Chukat – A Major League Minor Matter
Twice the nation of Israel attempted to cross into the promised land. At first they Approached Edom. Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom asking for passage through their land. Their request was declined and when Moses reiterated the request they responded with aggression. Edom being the land of Esau’s descendants, Israel did not wish to provoke a battle and they turned away. Some time later Israel sent messengers to Sichon, King of the Amorites, asking for passage through their land. Sichon immediately mobilized his armies and advanced upon Israel. They were soundly defeated and Israel acquired their lands.
The request for passage deserves our attention, as numerous discussions are sparked from these verses. The request, both to the Edomites and later to the Amorites, stipulated that they would pass in the manner most convenient to the inhabitants of the land. (Numbers 20:14-21, 21:21-22) They would not pass through fields and orchards, as this would alarm the farmers, who feared raids of their produce. They would also not drink water from the wells.
In Deuteronomy, when Moses recalls this event, he records the message as follows: “Sell me food for money that I will eat, and water for money you will give me and I’ll drink, only let me pass with my feet.” (Deuteronomy 2:28) Rash”i states that the intent was that they would not drink water from their own well of Miriam, which traveled with them. Instead, they would purchase water and provisions from the local inhabitants, supporting the economy and bringing tourist dollars into the country. From here, states Rashi, we learn the importance of showing gratitude to our hosts. When visiting another location one should purchase food from the locals even if one has provisions.
The Talmud (Avoda Zara 37b) quotes this verse in the context of something very different. The Talmud discusses those foods which had been prohibited by the sages from eating. Aside from foods which are inherently non kosher various conditions were placed on other foods. We are familiar with some of these items, which include wines and cheese. Initially conditions were placed on olive oil as well, but those restrictions were subsequently removed.
One of the conditions imposed on food has to do with who cooks it. The Talmud suggests that the message sent from Israel to Edom and to Cheshbon, the Amorite capital, stipulated that they could purchase only such foods which had not been altered by Gentile cooking. If this was true, it would mean that the requirement for food to be Jewish cooked is Biblical. Ultimately the Talmud dismisses the notion that this restriction is Biblical. It is nevertheless an early Rabbinic restriction which profoundly affects the laws of Kashrut. Something as simple and benign as boiling potatoes in water can result not only in the potatoes disqualified as non-kosher, but the crockery may become non-kosher as well. Whether the origin of this law is Biblical or Rabbinical makes very little difference for us, as practical application of Halacha incorporates both. (The reasons and parameters of this restriction are outside the scope of this column.)
The discussions prompted in Judaic literature from various passages in the Torah are always fascinating to observe and here we have examples of both appropriate conduct and halachic legislation drawn from these verses.