It is very rare in the Torah to find elaborate details about the food people ate. If there is ever an event that involved eating, the Torah is very scant with details. Either it simply says that they “ate and drank” (Shemot 24:11), or mentions bread: “they sat to eat bread” (Bereshit 37:25; Shemot 18:12). There is only one time where the Torah describes, in painstaking detail, exactly what was on the menu: in this week’s parsha.
Avraham had just three days previously, at age 99, fulfilled Hashem’s commandment of brit milah, and was recovering from surgery. Hashem had mercy on him and, knowing that Avraham was passionate about hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of hospitality, made that day a real scorcher so that nobody would be out and about, thus allowing Avraham time to recuperate. But when something is second nature, as hospitality was to Avraham, it causes great distress when you cannot engage in it. This was the case that day. Avraham was eagerly waiting for guests to visit his inn, and when nobody arrived, it caused him great anguish. He sent his servant, Eliezer, out to look for visitors, but Eliezer returned empty-handed. Avraham then went out himself to seek out guests, but could also not find any. When Hashem saw his distress, He sent three angels as visitors.
Our Sages say that these three were the same angels (Michael, Rafael, Gavriel) that asked Hashem in the time of Enosh and Noach why He had created man, if all man did was sin against Him. Hashem’s reply to them was, “One day (in ten generations’ time) you will see why!”
Avraham was delighted with the three guests, and his first order of business was to check that they were not idol worshippers, asking them to wash their feet (since the idolators of the time worshipped the sand on their feet) and to sit under the “tree.” This special tree, called an “eshel,” had the ability to identify idol worshippers. Avraham then offered them bread to eat. The meal that followed, as we will soon see, was a lot more than simple bread, and this teaches us the quality of a tzaddik: “Say little and do much.”
Avraham then hastily went about preparing the feast for his guests.
First, he went into the tent and told his wife Sarah to take three seah measures of kemach solet, or in English, “semolina flour.” There were two types of flour for making bread, regular flour and “semolina,” which was of a higher quality. Avraham asked Sarah to use regular flour to make dough to soak up the unpalatable broth at the top of the pot in which the meat was cooked and to use semolina,” the higher quality flour, to make bread for the guests, according to Rashi.
Three seah measures are equivalent to one eifa measure. Using the “median” opinion (R’ Chaim Na’eh), an eifa measure is approximately 44 lb. of flour. The challah bakers among you will know that 44 lb. of flour, when mixed with the other bread ingredients – water, salt, etc., makes dough that weighs about 73 lb. If each individual challah weighs about 25 oz, that makes about 47 challahs – for three guests that’s a lot of bread (even if some dough was used to soak up the broth)! What kind of bread did Sarah make? They were matzot. We learn this from a “gezeira shava,” a juxtaposition of the word uggot (round loaves) here and in Shemot (12:39) in reference to uggot matzot.” The commentaries say that this episode occurred during Pesach.
While Sarah was busy making bread, Avraham set about preparing the main dish – three calf tongues cooked in mustard sauce (Rashi). To extract three tongues, you need to slaughter three calves. Two of the animals cooperated, but the third ran away and hid in a cave. Avraham had to chase after the third calf, and when he entered the cave, he smelled the fragrance of Gan Eden. This is how Avraham discovered Me’arat HaMachpela, where Adam and Chava were buried.
After preparing the delicacies, Avraham then waited on the guests, serving milk, butter and the three tongues in mustard sauce. The Malbim says that first Yishmael served the milk and butter and after that, Avraham served the meat, to separate milk and meat according to halacha.
We know this meal was the lunch meal, because it says “kechom hayom,” in the midday sun. The question is why the Torah felt it necessary to go into such detail about the menu and the preparation of this meal (which in all likelihood was not even eaten as angels don’t eat – they just pretended to eat in order to not offend Avraham).
There is much more to this meal than meets the eye and it would require a three-hour shiur (at least) to begin to scratch the surface. However, one of the main reasons that no detail is spared is to show to what lengths a 99-year-old man who had just undergone surgery will go to honor his guests, and how Avraham Avinu epitomized the attribute of chesed. In his merit, Am Yisrael received the mann in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: The three angels were dressed in three different “disguises.” What were these disguises and why were they dressed this way?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Hashem did not command him to, so why did Avraham shlep his nephew Lot along with him from Charan? The Agra DeKala (Lech Lecha 98) says that Avraham wanted to protect Lot (at least until he bore the sons Amon and Moav), from the incestuous relationship with his daughters, since that was the origin of the dynasty of David HaMelech and the Mashiach. This is why Avraham went to rescue Lot from the four kings, but after Amon and Moav were born we hear no more of Lot.