Parashah Ponderings

Feeding God Then and Now

Parashat Emor / פרשת אמור
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

 (The priests) are holy to their God and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God…. (Leviticus 21:7-8)

That God has no physical body is widely considered a basic tenet of Judaism and is enshrined in Moses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.[1] If one were not aware of this tenet, however, one could be led to believe by this week’s parasha that God has not only a nose to smell the pleasing odor of sacrifices but also a mouth and digestive tract with which to consume “the food of your God” offered by the priests! Lest we think for a moment, though, that the Torah is speaking literally about God’s ability to smell, taste and digest food, modern commentators make it very clear that the Torah is speaking symbolically.[2] Biblical Israel most certainly worships God, who “desires their devotion and fellowship” only.[3] The biblical author simply borrowed “the idiom common to ancient religions” of a god sustained by offerings of food.[4]

The symbolic nature of “the food of God,” notwithstanding, I find this imagery striking given the role food played in the culture of biblical Israel as well the role it plays among societies throughout the world today. Regarding the former, one need only recall how Abraham and Sarah hastened to serve their guests a lavish meal in Genesis 18:1-8. What began with the intention to fetch his unexpected guests “a morsel of  bread,” soon became cakes of choice flour, curds, milk and a calf served as Abraham “waited on them under a tree as they ate” (Gen. 18:8). Abraham and Sarah, thus, instituted the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, with food playing a central role in its fulfillment.

Are we really any different today? We continue to honor visitors to our homes by setting out a nosh, if not an entire meal. Outside of the United States, in fact, hospitality is so closely linked with family honor that one refuses an invitation to another’s home at peril of insulting them greatly. As a species, to be sure, one way human beings show honor and respect to others is by feeding them and by graciously receiving others’ hospitalityin return.

To my mind, when we humans feed one another, we give expression to the same ideals expressed through the biblical sacrificial system. There, burnt offerings emitted a reach nichoach ladonai, a pleasing odor to God. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, observes that the ancient rabbis made a word play of “reach nichoach” to get at what was really at stake in the sacrificial rituals:

An early midrashic work after the destruction of the Second Temple reconceptualized the nature of its cultic worship. Brilliantly, the midrash realized that “nihoah” (pleasant aroma) is related etymologically to the word “nahat” or in the rabbinic phrase “nahat ruah” (pleasant feeling). That connection enabled the midrash to read “reah nihoah” as “nahat ruah.” The satisfaction God experienced at the sight of the sacrifice was internal and spiritual: “I commanded and My will was done,” says the midrash. In other words, the cult had nothing to do with divine need. Israel had submitted to God’s will, whatever its intent, and that alone was the source of God’s pleasure.[5]

When we feed others, no doubt, it often is to satisfy someone’s need, but just as often it is to please them. Thus, what we do within the community of humankind mirrors the ancient rite to evoke God’s pleasure; both involve the provision of nachat ruach.

This relationship between real human hospitality and priestly sacrifice, with all its symbolism, has the power to transform us. If we see “the other” as created in God’s image, then the hospitality we extend to our neighbor is no different from the rituals through which the holy priests showed God their deference and devotion. In both cases, then and now, we please God. In both cases, setting out food is a sacred act, the execution of which imbues our lives with holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

[1] For a list of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, see As Daniel Septimus points out in his article at, Maimonides principles were not universally accepted, including the principle #3 on incorporeality.

[2] See, for example, Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 718: “Offerings to God, often called “food” (lehem), are considered food for God in a symbolic sense. See also this article by Ismar Schorsch:

[3] The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p. 17, cf Lev. 3:11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ismar Schorsch, commentary on Parashat Emor at

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