Tu Bishvat and the Transformation of Eating

A Holy Pleasure.

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Major Events in Shevat

On the first day of Shevat, Moses had the Torah translated into the seventy languages of the world. His intention was to expand the boundary of holiness, to include even the mundane world in the light of Torah wisdom.

The Letter of the Month

The alphabetical letter corresponding to Shevat is Tzadi, generally called Tzadik. The Torah says that for the tzadik, the righteous or enlightened person, eating is inherently satisfying: "The tzadik eats for the satisfaction of the body, the belly of the wicked feels always empty."(Mishlei 13:25)

The tzadik eats for a purpose: nourishment of the body. Although this person's food choices may tend to be more nourishing and healthy than those of the unenlightened person, it is primarily the purposefulness of his eating that brings satisfaction. His eating is spiritual, satisfying his soul as well as his body. An unenlightened person may eat the same amount of the same food as the tzadik, yet since he eats for no deeper purpose, he only exacerbates his physical and spiritual hunger.

The Name of the Month

The word shevat (Shin Bet Tet) is related to the word Shabbat (Shin Bet Taf). In fact in the Akkadian language (Assyrian-Babylonian), the name for the eleventh month of the year is Shabatu. Since the two letters Tet and Taf are both lingual consonants, they are considered interchangeable. On Shabbat, most people can enjoy eating in holiness. The Arizal says that on Shabbat there is no waste; everything can be elevated. A talmid chacham, a wise student of Torah, is called 'shabbat' (Zohar 3. 29a) Therefore a tzadik, or a wise person who embodies the spirit of Shabbat, can eat in holiness on every day of the week.

Sense of the Month

According to the Sefer Yetzirah the sense connected with Shevat is le'itah, taste. Tehillim 34:9 says, "Tamu ureu ki tov Hashem," 'Taste and see that Hashem is good.' Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk interprets this verse: 'Taste and see that all goodness is in fact Hashem.' In this state of consciousness, the pleasant tastes of food are no longer mundane, they are holy in themselves.

Eating 'for the sake of Heaven', for the purpose of strengthening yourself for contemplative prayer or study, is a very high practice. Yet, it is still only a means to an end. Reb Elimelech suggests that it's higher to taste the presence of Hashem within the food itself. This is also the implication of the verse, "B'chol derachecha de'eihu," 'Know Hashem in all your ways.'(Mishlei, 3:6) The Baal Shem Tov, teaches that in the act of eating you can create yechudim, unifications between the physical and the spiritual.(See for example Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Parshat Vaera, p.141.)

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Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Rabbi DovBer Pinson is the Rosh Yeshiva of the IYYUN Yeshiva, a Yeshiva for adults. He is also the founder of the IYYUN Center, a center for Jewish enrichment in Brooklyn, New York, and and is the author of more than ten books on Kabbalah and spirituality.