In Jerusalem’s Hasidic neighborhood of Mea She’arim, residents go to great lengths to resist the incursions of modernity. One tradition, in particular, distinguishes the community from others like it: no forks are allowed at the dinner table.
It’s Thursday evening in Jerusalem, and the Hasidic neighborhood of Mea She’arim buzzes with preparations for the Sabbath. I had just returned home to the city after several years pursuing graduate studies in the U.S. An Orthodox friend had told me about certain Hasidic communities that see forks as a modern excess. Having grown up in a traditional Jewish family, I’d spent plenty of time around Hasidic culture, but I couldn’t remember ever having seen a Hasid eat a meal without a fork.
Established in the late-nineteenth century, Mea She’arim was one of the first settlements built outside the walls of the Old City. It sits less than a mile north of Damascus Gate, on the very edge of the Green Line that divides East and West Jerusalem. With its saturnine streets and alleys, Mea She’arim resembles the lost world of the Eastern European Jewish townships, or shtetls, where the ancestors of most of its residents once lived. People here communicate in Yiddish and see Hebrew not as the language of the State, but as the language of the Sacred.
Along the main drag, butchers, bakers, and merchants of Judaica are a bastion of the Old World, a bulwark against modern demands for supermarkets and department stores. Restaurants in the area are exceedingly private establishments—men often dine alone or with other male friends. Closed curtains prevent passersby from seeing who’s eating what and with which utensils.
I was invited to a dinner in Mea She’arim that evening. The meal began, as all Hasidic meals do, with the ritual washing of hands. The men took turns at a small, copper sink in the corner of the halogen-lit room to pour tepid water from a plastic jug, three times over their right hands, and three times over their left. Drying their hands with paper towels, they each muttered a Hebrew prayer, privately thanking God for the commandment to wash. The three-or-four crowded tables in the narrow room were silent until the blessing over the bread was made and the meal began.
That particular night was special: the Hasids were celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. Despite being the youngest person in the room, the Bar-Mitzvah boy was quiet, somber, as befitted the weight of the occasion: his own passage from childhood to manhood. On his right sat the most important person in the room, the rebbe, a spiritual leader descended directly from one of the eighteenth-century founders of the Hasidic movement. His wise eyes gleamed between the wide black brim of his hat and his long unruly beard.
The boy’s father sat to his left, his proud smile as broad as his shoulders. Between courses, the men sang nigunim, wordless melodies, some as old as Hasidism itself.
A whole dill-scented fish came out on a large metal platter. The rebbe used a knife to cut a portion then passed the plate to the forty-or-so men assembled around the tables. Women, as is the custom in Orthodox circles, sat in an adjacent room, peeking out now and again from behind a heavy curtain, looking to see who was talking to whom; no one was willing to speak to me. (Even the men who’d generously invited me to their gathering declined to share their names.) As the platter circled the tables, one man after another served himself. Some scooped up healthy chunks of fish with their whole hands while others gingerly used thumbs and forefingers to take more modest morsels. No one that night used a fork.
As the night went on, I asked several of the men about the prohibition against forks. No one had an explanation: they were simply following the ways of their ancestors. Residents of Mea She’arim look to the past, a long line of tradition and custom, as a model for the future, carrying out daily tasks as if they lived in eighteenth-century Poland or Ukraine. Hasids will go to extraordinary lengths to stave off the incursions of modernity. As one of the men at dinner that night told me, “It may just be that in Eastern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, average people didn’t eat with forks.”
Eating with fingers is more fitting than eating with forks because hands are ritually washed before each meal. Hands are cleaner than cutlery.
One gray-haired man in a worn-out velvet hat told me, “Eating with a knife in the right hand and a fork in the left is a practice performed by refined people. Hasids aren’t that modern.” Another man gave me an explanation he said he’d heard from the Rebbe of Krechnov, the descendant of Hasidic masters from modern-day Crăciunești in Romania: “Eating with fingers is more fitting than eating with forks because hands are ritually washed before each meal. Hands are cleaner than cutlery.”
When an important leader like the Rebbe of Krechnov makes a pronouncement against silverware, word spreads fast through the community. When I repeated the Krechnover’s words to a young Hasid I met on the eastern edge of the neighborhood, he nodded. “Rikhtig,” he said in Yiddish, “That’s right. Once upon a time Hasids didn’t use forks. Some of us live like that still, but a lot of us don’t. Personally, I like eating with a fork.”
At the Toldos Aaron Yeshiva, the middle-and-high school that serves the Karlin-Stolin community, Hasids eat their lunch with fingers, not forks. One bright-faced ex-student who now manages a cellphone shop on Mea She’arim Road told me, “At school, we’d eat fish and meat with our hands. We’d never use forks. A fork is a modern thing.”
Many people I spoke to hadn’t heard of the tradition at all. On a Sunday afternoon, I walked into a local diner on Mea She’arim Road to get a bite to eat. Two Hasidic men stood behind a small aluminum lunch counter serving Ashkenazi favorites like potato kugel, pickled cabbage, and boiled beef tongue. An old Coca-Cola fridge hummed in a corner as men in black hats and suits quietly savored their midday meals. I asked a group of Yeshiva Bokhers, high-school-aged students, who were enjoying schnitzel and fries whether they’d heard of the injunction. They laughed incredulously: “Surely not.”
Though the practice of avoiding forks has no clear origin, the prohibition may go back as far as the Talmud, a textual labyrinth of debates and discussions on Jewish law set down around two-thousand years ago, and an essential part of every Hasidic boy’s education. One explanation I found comes from a Talmudic debate in tractate Sukkah 32a. The text records an argument about the permissibility of different types of foliage used for the ritual shaking of leaves and citrus during the celebration of Sukkot, a harvest festival otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles. Leaves that are like forks, split into tines, the rabbis decided, are distinctly non-Kosher: they are a sign of schism and disunion. Just as split leaves have no place in prayer, an instrument as divided as a fork should have no place at the Hasidic table.
But the prohibition against forks, it turns out, is a conditional one.
But the prohibition against forks, it turns out, is a conditional one. Forks may appear during breakfast, a meal that has no sacred significance in Judaism, but they are absent on Sabbaths or holidays. Forks never turn up at religious meals involving fish. Lacking eyelids, fish are seen a metaphor for an all-seeing God, always watching the deeds of the faithful; their sleeplessness teaches believers to devote every waking moment to worship.
In this deeply rooted and often convoluted philosophical tradition, even the holy act of avoiding forks comes with its pitfalls. For the eight days of Passover, religious Jews refrain from eating food that rises in memory of the Israelites in Egypt who had no time to properly bake bread before embarking on the Exodus. While it is normally holier to eat with your hands, one Hasid told me, moisture on the fingers might cause food to rise, which means that most followers of the faith handle matzah, unleavened bread, as swiftly as possible.
At the end of the fish dinner, our tables were pushed to the edge of the room and a bald Hasid with a blonde beard began playing improvised melodies on a synthesizer. In a corner of the room, the Bar-Mitzvah boy’s father said lechayim over a glass of schnapps. A few men went outside to smoke cigarettes. Others danced while the women watched from the adjacent room. I sat with a group of young Hasids who spoke to me candidly about customs and cutlery. One of them told me that the fork is a goyish thing, something that non-Jews use. When I asked how they dealt with soup, they all looked at me quizzically. “We use spoons,” he said.