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Ketubot 61

Hunger pains.

Today, we take a break from our regularly scheduled tractate to talk about two potentially related (but definitely tangential) topics: minimizing hunger and feeding waiters. We begin with two rabbinic anecdotes:

Rav Anan bar Tahalifa said: I was once standing before Mar Shmuel, and they brought him a cooked dish of mushrooms, and if he had not given me some, I would have been endangered.

Rav Ashi said: I was once standing before Rav Kahana, and they brought him slices of turnip in vinegar, and if he had not given me some, I would have been endangered. 

Lucky for Rav Anan bar Tahalifa and Rav Ashi, both of whom were so hungry they feared for their lives, the Babylonian academies didn’t have a no-sharing policy. Both report that they were saved from serious harm because their colleagues shared their meals. 

Given the potential for devastating consequences to those whose appetite has been ignited, the Gemara next turns to the dangers that might confront those who have to wait to eat while serving food to others. 

Rav Yitzhak bar Hananya said that Rav Huna said: All foods may be withheld from before the waiter, except for meat and wine.

Rav Huna allows waitstaff to sample meat and wine while they are serving, presumably because these foods are more likely to induce cravings. But for all other foods, he would have them wait until they are done working to eat. 

Rav Hisda takes a more limited view:

Only fatty meat and aged wine. 

And Rava even more so:  

Fatty meat all year round, but aged wine only during the season of (the month of) Tammuz.

If the Gemara were to continue in this vein, there would be little to no protection for servers. Instead, and perhaps influenced by the testimonials of Rav Anan bar Tahalifa and Rav Ashi quoted above, it lands on a more moderate position: 

The principle of the matter is: (One should offer them some of) everything that either has an aroma or that has a sharp taste.

The Gemara’s broad ruling on the matter is that anything with a powerful taste or smell should be offered to the waitstaff, since those are precisely the foods liable to evoke the strongest cravings. Everything else can wait. 

Lest you think this is a topic that only commands the attention of the sages, the Gemara goes on to relate that even Elijah, the prophet that Jewish tradition teaches secretly roams the world and will one day herald the beginning of the messianic age, is concerned with the treatment of food servers. 

Two pious men, some say they were Rav Mari and Rav Pinehas, the sons of Rav Hisda, one would give (the waiter something to eat) before the meal, and the other would give (the waiter something to eat) after. The one who gave it to him earlier, Elijah spoke with him. But the one who gave it later, Elijah did not speak with him. 

While these anecdotes make up the lighter side of talmudic discourse, they do raise important points about addressing hunger and treating service workers appropriately. 

Hunger was, and still is, a problem in the world, one that could actually endanger lives. The stories about Rav Anan and Rav Ashi suggest that the problem of hunger isn’t one of supply — there’s plenty of food available in the world. The challenge is to ensure it’s distributed equitably. 

Likewise, the treatment of those who make and serve us food was, and still is, a problem in the world. Today’s daf tells us that one way we care for those people is to ensure they are served before they serve — and with the same food they will eventually deliver to others. 

Doing so will not only be of benefit to the hungry and marginalized, but may also help Elijah in his quest to bring a taste of the next world into our own.

Read all of Ketubot 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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