The Torah does not often give instructions related to food. Besides the Kashruth laws and some Pesach laws there are no instructions how to prepare food or how to eat it. The only remarkable exception to this is the law concerning the Korban Pesach, the Passover lamb.
The Torah commands the members of every Jewish home to roast a lamb and eat it on the eve of the first day of Pesach in the Temple in a similar way to how it was eaten at the time of the Exodus of Egypt. (Shemoth 12:1-28; 43-49; Devarim 16:1-8)
While on all other occasions the Torah leaves it up to the human being whether he will eat his food cooked or roasted, this time the text is most explicit and orders the Jew to eat this meat only after it is properly roasted.
“Then you shall eat the meat on that night, roasted with fire; with unleavened bread (matzoth) and bitter herbs are they to eat it. You may not eat of it half-cooked and also not boiled in water, only roasted with fire, its head with its legs and with its innards” (Shemoth 12:8)
What is the difference between cooking and roasting? And why does the Torah emphasize the absolute prohibition to cook or boil the Passover lamb in such uncompromising terms?
Maharal, in his commentary on the Hagada, explains that there is a basic difference between cooking (boiling) and roasting. To paraphrase him, cooking is an act which “assimilates” while roasting “separates.” When cooking we draw several other ingredients into the object we are boiling. These ingredients assimilate with the object, and the object itself absorbs and even adapts itself to the added components.
It also expands, absorbing the other ingredients and becomes soft and begins to disintegrate.
Roasting, however, does the reverse, its main function is to expel. Not only does it remove all the blood present, but it also removes all ingredients that are not essential to the meat. As such, it shrinks the meat and makes it hard and impenetrable.
This, explains Maharal, is the symbol behind the Korban Pesach. At the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel are for the first time to become a nation, it is not yet possible to allow any absorption from without. No outer influences may be permitted that could compromise its essential nature. At the time the formation of the nation, must take a courageous stand against the world in which it spent its exile for 210 years and reject its culture. As such, it cannot allow any expansion that will weaken its inner structure. It must be solid and impenetrable. This is the time to strengthen its own identity and reject all foreign elements.
We may wonder why the Torah makes this requirement only once a year. Why not put a solid prohibition on all cooking and boiling, once we realize that such acts symbolize matters that are in opposition to the essential nature of the people of Israel? Should this not be the logical conclusion of the above? Nevertheless, not only do we not find such a prohibition, but in fact we are told about a positive commandment to cook the offering of the Nazir, the person who for a limited amount of time denies himself some physical benefits so as to better his spiritual situation. He is commanded to bring an offering including a cooked forefoot of the ram. (Bamidbar 6:19)
The answer is symptomatic for the Jewish tradition. Once its foundations have been well established and the structure of Judaism stands like an unshakable mountain, it is able to weather any unwelcome influence from without and capable of absorbing all forms of genuine human knowledge when this will add to a deeper understanding of Judaism and grant the Jew a greater commitment towards the Jewish Tradition. Judaism has never been afraid to confront human knowledge and respond to attacks on its tradition. If it would, it would admit its own weakness.
Attacks by Spinoza, Hegel or Nietzche have not shaken its foundations and its fundamental beliefs. Its spokesmen responded with dignity and erudition.
Carefully studying “Chovoth Ha-Levavoth,” the famous work on the “Duties of the Heart” of Rabbi Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Paquda (11 century) proves beyond doubt that the author made use of Muslim mysticism.
When Rabbi Mendl of Satenav wrote his famous book on character improvement called “Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh” (Taking Stock), it was praised by the greatest rabbinical luminaries of the time. It is, however, beyond doubt that the book was based on the works of Benjamin Franklin, (1706-1770) the famous gentile inventor, statesman and author. In his books he suggested the daily cultivation of 13 virtues and it is clear that these found their way into “Chesbon Ha-Nefesh” of Rabbi Mendl of Satenav. When Rabbi E. E. Dessler, author of the classic work “Michtav Me-Eliyahu” was told that some of his observations looked very similar to Dale Carnegie’s observations in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” he responded: “They are not similar; they are taken from there!” Throughout Jewish history, great sages have used the wisdom of non-Jewish thinkers and scientists to explain and expand on Jewish concepts. Clearly, they were not afraid to do so and were convinced that God had sent knowledge via these non-Jewish scholars to help mankind advance itself and to aid the Jewish tradition. (See also the works of Rabbi Kook, especially his Orot HaKodesh, where he approves of this approach.)
This, however, was only possible after Judaism was well established. When Jews celebrate and re-enact the beginnings of Judaism at Pesach time, they are reminded that one first needs to solidify its foundation. Once that is accomplished, one is allowed throughout the rest of the year to absorb ingredients from outside. One can see this clearly in the case of the Nazir. Only after he has completed his period of solidification of his commitment toward Judaism, he is allowed to offer food that is cooked. First he needs to put his Judaism once more on a strong base and “roast” his spiritual diet. After that he will have the strength and the capacity to assimilate his personality with other ingredients.
In these difficult days in the history of the State of Israel, Israelis will have to learn this lesson. To believe that secular culture will provide the answers to Israel’s problems is a fatal mistake. Now that Israel is in need of great strength and solidarity it must, first of all, put its Jewish ideological foundations in order. Only much later will it be secure enough to allow foreign elements to integrate into its strong tradition.
This is not a time for Israel to import foreign elements, if anything it needs to export its own spiritual values to the gentile world. Would it do so, it would find great respect in the eyes of the nations of the worldm and once more it would rediscover its own self respect.