Cooking, Shabbat, and Wordsworth

No, this is not another whiny post about how hot it is here and how I feel as though I’m being slowly poached.

It’s actually about cooking. I was thinking this past Shabbat afternoon about why there are so many rules particular to cooking in the halachah/Jewish law about keeping Shabbat. As anyone familiar with the halachah knows, there are plenty of rules for almost every activity you might consider doing on Shabbat. Playing baseball, running through the sprinkler, walking over to visit friends in another part of town, and a hundred other activities all come within the halachic rubric of the Shabbat laws. But cooking is special.

Cooking involves many different kinds of melachah or labour; grinding, chopping, soaking, straining, and, above all, heating all involve halachic questions on Shabbat. Structurally, this all arises because cooking is one of the more intricate processes to impose physical changes on the stuff around us. It is also a daily necessity. So naturally it interacts in numerous ways with the laws surrounding Shabbat.

But on another level, it seems to me that something else is happening here. For those of us who are carnivores, every meat meal comes at the cost of another life; even for vegetarians, there is a necessary arrogance involved in claiming the right to turn a piece of the planet into a part of ourselves. And that arrogance is the opposite of the purpose of Shabbat.

Take a cupful of “And God rested”, add a soupcon of imitatio dei et voila! The recipe for Shabbat (as set out in the Ten Commandments in Shmot/Exodus Ch. 20): God stopped making the world, and so for one day a week we stop too. The act of cooking is the supreme claim to control the world around us; we not only transform, we absorb what we have transformed.

No wonder there are so many fetters on our ability to cook on Shabbat. It is a day upon which we choose not to exercise dominion, not to be in control of the material world around us; for twenty-five hours, we release our clutch on the stuff of daily life. Emblematic of that are the numerous changes in that most quotidian of activities, making food. Shabbat is not about what we can lay claim to and colonize. As Wordsworth put it:

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Shabbat is the antidote for that lack of self that is externalized into the need to consume.



One comment on “Cooking, Shabbat, and Wordsworth

  1. Outstanding!! Your usual well-crafted explication of the interplay between halachah and lived-life with a touch of Wordsworth to help universalize the idea. Now if only the poaching of humans could be eliminated on Shabbat and the rest of the week….

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