Tu Bishvat and the Transformation of Eating

A Holy Pleasure.

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New Year of the Trees

Shevat means "rod", meaning that it's a time of 'judgment', an allusion to Rosh Hashanah. Tu Bishvat is called the Rosh Hashanah of the (Fruit) Trees. Nevertheless, the actual Judgment Day for trees seems to occur much earlier in the year, perhaps on Sukkot, or even on Rosh Hashanah itself. In what sense then, is Tu Bishvat a new beginning for the trees, and for us?

Tu Bishvat is mystically parallel to Tu b'Av, the Fifteenth day of the Summer month of Av. Tu b'Av is forty days before the Twenty-fifth of Elul, the date of the beginning of the Creation of the World (which is five days prior to Rosh haShanah). The Talmud, at the end of Tractate Taanit, suggests that Tu b'Av represents the 'subconscious' glimmer of love that led to the act of Creation. The Baalei Ha'Tosefot, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 27, say that on Rosh Hashanah, the 'thought' of creating humanity entered the Creator's consciousness. The actual Creation of humanity took place six months later, on the First of the month of Nisan.

Tu Bishvat is forty days before the Twenty-fifth of Adar. According to the Baalei Ha'Tosefot, the Twenty-fifth of Adar would be the first day of Creation of the world, as it is five days before the First of Nisan. Tu Bishvat would thus be the first glimmer of love before the act of Creation. According to Jewish Law, it is the day that new sap begins to stir and flow within the fruit trees of the Land of Israel. It is the first glimmer of the new fruits that will blossom in Nisan. It is the first glimmer of the chesed that will nourish us in the coming year.

Tu Bishvat helps us align with holy eating from the earliest moment of the development of this year's delicious fruits. This day gives us a new beginning at very the fulcrum of our lives, the primal and decisive act of eating.

The Tikkun of Eating

Tu Bishvat repairs ones eating for the entire year, so much so, that our eating can become like that of Adam and Eve before their spiritual fall.(Pri Tzadik, Parshas Beshalach) Since their spiritual fall and contraction came about through impulsively eating from a tree, we can create a spiritual elevation and expansion by eating fruits in mindfulness and holiness.

The Kabbalists created a simple and informal seder for Tu Bishvat that can initiate us into the spirituality of eating. Like the Passover Seder, this seder includes drinking four cups of wine. One may also meditatively eat four kinds of fruit, in a progressive order: 1) first, nuts with a hard inedible shell (or klipa, representing negativity), then 2) fruits with a soft, edible outside, but also with a hard, inedible pit which must be separated from the edible part, 3) fruits with both an edible outside and inside, and finally 4) fruits that can be appreciated even for their scent or essence alone.
Similarly, there are four ways of relating to food, corresponding to four ways of life:

1) To impulsively indulge in food, 'the Way of the Mundane World'. This represents our tendency toward addiction, the klipa of eating, which we must break.

2) To fast, or separate oneself from indulging in the pleasures of eating. This is 'the Way of Self-Rectification', or Mussar.

3) To exercise equanimity or hishtavus in relation to the pleasure of eating. This is 'the Way of Transcendence', or Kabbalah. The Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco teaches that we can reach a spiritual level where we are not affected inwardly or outwardly by people, whether they shame us or praise us. The same principle can be applied to the taste and quantity of food.

4) To take pleasure in the Divine essence within food. b'chol derachecha de'eihu. 'Holy pleasure' is the highest level of eating. This is 'the Way of Essence' or Hassidut.

Obviously, the first is not really a "way of life", for it is a detriment to life. The three paths of Mussar, Kabbalah, and Hassidut, however, are each valid ways of relating to the physical world. Within every person's life, these three ways will be appropriate at different times, depending on the circumstances.

In the path of Hassidut, the Baal Shem Tov unites aspects of the paths of Mussar and Kabbalah. On this level, we can fast from the self-centered desire for taste, even while eating sumptuous foods. We can practice equanimity and taste Hashem's presence, whether the physical taste is pleasing or not.

We are capable of expanding holiness into the realm of pleasure because the Source of our souls is in the supernal Taanug, the "Divine pleasure".( Noam Elimelech, Parshas Shemot) The Shabbat Maariv prayer calls us "am medushnei oneg", 'a people saturated with delight'. Each of us is capable of this ecstatic delight, even amid our worldly needs and concerns. This Tu Bishvat, may we let go of our attachment to tastes, and actualize our deeper state of equanimity.

As we partake of delicious fruits and delicacies, may we taste the Divine Presence, and expand the boundaries of holiness, permeating the world with the light of wisdom. In this way, we will begin to restore the correct flow of the Divine Name, and open a flow of chesed into the world. May we bring the day when for all people, the taanug olam hazeh, the pleasure of this world, will be one with the real taanug, as King David sings, "…v'hitaneg el Hashem," '…take pleasure in the Infinite One.'(Tehillim, 37:4)

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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.