet for their master in accordance with the instructions they had received from the Rabbi and his wife, but after a few mouthfuls, the Emperor rose from his couch in anger and ordered that his cooks be brought before him. "Why did you not follow the instructions you were given?" he demanded.
"But indeed we did, mighty Caesar," they protested, trembling. "Down to the last pinch of salt."
"Then the Rabbi must have lied to you and kept something back," replied the Emperor.

A few hours later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya was summoned urgently to the palace where he was brought before an extremely angry Emperor.
"Why did you and your wife lie to me?" demanded the Emperor. "The meal which my cooks prepared tastes nothing like the banquet I had at your house. You cannot have given them full instructions. Something is missing."
"Something is indeed missing," replied the Rabbi. "A very special spice."
"What spice is that?" asked the Emperor, curiously. "I must have that spice. I order you to give it to me."
"That spice is called Shabbat (the Sabbath)," replied the Rabbi. "It cannot be given, nor can it be bought. It comes of itself to those who love and observe the Sabbath. So powerful is that spice that when food is prepared lovingly, for the Sabbath, by those who cherish the Sabbath, even a non-believer, such as yourself, could taste a hint of it in the food."

Shabbat Shalom to you all. 

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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3 Responses to The Sabbath Spice

  1. Rambling says:

    I enjoyed that story very very much. And I know that the principle involved is true. Thank you for that and the smile I still have on my face. 🙂

  2. Patricia says:

    A wonderful story, Shimona…I remember my mother\’s Sunday dinners with a special fondness…somehow it was always different for any other day of the week…a lot to do with the presence of my father, probably, who wasn\’t usually there during the rest of the week, because of his work…

  3. Rambling says:

    Stopping by again just to enjoy the blog and the pictures.

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