Since the age of bugging adults with an incessant stream of questions, I was preoccupied by figuring out what exactly was “this red stuff” that Yaakov was cooking on that fateful day. Eisav, the outdoors-man, runs in from the fields totally exhausted and demands, “Gimme red, this red!” We learn that his other name, Edom, actually resulted from this demand. The word haadam (red) is repeated twice, and Torah, of course,does not repeat things simply for rhetorical purposes. Was Yaakov cooking several dishes, so his brother was just making sure to clarify the choice? Or is the word itself so significant that even his name is derived from it?
I hear you, preschool and kindergarten Morahs (teachers), how come Eisav is not a redhead in this picture? Don’t we all picture him as a barbarian with a great big head of wild red hair and beard?
Well, it’s definitely great for arts and crafts, and the stark visual contrast will be entrenched in kids’ minds. But – I hate to disappoint you! – the Torah doesn’t say that. It only says that he was born d’moini, which is usually translated as RUDDY, or RED, all over. Red hair? Maybe. Probably. Or maybe not. Is it important? I think not. I think the repetition of the word RED is more important to the understanding of Eisav’s character traits.
So anyway, as we all know, Yaakov says, “No problem, brother, just sell me your birthright, and gei fresn, mamele (literally, go stuff yourself).” Nope, he didn’t say that! What he actually proposed was, “Make your Bechoira (birthright) mine.” And Eisav, who wasn’t really hungry – at least not hungry for food! – but was fatigued after running around hunting all day long, gave an answer that may look flippant, “Hey, bro, I’m gonna die, what good is it to me?” Wait a minute, isn’t everyone going to die eventually? When I was told that my father was terminal, my first reaction was, we are all terminal, we are all going to die, Eisav said it already for all of us, and the timing of it is in H-shem’s hand!
It’s not that simple, though, as Rashi points out. Twins have their own communication code, and Eisav, having heard from his learned brother a description of his duties as a Kohen Godol (The High Priest), as well as the swift punishment by death, should those duties not be fulfilled precisely as H-shem commands, resolves that he is just not up to the task. Yaakov, of course, had known his brother’s character flaws, thus the seemingly outrageous suggestion. The deal is done, Eisav happily sells all his rights and responsibilities, and Yaakov serves him lentil soup (sometimes translated as stew).
This long preliminary is leading to a very simple recipe, lentil soup. Their grandfather, Avrohom Avinu (Our Father Abraham), passed away. Their father, Yitzhok (Isaac), was sitting Shiva (traditional mourning). Yaakov was cooking a lentil soup – or stew – that has since become a traditional mourning meal in Sephardic communities. Conversely, an Eastern European consolation meal would have leikach cake (life is sweet), mashke – a strong liquor (life is bitter), and eggs (the cycle of life and rebirth). Yes, lentils come in a veritable rainbow of colors, from bright green to black, and from yellow to red, but here is the problem: even red lentils, when you cook them, turn brown. Oy vey!
It makes sense to keep using brown lentils, as they are the cheapest. Grated carrots and diced tomatoes add colors, in addition to flavor, but they won’t make it red. Fresh chopped parsley and dill provide a touch of green and contribute to the taste, together with a generous portion of squeezed garlic. There are two ways of making a pareve (meatless and non-dairy) lentil soup, a long one and a short one. The first requires you to sear garlic with carrots on a frying pan first, then throw everything in a pot, add water, bring to boil, season, reduce to simmering and cook. And cook. And cook… The longer, the better!
The short way involves using soup powder. I prefer chicken flavor, but there is a variety on the market, so choose your favorite one. In addition to salt and pepper, I season it with cinnamon and cumin. But how do we make it red, after all?
Quite a few chefs, mostly Sephardic, recommend using sumac and paprika. Some also insist on seasoning with cilantro, or coriander, on the grounds of it being the most prevalent herb in ancient Israel, therefore possibly emulating Yaakov’s original recipe. I won’t argue with cilantro – I use it a lot, and love it! – but let me tell you, no matter how much sumac and paprika you dump into your soup, it will stay brown. Look at all the images of it online, and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes I add some beet juice, if I have it left over from something else, and it contributes a little to the taste, but not to color.
By the way, I am not quite sure that sumac was used in ancient times for cooking, but we do have records of its usage for medicinal and dyeing purposes. The word itself is either Assyrian (that’s Ashur), or Aramaic, and perhaps the red beards sported by Nabuchadnezar, Shalmanazar, Achashveirosh, and the rest of those fashion-conscious kings owed their color to this lemony spice. Did Eisav also use it to get with the style? Just speculating.
And the maskana (conclusion) is, I think the twice repeated RED means something infinitely deeper and more crucial to Eisav’s entire outlook on life than the color of this dish he craves and greedily consumes. This is when he chooses his derech (way of life), and it is hence reflected in his name. This is only my opinion, so don’t quote me, but throw all these ingredients into a pot (a crock pot is even better) and enjoy the simple goodness of this hearty, filling, and very healthy colorful soup.
- 1 lb dry lentils
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup grated carrots
- 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
- 2 – 3 garlic cloves, squeezed
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, or parsley and dill, or cilantro – your choice
- 1/2 cup beet juice (optional)
- 1 heaping tablespoon of pareve soup powder (your choice of flavor)
- Cinnamon and cumin to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sprinkle of paprika
- Sprinkle of sumac
In a crock pot or stove-top pot, assemble all ingredients, except for soup powder and spices. If using crock pot, put on high for 30 minutes, add soup powder and spices,then turn to low setting for at least 6 hours. If cooking stove-top, bring to boil, add soup powder and spices, then reduce heat to medium and cook for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. As with every bean-based soup, the more you let it cook, the more tender and flavorful it will be.