Jewish eating isn’t simply a gastronomical pleasure—it’s also a spiritual experience. That was why I was standing at the edge of Lake Naivasha, about to dip my mother’s new dishes into its murky depths, one hundred meters away from a group of four hippos.
Over the last few years, accompanied by some of my children, I have been regularly visiting my parents on the shores of Lake Naivasha, situated in Kenya in the Great Rift Valley. The holiday back in the country where I grew up gives me the wonderful opportunity to share my childhood with my children. Anthony, my mother’s houseboy, has gotten used to the changes that take place in my mother’s kitchen as she converts it into a super-kosher establishment to accommodate us. Surfaces are covered with silver foil, and our dishes and appliances are pulled out of storage. This time, for added convenience, my parents had bought a microwave and two new glassware dishes for us. According to Jewish law, all new glass and metal dishes must be immersed in a mikvah. In this case, since there was no mikvah available, I had to use the lake.
Since there was no mikvah available, I had to use the lakeEarlier that afternoon, my mother had told Anthony that he would be walking me and two of my children down to the lakeside so that we could dip the new dishes into the lake.
“Why?” Anthony had asked.
“Because Mungu said so,” my mother had replied simply, using the Swahili word for G‑d.
The concept of a Higher Being is very much alive with the people of Kenya, so Anthony had no further questions.
Immersing my eating utensils in a mikvah prior to using them is one of my favorite mitzvot. In addition to other things, it elevates eating from a purely physical act into something spiritual. As all moms know, not only do food preparation and consumption take up a lot of time, they’re also stressful. Shopping for groceries is time-consuming; cooking takes ages; and no matter how I plan the menu, there are complaints. One child can’t stand the sight and smell of cucumbers; another will eat only cucumbers. One child won’t touch the brown parts on the chicken; another one won’t touch chicken at all. And then there are the fights over who sits where, and who breathed over whose plate. On good days I serve pasta (with two choices of sauce, as some children won’t touch a tomato), and everyone leaves the table satisfied. On those days, the empty pots shout out the transience of my efforts. Then I remind myself that eating also has its spiritual components, and one of them is that I immerse my dishes in the mikvah.
In ancient times, part of the process of reaching spiritual purification and being able to enter the Holy Temple was immersion in a mikvah. But the mikvah has an even deeper secret that is still relevant today: the mikvah facilitates a change in status. This is why a mikvah is the foundation of the laws of family purity; is used for conversion; and, while significantly less known, is required before using new pots or pans or dishes.
The mikvah has an even deeper secret that is still relevant today: the mikvah facilitates a change in statusTowards the end of the Jews’ forty-year stay in the desert, they came near the land of Moab, and a war broke out. The Jews were victorious and brought back spoils, including cooking utensils. G‑d commanded the Jews to immerse them in a mikvah. A reason for this was that the use of metal represents one of man’s major steps towards civilization. A metal utensil is a visible sign of man’s mastery over the physical earth. (Glass, too, is processed, and has the same status.) When we use metal or glass utensils to eat, we are in effect using our highest mental faculties to serve the purely physical. By first immersing the utensils, we are elevating them, and in turn elevating the physical act of eating.
Wondering why Anthony had chosen a spot opposite a group of hippos, I pulled off my sneakers and was about to put on my mother’s rubber boots when Anthony noticed that I had brought along the pair with holes. He quickly took the dishes out of their plastic bags, and helped me slip my feet into the packets, and then into my boots. Holding the dishes tightly, I began to shuffle very, very slowly into the water. The last time I had swum in the lake had been over twenty years before, and the silt on the bottom had reached halfway up to my knees. The water was muddy, and thousands of tiny bits of grass floated on the surface. The cold water lapped over my boots, and I could feel it seeping in.
I kept my eyes glued on the hippos as I shuffled further into the lake. Hippos, which are the largest land animals after elephants and rhinos, are known to be extremely aggressive and territorial. They are also pretty fast runners, but since they rarely leave the water before dusk, I was hoping I was safe.
“Don’t worry, they’re not moving,” my son called reassuringly from behind me.
When I was in deep enough to ensure that my dishes wouldn’t hit the bottom of the lake, I stopped. I made a blessing that was loud enough for my children to hear so that they could answer “Amen,” and I bent down to dip in the first dish.
One of the hippos grunted. Although my heartbeat quickened, I wasn’t about to give upOne of the hippos grunted. Although my heartbeat quickened, I wasn’t about to give up. Quickly I dipped the second dish into the murky water, and then I began to shuffle cautiously backwards.
Then a second hippo grunted. I watched as it opened its jaws to almost 180 degrees. The enormous pink cavern of its mouth, bordered with long ivory teeth, contrasted starkly against its gray-purple-brown hide. I shuffled back towards the shore as fast as I possibly could.
As I stumbled onto dry land, I handed the dishes to my daughter and we all laughed. It was a strange sound that combined relief that we hadn’t been charged, and joy that we had fulfilled a mitzvah.
We began to walk along the lakeside. A flock of birds swooped down, the underside of their wings flashing white. They swooped back up, carried by the breeze like flecks of ash. I could make out several other pods of hippos, their backs like a ridge of rock jutting through the surface of the water. The lakeside was a celebration of physical creation. And in my hands were my freshly immersed dishes—an elevation of the purely physical to the spiritual.