Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fermentation and Jewish Culture

I was reviewing some of birchos hanehenin last week and came across a particularly interesting piece of information. In his Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 205:3, the Alte Rebbe notes the following:
There are types of vegetables that it is not customary to eat them raw (even with bread) but rather cooked (or cured, or pickled which have the same status as a cooked food). For example, cabbage, gourd, and beets and other similar things, you bless "she'hakol ne'hiya bidvaro" on them when they are raw, and if they are cooked or pickled, "borei pri ha'adamah." (emphasis mine) (translation mine).
It's obvious from this that, at the Alte Rebbe's time at least, it was so foreign to eat raw cabbage that if you did eat it, you would make a she'hakol! No one that I know today would dream of making a she'hakol on cabbage. But the point that I want to emphasize is how cabbage often was consumed, namely, fermented (pickled) as sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut was not only common in the Alte Rebbe's time. Historically, one of the most common ways of consuming cabbage (indeed, perhaps for all of history until recently) was as lacto-fermented (pickled) sauerkraut ("zauerkraut" in Yiddish--literally, "sour cabbage"). The method of producing sauerkraut is actually one of the oldest methods of food preservation, having enjoyed documented popularity as far back as early Roman society, up until 18th century Europe, and even playing a vital role in preventing scurvy among sailors (see, e.g. Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 148-151). For obvious reasons, it was reputed to have health-fortifying effects.

Today, we have more than intuition to guide our understanding of the health benefits of sauerkraut.
"Cabbage and other Brassicaceae family vegetables ... have long been recognized as rich in anti-carcinogenic nutrients. According to a new Finnish study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, fermentation breaks down glucosinolates in cabbage into compounds called isothiocyanates, which are already known to fight cancer. 'We are finding that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage, especially for fighting cancer,' says Eeva-Liisa Ryhanen, one of the paper's authors." (Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003, p. 40) (See also Sauerkraut Packed with Cancer-Fighting Compounds)
Additionally, fermentation enhances the digestability of cabbage and increases vitamin levels and, upon consumption, encourages the growth of "healthy bacteria throughout the intestine." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, p. 89).

And yet, in large part, this aspect of our culture has been lost. A fixture of shabbos tables today is the cabbage salad or coleslaw, no doubt sprayed with pesticides and shipped some great distance and purchased at Costco... not exactly the local, organic, lacto-fermented health-fortifying food that the Alte Rebbe would have been familiar with. Even what most of us know as 'sauerkraut' today is not real sauerkraut. If it's not in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, that means it was either pasteurized or bathed in vinegar, effectively killing the live-cultures that sauerkraut is praised for.

But there is unquestionably an appreciation at the shabbos table for fermentation, the magic transformation of the mundane and perishable into the magnificent. How is that? The two cornerstones of the shabbos meal are fermented foods, wine and bread (specifically, the kiddush wine and the challah). In fact, I've heard it told that these two foods (among others) were built into creation as special shabbos foods, as a little exploration of their gematrias implies: wine=yayin=10+10+50=70, 7+0=7 (the 7th day); challah=8+30+5=43, 4+3=7.

Some chassidic groups actually still observe a specific minhag to eat pickled products on shabbos. They call it in Yiddish "zoyerlach" (lit. "sours" or "ferments") and say it sounds like "azoi erlech" (lit. "so honest"). (Meisels, Dovid. Shabbos Secrets: The Mysteries Revealed. Israel Book Shop, 2003.) Indeed, shabbos "is based on a profound truth, the word of G-d." (Sperling, Abraham. Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions. Bloch Publishing Co., 1968, p. 147). Coincidentally, the gematria of sauerkraut in Hebrew also adds up to seven (kruv kavush=20+200+6+2+20+2+6+300=556, 5+5+6=16, 1+6=7).

The deeper lesson to take from the process of fermentation, indeed, a lesson applicable to every single parsha in the Torah, is internalization. The way fermentation works is that these microorganisms in the air and on the skin of, for instance, cabbage leaves and grapes, are waiting to get inside, to get at the starches or sugars inside, and to transform them. When we crush the cabbage leaves and the grapes, we allow those microorganisms access and they, in turn, create a whole new product, much more valuable and special than cabbage or grapes on their own, and yet at the same time, the cabbage and grapes had the spark of potential waiting to be expressed the whole time.

In chassidus, there is an emphasis on taking the external and superficial in our learning and making it real, to internalize it so that it transforms us, affecting us deeply in actuality. Last week, when we read that Yaakov "laid down in that place," the Midrash emphasizes, "Bamakom hahu!" In that place he laid down to sleep, but for the 14 previous years and the 20 following years, he didn't lay down to sleep. Why? Before he went to Charan, he was learning and internalizing the Torah that he would take with him to the house of Lavan. He was so focused that he didn't have time to sleep. Once there, he had to remain steadfast in his dedication, take care of his family, and raise his children with a strong Jewish education, and this also did not allow him to sleep. He was so successful, that when he left, he could honestly say, "Im lavan garti" ("I sojourned with Lavan") which Rashi notes, "The numerical value of garti is six hundred and thirteen, as if to say, 'I sojourned with Lavan, the evil one, yet I kept the six hundred and thirteen commandments and did not learn from his evil actions.' " (Artscroll Sapirstein Edition Rashi, p. 360, on Gen. 32:5). May we also internalize all that we learn, as the Rebbe Rayatz taught (in yesterday's apropos Hayom Yom), "A fundamental principle of Chabad philosophy is that the mind, which by its innate nature rules over the heart, must subordinate the heart to G-d's service by utilizing the intellectualization, comprehension and profound contemplation of the greatness of the Creator of the universe." The spark is there inside each one of us, we just need to draw it out through our own fermentation.

On a last note, I've been producing my own lacto-fermented foods for over a year now. I eat homemade sauerkraut usually every day. If anyone has any questions regarding how to make sauerkraut or how to find a lacto-fermented variety in the local market, don't hesitate to contact me.


  1. Uriel! Love it!

    I love this image of the grapes being smashed in order to allow the bacillus waiting on their skins to access the sweetness protected just inside! And this notion of the mundane and perishable being transformed into the magnificant... artfully described, and I couldn't agree more.
    tonight i'm teaching a group of Jewish educators about fermentation and eco-Judaism. I'll be carrying these thoughts, along with our discussion of decomposition and creation, with me. thanks for your inspiration. happy fermenting!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. שלום.

    אילו היה כתוב כך:
    "rather cooked or cured or pickled (for example, cabbage) which have the same status as a cooked food."
    אולי אולי הייתה צודק.

    אבל כך לא נראה לי שיש ראיה לטעון שכרוב אכלו בעיקר כבוש.


  4. Enjoy gorgeous saurkraut... gorgeousness meant for us. Long life and health.

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  16. I'm trying to cook ferment cabbage using the recipe for kimchi. Is there a recipe a biblical recipes to make fermented cabbage