To observe or not to observe—that is the Jewish question when Valentine’s Day comes around. Jews often grapple with the decision to honor and celebrate a holiday that, despite its secular appearance, has Christian and pagan origins that may not jibe with their value system, depending on their version of Judaism. But this year, the issue may be moot: Valentine’s Day happens to fall on a Friday, an evening that for Jews has entwined romance, food, and love for centuries.
An offshoot of biblical tradition, the modern Shabbat dinner was originally intended as a precursor to lovemaking between a married heterosexual couple. In Mishnah Torah, Shabbat, Halakhah 7, Maimonides quotes the sages in Shabbat 118b: “How should one delight in the Sabbath? With a dish of beets, large fish, and garlic heads”—all certified aphrodisiacs. It is no coincidence; right after the laws about what to serve and eat on Shabbat come the laws about sexual conjugal rights. “Sexual relations are considered a dimension of Sabbath pleasure,” Maimonides continues in Halakhah 14, before adding an important caveat: “This applies to all people, not just Torah scholars.”
“The Shabbat meal is the most intimate activity of the week,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex. “The meal is sensual with wine and bread. It is both intimate and a prelude to intimacy.” In other words, whether it is Valentine’s Day or not, Friday night dinner may arouse your passions.
Food and love have been linked in Jewish thinking since the days of Torah. Think about the tale in Genesis 30:14 about Reuben and Rachel and the erotic power of the fragrant “love-flower” thought by some to be jasmine and by others mandrakes. Or every other line in Song of Songs, a virtual love poem to pomegranates, figs, honey, and apples. “Eating can be a very sensual act,” explains Jewish cookbook author Leah Koenig, “so it makes sense that these erotically charged biblical passages would look to the fruits of the natural world (apples, wine, honey, oil, spice) as a way of conveying sensuality.”
A combination of taste, texture, aroma, and plain old chemistry can make a particular food an aphrodisiac. Some raise the body temperature, others provide energy. According to Amy Reiley, author of Romancing the Stove: The Unabridged Guide to Aphrodisiac Foods, the simplest definition of an aphrodisiac can be boiled down to “any food that improves romance and/or sex life.” But she also says it is more complex than that: Ultimately, life-affirming foods that promote virility, libido, and high energy are love enhancers. Foods that lower inhibition increase circulation and create heat in the body. It is no surprise then that biblical foods, designed for keeping a group of nomadic wanderers alive and feeding a people determined to create future generations, are also on Reiley’s list of aphrodisiacs.
Biblical foods that are considered aphrodisiacs and still exist in our kitchens today include: cheese, mustard, apples, figs, nuts, grapes, salmon, red wine, olive oil, honey, pomegranates, eggs, oats, and milk. The sages’ Shabbat menu included garlic, which shares a chemical makeup akin to female sexual secretions; beets, with high boron content, stimulating sexual hormone production; and fish, which is chock full of libido-enhancing vitamins. Other ingredients from ancient biblical menus include cinnamon, which produces heat and increases appetite, and mint—which provides vitamins A, C, and B2 and calms the mind and the body with nutrients like selenium, magnesium, omega 3’s, zinc, and dietary fiber. Almonds, a kashrut-friendly equivalent of the ever-popular treyf aphrodisiac, oysters, contain high levels of fatty acids, which are key to the production of hormones needed to maintain a healthy sex drive in women—including an amino acid called arginine, which also helps to relax blood vessels and aid circulation to increase sexual potency in men.
Careful, though, with some of these ingredients. Wheat, oats, and barley, for example, are not the same as they were centuries ago. “Many whole grains offer a good source of vitamin E, also known as ‘the sex vitamin,’ ” explained Reiley. “That said, the wheat we eat now is not the wheat of biblical times. Both the grain and the soil have changed, which helps explain the increasing problems with gluten. I don’t generally promote wheat as an aphrodisiac, despite the fact that the whole grain does contain some nutrients that would benefit sexual health, because there are so many people whose bodies simply cannot tolerate the modern version of the grain.”
Still, we have eggs, which contain high levels of vitamins B6 and B5 (which help to balance hormone levels) and also B12 (which is key to healthy testosterone production). We still have the pomegranate, an antioxidant sexual energy booster, as well as the sensual sweetness of figs and honey. In other words, we still have plenty of these biblical aphrodisiacs to make a seductive menu for a typical Shabbat dinner from kugel to apple cake, roast chicken with figs, dates, and nuts, and beyond.
And don’t forget the chicken soup. “Chicken soup, piping hot, leaves you a warm, relaxing feeling. It’s about slowing down. Shabbat is about this, no rush, nothing urgent, only what is right in front of you,” said Boteach. “I’m not going to speak about the resonance of the matzoh balls—people can use their imagination.”
Chicken soup can be a love potion; it contains the protein and fat needed to boost libido, not to mention an added bonus when celery is added. Celery, a potent vegetable, stimulates the pituitary gland and is full of anderosterone, a male pheromone that stimulates female sexual arousal.
“If someone believes that chicken soup is sexually arousing, it is OK with me,” explained Jewish sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, co-author of Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition. “Let them use that for feeling relaxed and content and ready for a sexual experience.” But turn-ons aren’t the same for everyone, she noted: “It is chicken soup for some people, for others it might be brisket—it depends on the person. Or maybe applesauce for another.”
It isn’t just the content, texture, or shape of a food that makes it an aphrodisiac; it is the mood it creates, the comfort, the lowering of inhibition. “I certainly see a link between Jewish food and love,” said Koenig, “via bringing comfort and warmth to those we care about through feeding them.” If certain foods create a feeling of safety, of calm, of family, of connection to tradition, if they induce intimacy on a deeper level, then the sex to follow has a higher chance of being great—as long as the couple doesn’t pass out from the heavy food, deep calm, and comfort provoked by the meal itself.
“Heavy foods can inhibit romance,” Reiley added. “With all the blood rushing to the stomach to digest, it makes it hard to find the energy for lovemaking.”
Westheimer agrees: “It is a mitzvah to engage in sexual activity between a husband and a wife on Shabbat,” she said, noting that in order to facilitate the mitzvah, “the meal should not be too heavy—otherwise they might fall asleep.” However, should a Shabbat dinner of kugel and challah induce a dream state instead of lovemaking, there is a remedy. “If they are too tired,” Westheimer said, “they should engage in a sexual experience after the Shabbat meal the next day, during the afternoon nap.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of aphrodisiacs to be found in a standard Saturday breakfast or lunch to accommodate any delay: Think bagels and lox and egg salad. Salmon, in particular, is considered by Reiley to be “a sexual powerhouse.” It provides protein for stamina; omega 3, which elevates serotonin and keeps the lovers smiling; and Vitamins A, D, and B, as well as calcium, for libido lift. “Perhaps lox and salmon is sensuous due to its nutrient composition,” posited Noah Bermanoff of the Mile End Deli in New York, “but I think it’s sensuous because of when one actually craves it: weekend breakfast. I love weekend mornings because of how lazy and carefree the world feels, and what better way to kick off a day of canoodling than with a sesame bagel, horseradish cream cheese, lox, and red onion?”
As Maimonides explains in the Mishnah Torah: “A person is obligated to eat three meals on the Sabbath: one in the evening, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. One should be extremely careful regarding these three meals, not to eat any less. Even a poor man who derives his livelihood from charity should eat three meals.” If you are preparing a Valentine’s Shabbat dinner for your loved one this Friday, or two more meals for Saturday, the key to seduction is eating healthy. Watching which proteins, vitamins, and minerals you eat on Shabbat, coupled with foods that comfort you or visually or tangibly turn you on, you can transform every Friday night into a very Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.
Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.