After the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, the people reacted with extreme grief. The centerpiece of their lives, of their Judaism, had been destroyed. How were they to go on? They were left with fragmented lives, in profound bereavement and without solace.
One of the ways in which grief was expressed was culinary. Some chose to cease eating all meat and wine, as these foods were symbols of joy. By limiting their diet to a vegetarian one, people were constantly reminded of their deprivation due to the destruction of the Temple.
Then, when the Temple was destroyed a second time, more Jews would not eat meat or drink wine.
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “Why do you not eat meat or drink wine?”
They responded, “Shall we eat meat, which we would bring on the altar, when now sacrifices are cancelled? Shall we drink wine, which was poured on the altar, when now libations are cancelled?”
He said, “If so, we won’t eat bread, since the grain offerings are cancelled.”
They responded, “It’s possible to live on just fruit.”
The dialogue continued until Rabbi Yehoshua illustrated how far this line of thinking could be taken: “We won’t drink water, because the water libation has been cancelled.” At this, the people fell silent.
Ultimately, Rabbi Yehoshua’s lesson was that life — even after destruction, even after or while intertwined with grief — moves forward. He referred to the limits these people had imposed upon themselves, as “excessive bereavement,” and instead promoted and taught that there are limits on grief.
But as rabbinic Judaism sought to recreate a mourning period in order to sensitize us to the absence of the Temple, no meat or wine was permitted once a year, during the nine days leading up to Tisha b’Av.
It’s ironic that we get invited to sushi soirees and the like during the Nine Days. While meat or wine are not served, somehow I think that kind of excessive, luxurious dining counters the purpose of this dietary restriction. And yet, in the Nine Days, we have an opportunity to make small changes to a Western diet that is filled with so much animal protein. Although fish and eggs are still animal proteins, compared to the more serious infractions, they are healthier.
These days, with the deluge of information about plant-based eating, the Nine Days is a wonderful opportunity to eat a little healthier and a little greener. And maybe, just maybe, it can serve as a start to eating a little more mindfully, with a little more attention to greens and beans, instead of steaks and wine.
Personally, I’ve always loved the dairy-heavy Nine Days menus brought out each summer. Creamy, dreamy milchig noodle kugels, stretchy pizzas, rich soups and luxuriously cheesy pasta dishes. But those are all actually examples of cutting out meat while not really improving your eating.
I’m making an effort to eat less dairy (or at least less fatty dairy) while adding more legumes and grains to my diet — roasted stuffed eggplants garnished with tahini, mint and pomegranates, spinach-filled spanakopita, fish tacos, deviled eggs, soups, vegetarian chili, falafel, shakshuka, gazpachos and smoothies.
Enjoy the healthful change during the Nine Days. It’s an opportunity to simultaneously make an effort toward increased plant based eating, while remembering the destruction of Jerusalem of Temple times.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News