“Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” Genesis 9:3 (The Israel Bible™)
On Monday, the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh hosted a “Feast of Exotic Curiosities” to order to revive the Biblical relationship between animal and man of Biblical times, serving rare and strange delicacies which the Bible says are kosher, but which have been largely lost to Jewish cuisine.
In co-creating the dinner, Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, sought to promote “a living and breathing Judaism that is connected to daily life, that is relevant within the modern world, and that adds value and meaning for the individual and for the community.” It was his desire, he told Breaking Israel News, “to draw inspiration from the beauty and wonder of the natural world and the great doings of God.”
During a unique 16-course dinner that featured a menu of gourmet dishes of halachic (according to Jewish law) intrigue, rabbis, scholars, and dignitaries prefaced each dish by discussing the history of each, from non-acceptance to acceptance for consumption according to Jewish law. Through recounting the debates of modern-day Jewish scholars, the rabbis engaged guests in discussions about the animals that connected them with something that has been lost since Biblical times, namely, a “living Judaism that, with integrity and authenticity, embraces the natural world.”
From a Biblical perspective, the purpose of animals for creation, unlike plants, is not just to serve man’s hunger.
And Hashem said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. Genesis 1:11
In Hebrew, fruit refers to edible fruits, thus the purpose for their creation was to serve man. However, there is no such clear statement of purpose with fish, birds, and animals. In Biblical times, animals were seen as living beings and God’s creations, not as creatures made only to feed man. Hence, strict Halachic rules were instated on how to compassionately slaughter an animal.
To recreate this Biblical sense of respect for animals as God’s creations rather than merely food, before each dish was served, the respective animal was brought out, live, to guests. Guests learned about their zoology and animal classification, which, according to Slifkin, creates a relationship between animal and man reminiscent of Biblical times, when humans were much more in touch with the lives of the animals they ate.
“We lost familiarity with the animals as a consequence of exile,” said Slifkin, explaining that the event sought a return to a level of familiarity, thus developing a closer relationship to God’s creations.
Also discussed were issues of kashrut, or kosher laws which respect Jewish values set forth by the Bible on how to slaughter animals in an empathetic manner. At the core of kashrut is the mandate of being rahmanim b’nei rahmanim, compassionate children of compassionate ancestors, made in the image of God whose “mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9). As a result, kashrut demands very specific rituals and laws.
To this end, Slifkin commented on the morality of killing animals for human consumption. “The laws of kashrut have several aspects,” Slifkin told Breaking Israel News. “One is taking an act that could potentially be barbaric – eating a living creature – and refining it. Hence, the animal must be killed, and in a relatively painless manner, and one must not eat the blood, and so on.
“Until the modern era of factory farming, which is not exactly consistent with the Torah’s ideals of how to treat animals, people were much more in touch with the lives of the animals they ate. We tried to capture some of that [in the feast]. In addition, we preserved ancient Jewish traditions, from a time when people did not eat chickens from supermarkets.”
Prepared by Israel’s distinguished “Biblical Chef” Moshe Basson of The Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem, this year’s feast highlighted mostly non-Biblical, exotic foods whereas last year’s feast featured flora and fauna eaten in the Bible.
Among locusts, water buffalo, and kingklip fish and others, the featured dish on the menu was a “Pheasant Pastilla with Dried Fruit and Carrot Cream,” with the pheasant referred to in the Talmud, Jewish Oral Law, as the ultimate delectable dish.
Serving pheasant, Chef Basson told Breaking Israel News, was a materialization of a childhood dream. “I remember studying from the Talmud about a boy feeding his father with pheasant, and since the 80s, I developed a fascination with farming and cooking it,” he said. His dream came true as a result of his work with Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, a professor of neurology at Bar-Ilan University and expert in kashrut-related topics, who co-created the notion of exotic kosher dinners with a school friend, Dr. Ari Greenspan.
After learning about the ritual slaughtering of animals, the two students were intrigued by the notion of the pheasant bird, which had previously been ruled kosher but was later forbidden because there was no masora, a chain of Jewish religious tradition, of consuming the fowl. But later, when they discovered that top Yemenite rabbis were indeed eating the bird, they were able to prove the chain of tradition and receive approval for its consumption. From here, the duo moved on to find a chain of tradition for other birds, mammals, and fish.
It was this pushing of boundaries that intrigued guests, including Harris Bak, who purchased a piranha dish in an auction for $1,500. “It was an interesting and tasty dish,” he told Breaking Israel News. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and for a wonderful educational institution.”