Tu Bishvat and the Transformation of Eating

A Holy Pleasure.

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Tribe of the Month

Asher is the tribe corresponding to Shevat. The letters of the name Asher (Alef Shin Reish) can be reversed to form the acronym for Rosh Shenot Ilanot, or 'the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees', an epithet of Tu Bishvat. (Ma'or vaShemesh, "Rimzei Tu Bishvat")

What does Asher represent? The Torah says (Bereishit 49:20), "As for Asher, fat (rich, delicious) is his produce." Reb Tzadok haCohen of Lublin interprets this to mean that the concept of Asher is connected with the enjoyment of food. (Pri Tzadik, 2:19)

The name Asher shares its root with the word osher, 'affluence'. Delicious foods such as fruits represent affluence since they are not usually considered staples, as are bread and water. On Tu bishvat our custom is to taste a royal array of exotic and delicious fruits.

Other related words, ashur and ashrei allude to the exalted Sefirah of Keser. In the non-dual realm of Keser, everything is equal, and yet this is the paradoxically the place where taanug, 'delight', is rooted. We learn from this that the foundation of 'holy delight' is equanimity. When all tastes are equal to us, then we can delight in the earth's abundance without being harmed. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi lived on this level. Although his home was full of the richest foods and delicacies, at the end of his life he proclaimed, "I did not partake in the pleasures of this world, not even by the measure of a small finger."

Along these lines, the Ma'or vaShemesh comments on the verse from Bereshit, "From all the fruit you shall eat, just not from the Tree of Good and Evil…." 'This means, you may eat freely from every tree, but don't make distinctions between the fruits. They should all feel and taste the same to you.'(Parshas Bo, pp.179-180)

Body Part of the Month

According to some readings, the body part of Shevat is the kurkban, the stomach. The Talmud (Berachot 61b) says, "The kurkban grinds the food." Why does the Talmud focus on the inner processor, the stomach, rather than on the more obvious "grinders", the teeth? The month of Shevat helps us rectify the inner processing of food, the deeper issues of eating.
tu bishvat flowers
One way that Shevat helps us is by allowing us to explore the spiritual effects of a physically empty stomach. All of the weeks of Shevat are part of a period called Shutvinim Tat, eight weeks in which fasting is frequently prescribed. When we temporarily refrain from physical food, we can become more aware of our relationship to eating. Are we in the habit of eating for the sake of its outer pleasures? Do we depend on food for physical and emotional comfort? When we return to eating, can we focus on the deeper, spiritual realities within our food? This is the message of Shevat: if we can eat in mindfulness holiness we can diminish din in our lives, and restore the flow of chesed.

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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.