The Smell of Non-Kosher Food

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I spoke to Stephanie, who was coming out of the very tasty (and very not kosher) Tartine Bakery, on 18th and Guerrero Streets in San Francisco. She’d just gotten an iced coffee, and she was complaining about it.

tartine bakeryStephanie: Every time I walk past this bakery, I’m reminded of that Gemara that says that God’s going to ask if we enjoyed all the pleasures of this world. And I’m going to be like, no, I didn’t, because the pleasures of this world weren’t kosher.

Me: I used to read this book of Chinese stories when I was a kid. One of them was about a poor student who lived above the fanciest restaurant in Peking and each night, he would sit by the window and eat his plain rice and smell all the good-food smells. Then one day the restaurant owner noticed him and asked what he was doing — he had the entire apartment to eat in; why was he by the window? The student said that the smell of the good food made his rice taste better.

The owner was furious, and brought him to court. He contended that the student should pay him for the past year’s worth of meals. Now, most families in Peking couldn’t afford to eat in the restaurant. Couples only went there on their anniversaries, or special occasions. One meal there cost a month’s wages. For the cost of a year’s meals, the student would have to pay for the rest of his life.

After hearing the case, the judge asked the student, How much money do you have? The student got terrified and said, only 5 copper coins. It was the only money he had in the world — for his rent, his tuition, his rice.

The judge told the student to take them out. He did. Then the judge ordered the student to toss them from one hand to the other. He did. The restaurant owner, unable to conceal his glee, rubbed his hands together.

Then the judge said to put the coins back in his pocket.

“What!?” the owner burst out. “Those coins are mine!”

But the judge shook his head no. “Just as the student stole the smell of the food from you,” he said, “the sound of the coins will be his payment.”

Posted on June 12, 2009

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