The Sabbath Spice

Nina Jaffe

Retold by Robert Haralick

Long ago, when the Jewish people were first exiled and scattered to the far corners of the globe, there were many who were forced to live in the great kingdom of Persia. There, they lived as best they could according to the Torah given by God to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Although the Great Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed, the people nevertheless could pray to God, celebrate the festive days, and study the holy books. Many who had been exiled to the kingdoms of Babylonia and Egypt, to escape war and poverty, found their way to Persia. Often they were craftsmen and scholars, nobles and merchants. Among them was a scholar named Nehemiah. Although his knowledge was great, he lived simply, in a small stone house with his wife and children. He spent his days teaching and studying. Sometimes he came home very late at night and his family did not see him until they woke up when dawn broke in the sky. But every Friday night, before sunset, he was home to begin the celebration of the Sabbath. This was a time of rest, of prayer, and blessings.

At that time, Persia was ruled by the emperor Cyrus, His armies numbered in the hundreds of thousands. His laws and power reached from the shores of the Mediterranean to the desert sands of the Indus Valley. Cyrus ruled as wisely as he could. He knew that his kingdom was large and there were many peoples and customs that were unknown to him. So one year, he decided to go on a journey, to travel among the towns and provinces so that he could come to know the ways of his subjects. On each stop of his caravan, the local people - be they Medians, Egyptians, or Mesopotamians -- treated him with a royal welcome. They brought before him their finest food, their best musicians, and their wisest priests and scholars.

Toward the end of his journey, he stopped for the night near a small village just outside, Susa, the royal city. The road had been long, and the emperor was hungry and tired. He longed for the comforts of his palace. As the sun set, the night called to him and he wandered out among the village's humble dwellings. Passing a narrow street, he heard a song emanating from one of the houses. Peering into the entranceway, he saw a family just sitting down to a meal. A delicious fragrance reached him and he was drawn to look closer. The head of the house, Nehemiah the scholar, saw the emperor and welcomed him in the Jewish tradition of hospitality to strangers. And so the traveling emperor joined the family for the Sabbath meal.

The emperor sat and watched as Nehemiah's wife, Sarah, closed her eyes, lit the candles and circled her hands around the Sabbath candles three times, collecting the light to send it outside as a blessing to all peoples of the world. Then she prayed and said the blessing over the candles.

During that period of history any light inside a house after sunset came from candles or oil lamps. But the soft flame and light from these Sabbath candles were especially beautiful compared to the light of any of the other candles and oil lamps that had already been lit. And the emperor noticed all of this.

After the candle blessings, Nehemiah, the scholar, sang the Kiddush, the blessings over the wine. The first part of the blessing were the verses in Torah describing how God completed all that he had made - the heavens and the earth and all their complements -- and on the seventh day, he rested from his creative work. And God blessed the seventh day, making it holy. The second part of the blessing was the particular blessing Jews make over the wine. The blessing blesses God for being the creator of the fruit of the vine. Then in the third part of the blessing that Nehemiah sang, he described how God had given the Israelites the commandment to observe and keep the Sabbath as a special day of rest as a reminder of the creating that God did on the first six Godly days of creation. He sang how God had orchestrated the Israelite exodus from Egypt and how in his love, God had, from among all peoples, chosen the Israelites and given them the Sabbath to have as a heritage for generation after generation. Although Nehemiah was not a musician or a professional singer, nevertheless, his melodious singing was beautiful. The emperor took it all in. And he noticed Nehemiah's devotion to God through the Kiddush blessings.

When Nehemiah finished the blessings, he drank some wine from the Kiddush cup that he had held in his hand as he was singing the Kiddush. Then he poured some wine from the Kiddush cup into each person's cup, added additional wine to it, and passed the filled wine cups around the table for everyone to have some. He gave his wife Sarah his own Kiddush cup to drink the wine left in it.

Then everyone left the table and went to the sink where there was a big bowl of water. Each took a cup and dipped it into the water and poured the water three times over each hand and made the blessing over the washing and elevating of the hands. Nehemiah walked with the emperor and whispered the blessing over the washing of the hands, word by word. The emperor repeated the blessing and washed his hands. After, everyone returned to the table. Nehemiah picked up the two challahs and holding the challahs with his two hands, he made the blessing for bread, blessing God for having brought bread from out of the earth. Nehemiah cut the challah into pieces, salted each one, took one slice for him to eat, gave his wife a slice, gave the emperor a slice and passed a plate around the table for each of the children to take some challah.

Then came the meal. The first dish was a fish dish prepared in a Sephardic tradition in a tomatoe sauce with herbs and spices. After the first dish the family sang a song about enjoying the Sabbath. The second dish was a chicken soup with matzah balls. After the second dish the family sang another song about the holiness of the Sabbath. The third dish was a curried chicken with side dishes of different vegetables with herbs. After the third dish, the family sang another song about celebrating the Sabbath. For dessert, sweet dates were served. Each course was more delicious than the last. In all of his travels through his provinces, sampling the best that each region had to offer, Cyrus had never tasted such delicious food.

After the meal, Cyrus asked for the recipes of each of the dishes. He wanted to give the recipe to his royal cooks so that in the next days they could prepare for him and his friends a similarly delicious feast. So Nehemiah asked his wife Sarah to explain what the ingredients were for each dish, how long she cooked them, and the way she cooked them. Nehemiah told the emperor that on an ordinary day, he would write everything down for the emperor, but this day was the Sabbath and in respect to the Sabbath, he did not write. He asked the emperor if in his stead, he could write down on a parchment everything that Sarah said. The emperor agreed, recalling that Nehemiah and his wife had held the Sabbath holy and how everything that evening was special: from the kiddush ceremony to the food to the discussion at the dinner table. After writing everything down, the satisfied emperor took the parchment and returned to his caravan and the short trip back to his palace.

Late that night when Cyrus returned to his palace, he commanded his royal cooks to appear before him. He gave them the parchment saying "Here is a recipe for a meal. Tomorrow, go to the marketplace and buy the best of the ingredients listed in the recipe. Then prepare it at once so that I and my friends may enjoy a feast and celebrate my homecoming.

The next morning, the cooks went right to work. They went to the marketplace and found the choicest fish, chicken, vegetables, herbs and the finest grains of wheat. They bought baskets of sweet dates from the desert oases and the most aromatic spices, brought all the way from the Indus valley. In the afternoon they began the preparation of the meal. Everyone in the royal palace, including the cooks, were excited to taste of the special feast the emperor had directed to be prepared.

In the evening, the feast was ready. Cyrus and his friends sat around the banquet hall table waiting expectantly for their food. Cyrus was the first to touch his place. But at the first bite, he was disappointed. The food did not have that special taste it had in Nehemiah's house. "Bring in the chief cook!", he said. "I will have his head!. This food tastes nothing like the meal I had at the house of Nehemiah, the scholar."

The cook appeared before his master, trembling and shivering, despite the warm breezes of desert air that blew though the banquet hall. He knew there was something wrong, but he did not know what it could be. "Your Royal Highness, I did just as you commanded. I followed the recipe exactly as it was given to me. I cannot understand why it does not have the special flavor it had when you ate the meal at the house of Nehemiah the scholar." But the emperor was not satisfied. He began to make the motion to call for his soldiers to take the cook to prison. The poor cook was terrified. He had done his best and not made any mistake. And he knew that once Cyrus issued a command to the soldiers to take him away, it would be just a matter of time till the day came for his execution. "Your Royal Highness, before you send me to the gallows, why don't you call on the man who first served you this meal? Maybe he can tell you what went wrong."

The emperor was now determined to bring the matter to justice. He sent for Nehemiah to appear before him. When Nehemiah walked in escorted by the palace guards, Cyrus waved his plate before his nose. "When I visited your house, I had the most tastey delicious food I ever have had. I asked you for the recipe. And you gave me the recipe for the meal I so enjoyed. I gave the parchment containing the recipe to my cooks and asked them to prepare this same meal for me and my guests. But the meal does not have that special taste. It is just an ordinary fish and chicken meal. Don't you know that there is a great punishment for deceiving your emperor, the ruler of Persia?"

Nehemiah was afraid. His wife had spoken of every detail in the recipe just as she had made it and Nehemiah had written down everything exactly as she had spoken. What could have gone wrong? Nehemiah asked to inspect the food carefully. He asked to be taken to the royal kitchen. There he spoke with the chief cook who explained what food he bought and how he had followed the recipe. Nehemiah inspected each plate and each clay pot in the kitchen. He saw that the cook had indeed bought the finest ingridients, the highest quality foods. Finally he realized what was amiss and it was no fault of the cooks.

Nehemiah and the cooks returned to the emperor. Nehemiah told the emperor, "Indeed the recipe written on the parchment was exactly as my wife had prepared the meal. And your royal cooks bought all the correct ingredients, much higher in quality than my wife used and the cook had faithfully followed the recipe. However, there was one thing that was different."

The emperor could not understand. If everything had been identical, what could be different? Nehemiah continued, "There is one spice that could not have been written as part of the recipe because it is not physical food. And this spice cannot be found in any garden or market in your whole kingdom. For this spice is spiritual and can only be absorbed into the food in a house of a family that is observing the Sabbath. The sweetness of the meal that you remember is this secret spice, the spice of the Sabbath day, present on the Sabbath, in a home that keeps the Sabbath holy and makes the Sabbath a special day. Only in that setting can the special spice of the Sabbath be tasted. So there is no fault of your cooks and there is no fault in the recipe. For observing the Sabbath cannot be considered as part of a recipe for food."

The emperor thought and recalled the meal and its ceremony. He remembered the lighting of the Sabbath candles and its blessing. He remembered Kiddush and the blessing over the wine. He remembered the devotion to God he saw in Nehemiah and his wife. He remembered all the delights of that Sabbath night - the soft light of the candles, the voices of the children as they prayed and sang, the smiling faces around the table as they shared the bread and wine. Now he understood what the scholar was saying. He waved his cook back to the kitchen and invited his guests to complete the meal that was set before them. And he gave permission for Nehemiah to take his leave. Before leaving Nehemiah told the emperor, "The royal emperor is welcome any time to come to our house on a Friday evening and participate again in our Sabbath meal."

So every now and then, during the week, Cyrus would send word to Nehemiah. In late Friday afternoon of that week, the emperor would come and visit with Nehemiah the scholar, and participate in the special Sabbath meal at the scholar's house. He longed to sample again the sweet taste of that special spice of the Sabbath.

From then on, the Jews of Persia enjoyed many years of freedom, peace and tolerance, all because Cyrus, the royal emperor, had tasted the Sabbath spice.