Monday, January 07, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Zvi Leshem - Eating & Aroma

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 42:14 states,

Some of the food or drink which has a good aroma and creates desire, must be given to the waiter before it is served to others, because it can be harmful to see food before him for which he has a desire and yet cannot eat of it.

It seems to me that there is something beneath the surface in this halacha that would add to our recent discussion about the dichotomy between enjoying the taste of certain foods versus the indulgence in one's tayvos (desires) when eating. What do you think?

Rabbi Zvi Leshem answers:

The source of this law is in Ketubot 61a. The Gemara discusses differing customs about feeding the waiter from the food that is being served and Rashi explains that food with an aroma is injurious to one whom it is being eaten in front of, if he doesn’t eat. The Rambam brings this l’halacha in two places. In Hilchot Brachot 7:7 he states it is merciful (Derech rachmanut) to give [the waiter] some of each type of food in his mouth in order to calm him [l’yashev daato]. In Hilchot Avadim 9:8 he brings it as an example of how one must be merciful to even a Canaanite slave. It is noteworthy, that unlike Rashi, the Rambam does not view this as an issue of “danger”, but rather of compassion. Thus he omits the issue of aroma from the discussion.

The Tur, OH 169, quotes the language of the Gemara that we are dealing with foods that have an aroma, but adds that it is midat chasidut, to give the waiter some of each food being served (even if it doesn’t have an aroma). The Prisha explains as follows: The aroma causes one to desire [sh’yitaveh] for it, and he may be endangered or weakened if he doesn’t receive any.

The Shulchan Aruch poskins (169:1) like the Tur, that one must give the waiter anything that has an aroma, and that it is midat chasidut to give him from all foods, even those that don’t have an aroma. The Chayeh Adam (45:9) adds that in this matter no condition made with the waiter at the time of his employment helps, he must be given some of the aromatic food. The Mishna Brura also brings the reason that the aromatic food can injure one who smells it but cannot eat. In the Biur Halacha he adds that this whole halacha presumably applies to any one, and that the waiter is just the typical case. He concludes, Perhaps this is the reason that all of Israel are accustomed that if someone comes to the door when they are eating they invite him to join. The Aruch HaShulchan (169:1) defines this dangerous desire as occurring when the waiter sees the food, especially when he sees others eating (this is combined with the aroma factor). He adds that today we are not careful about this since only rich people have waiters and they eat the same food in the kitchen before they serve it.

We have seen two basic reasons for this law. According to the Rambam (and presumably everyone would agree), this is a matter of compassion and has nothing to do with danger or injury. According to Rashi and most of the subsequent authorities, this is a problem of potential danger or at least discomfort for the waiter after the aroma (and perhaps the sight) of the food causes the response of sensual desire, which must be satisfied (My son Reb Eliyahu suggests Mishna Yoma 8:5 as a possible sources for this). Al Derech HaAvoda, what can we learn from this?

Firstly, compassion to others. Most of the poskim bring this law together with the requirement to feed one’s animal (l’havdil) before eating. Secondly, according to all but the Rambam, our sensory responses to stimuli such as smell and vision are very powerful indeed. One could argue here that since we are dealing with a “lowly” (perhaps Canaanite) waiter, we have no expectations that they will be able to “deal with” their taavot, to resist, uplift or sublimate them, and therefore the only compassionate thing to do is to allow them to indulge themselves somewhat. But what of us? Are we akin to the baal habayit here? Well, he is already eating the scrumptious morsels! Where is his sublimation of sensual desires?

Perhaps this can be seen as an opportunity to engage in avoda b’gashmiut, service through corporeality, which the Piaseczner Rebbe sees as the major chiddush of the Besht (Mevo HaShearim chapter 3, chapter 9). While it is true that after the Maggid of Mezritch, many of the Rebbes did away with or severely limited avoda b’gashmiut, (Israeli scholar Tsippi Kaufman’s book on the topic will soon be published by Bar-Ilan), this is not true of all Chassidic streams. One of the Piaseczner’s main sources that also affirms it, is the Kozhnitzer Maggid. In Avodat Yisrael he describes the wicked son at the seder as the one who opposes avoda b’gashmiut. “Mah haAvodah haZot Lachem – what, you think eating is avoda”! While of course the dangers of hedonism are lurking near by, and the Piaseczner is certainly aware of them, perhaps we should not be abandoning such a central tenant of Chassidut so quickly. Maybe, when the food arouses my sense of smell, (that most interior and spiritual of senses), there is a spiritual danger in not seizing that moment to have a bite in honor of the Ribono shel Olam. If I can harness my senses of sight, smell and taste together in eating as a korban, then I will have succeeded in a major elevation of the physical towards HaShem. While we certainly need to be in control of our taavot, asceticism is not the answer. It is an escapist mechanism. It is harder and higher to serve HaShem through the physical world as well.

May HaShem guide us to serve Him in truth.


At January 7, 2008 at 6:24:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

I wonder if how this applies to an infant, my son of almost nine months (b"h) sees (and smells) me eating food that would be bad for him to eat...

should i not eat it in front of him?

At January 7, 2008 at 11:44:00 AM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Same thing with our 5 month old. She's at the age where she's starting to eat some rice cerial and pureed pears and the like, but I can tell that she's looking especially excited and attentive when she sees me eating. I wonder if that's wrong of me?

-Dixie Yid

At January 7, 2008 at 2:48:00 PM EST, Blogger Chaim B. said...

Since you focus on aroma, take a look at the Bnei Yisaschar who in many places writes that the sense of smell was the only sense not corrupted by the cheit of eitz hada'as (nechmad l'mareh, and it tasted good, and it was touched, and adam listened to chavah's words covers the other senses). He works this into many of his torahs (smelling besamim of havdalah, modechai=morei dachya like the fragrance of ketores, on shavuos we use flowers with a nice fragrance, etc.) Chazal apply to Moshiach the pasuk "v'haricho b'yiras Hashem" and explain that he will be able to judge literally based on his sense of smell. Perhaps you can tie this mehalaich into the halacha you are focussing on.


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