"Why does your Shabbos food have such a special fragrance?" the emperor asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania.
"We put in a special ingredient," he replied, "and its called Shabbos."
"Give me some of that ingredient," asked the emperor.
"It works for someone who observes Shabbos," explained the Sage, "but it will have no effect for one who does not."
The climax of this famous dialogue is certainly appreciated by every Jew who finds a special delight in his Shabbos meal which cannot be duplicated during the weekdays. But a little analysis is required of the details of this exchange.
Why did the emperor, who assumed that Shabbos was the name of a spice, not ask the obvious question: "Why dont the Jews use this spice in their recipes throughout the week?"
This question did not bother the emperor, explains Iyun Yaakov, because he was aware that Jews did special things in regard to clothes and food in honor of their holy day of rest. He therefore suggested that since such a wonderful spice was set aside for honoring Shabbos it should also be presented to him as an expression of honor for the throne. Sensitive to his Jewish subjects respect for Shabbos he was even willing to reserve use of this special spice to Shabbos alone, so that it would be used in honor of both the holy day and the august emperor.
At this point Rabbi Yehoshua was compelled to explain that Shabbos was not a natural spice but a supernatural ingredient which worked only for those who were commanded to observe Shabbos. As the Zohar, quoted by Eitz Yosef, puts it, the very essence of intangible Shabbos holiness takes on a tangible form in the special taste and fragrance of Shabbos food.
- Shabbos 119a