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Spiritual Nourishment

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha contains the verse, "...Not by bread alone does man live; rather, on all that comes from the mouth of God does man live" (Deut. 8:3). We will return to this verse shortly, after we see a few other Torah sources about eating.

In Parshat Beshalach, Moses speaks to the Jewish people regarding the manna, saying, "Eat it today, for today is Shabbat; today you will not find it in the field" (Exodus 16:25). The manna was the Jewish people's primary sustenance during their 40 years in the wilderness. Based on the three-fold repetition of the word "today" in this verse, the Talmud (Shabbat 117b) derives that we must eat three meals on Shabbat.

When the day before Passover is Shabbat, bread may not be eaten for the third Shabbat meal. The Remah (Orach Chaim 444:1) states that, according to the Ashkenazi custom, egg matzah may not be eaten either. Instead, in this situation, fruit, meat and fish make up for the lack of bread or matzah. Furthermore, the Magen Avraham notes that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai used to spend the third Shabbat meal studying Torah, and this satisfied his obligation.

Where do we see that studying Torah can be an adequate substitute for eating a meal? The verse mentioned earlier from this week's parsha ("...Not by bread alone does man live; rather, on all that comes from the mouth of God does man live") may explain this. The mitzvah of a Shabbat meal is not through eating "bread alone." We greatly enhance the meal by learning Torah - the Divine wisdom "that comes from the mouth of God."

We can suggest that this idea specifically refers to the third Shabbat meal. In the verse about the manna mentioned above, the third mention of the word "today" corresponds to the third meal: "Today you will not find [the manna] in the field." We can infer from here that we do not always find the nourishment for the third meal in the produce of the field. Rather, we can be nourished as well by using our mouths to speak words of Torah, as the verse says, "The matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to perform it" (Deut. 30:14).

Among certain circles, the third Shabbat meal tends to be neglected. This is a troubling oversight, since all three meals are an integral part of the mitzvah of Shabbat and are obligatory according to Jewish law. The Talmud (Shabbat 118a) teaches that our care in eating all three Shabbat meals will protect us from three calamities that precede the messianic era: the war of Gog and Magog (Armageddon); the "birth pangs of Messiah" (severe disagreements among Torah scholars [Rashi]); and the judgment of Gehenom. Each meal seemingly protects us from one of these three punishments.

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The third Shabbat meal is traditionally referred to as Shalosh Seudos (literally, "three meals"), or more accurately, Seudah Shlishit ("third meal"). The siddur Yesodei Yeshurun, however, explains that Shalosh Seudos is actually a truer description of the meal. Eating the first two Shabbat meals is a mitzvah - but we are hungry anyway. It can therefore be difficult to tell whether we are eating these meals for God or just to satisfy our own hunger. Only once we reach the third meal (especially in the winter, when we sit down at the table again just an hour after finishing lunch) can we discern our true motivations for eating. When we push ourselves to eat the third meal, despite our lack of hunger, it is clear that we are eating only in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Our pure intentions for this meal are then retroactively applied to the first and second meals as well. The reward for all three meals is contained in the third - hence its traditional designation as Shalosh Seudos ("three meals").

In contrast to the weekday prayers, each of the three Amidah prayers on Shabbat is different. The Friday night Amidah mentions the creation of heaven and earth; the liturgy on Shabbat morning discusses Moses's bringing the Torah down from Mount Sinai; and the Amidah on Shabbat afternoon describes the messianic era, when God's unity will be universally recognized.

The commentator Ohr Gedaliyahu explains that each Shabbat meal corresponds to one of these monumental historical events. Thus, as we gather to eat the three delicious Shabbat meals, we also have the opportunity to digest their significance. On Friday night, we focus on strengthening our belief that God created the world. On Shabbat day, we celebrate receiving the Torah. And at the third meal, we tap into an energy of purity and sanctity that will characterize the messianic era. Our awareness of the potential of these times can help us make the most of every Shabbat.

May we be blessed with the highest of Sabbaths - not just this week, but also when we eventually reach the messianic era, described as "a day that is entirely Shabbat." Through the mitzvah of strengthening ourselves in Shabbat, its meals, and what they represent, may we be spared the difficulty and upheaval of the End of Days, and soon merit to live in a world where every day will have the sanctity of Shabbat.

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