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What Judaism Says About Free Chinese Food

Rabbi Andy Bachman helps solve an office conundrum

Adam Chandler
January 23, 2013
(Adam Chandler)
(Adam Chandler)

Today in the Tablet office, a very strange thing happened. A delivery man appeared and dropped off a bag full of tantalizing Chinese food, which sat unclaimed at the front desk for about 30 minutes.

After some internal e-mails and inquiries, it was finally determined that no one in the office had ordered Chinese and so we investigated the contents: One order of General Tso’s chicken, one order of beef and broccoli, a wonton soup, and a Diet Coke. There was also no receipt and were no containers identifying where the food had come from.

The question then arose: Were we–an office of Chinese-food-loving Jews–free to indulge? To answer this question, I dropped a note to friend of Tablet Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim and told him about the situation. I asked him what our Jewish obligation was to this MSG-laden manna and what the sages would say. Here’s what he said:

Lucky you–well, sort of. I actually like General Tso’s Tofu. The chicken bothers me for whatever reason. I also, like some people insist on Tsar, not Czar, say Tso not Tzo. But we’re splitting hairs.

One, if by Sages you mean *the* Sages then they would say you can’t eat it because it isn’t Kosher. But there being no explicit pork or shellfish, a rabbi such as I would allow. But not until you offered it someone outside, in the cold, around the corner from your offices. I have been in your part of town and have often stumbled across the truly humble among us, offering meager amounts of change to their cold, neglected hands.

So I’d like to think the Sages would command you to go give the food to someone truly in need. And in this godforsaken cold, a warm meal would have been greatly appreciated. The prophet Isaiah is particularly difficult in this regard. In one of his famous rants against “unrighteousness” he rails against Israel’s greedy ways by charging, “Yea all tables are covered with vomit and filth, so that no space is left.” I mean, let’s face it–from the perspective of the Prophet, God gave you food and if you didn’t put it to the right use, it’s an abomination. It’s insanely harsh but I actually believe that.

As for the Diet Coke, given what I read in Mark Bittman’s food column this morning (Diet Coke has been proven to cause depression!) that should have been emptied and offered straight up to the gods of recycling.

This is wonderful advice; wholly concomitant with the most enlightened aspects of Judaism.

If only this guidance had arrived before we ate all the Chinese food.

Update: After well over an hour, the mystery delivery man returned and asked us to give back the food or pay for it—which we Jesse Oxfeld did. Perhaps next time we’ll ask the sages whether we are obligated to hold onto cold Chinese food so that it doesn’t get served to someone else.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.