Sacred eating was a central part of ancient Jewish worship. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, sacrifices of animals, grains and liquids were eaten, either by the priests or by the priests along with the person bringing the sacrifice. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis conceived of the dining tables in our homes as miniature altars, symbolic replacements for the lost Temple altar. In our day, when we extend an invitation to others to partake of our food, when we eat with intention, and when we share words of Torah at our tables, we contribute to realigning ourselves with God and the world just as the sacrifices did in the Temple.
The rabbis devised a system of blessings to offer when eating various kinds of foods. Rather than prescribing a generic blessing for all edibles, they codified a detailed system of categorization to indicate the appropriate blessings to offer before and after eating and drinking, depending on the particular food. Such a system demands that we really pay attention to what we are consuming. Before each meal, glass of water, or snack, we look, we notice, and we search for the appropriate blessing with which to express our gratitude. This system for cultivating awareness and gratitude constitutes one of rabbinic Judaism’s inherent mindfulness modalities.
The Hasidic masters sought to deepen our practice of contemplation in eating beyond the cultivation of gratitude, guiding us in raising our consciousness of God yet more profoundly. It is important to note that the Hasidic tradition is not univocal in its relationship to eating and drinking. Many teachers saw eating and drinking as opportunities to tame strong desire. But others saw eating as a practice of cultivating divine awareness.
Everything in the world contains holy sparks. When food and drink permitted by the Torah are consumed, they become part of our body, turning into blood and human flesh. We, in turn, utilize this strength gained from this nourishment to study Torah and do mitzvot. (Rabbi Zevi Elimelech of Dinov)
This teaching points us to a contemplation before eating that raises our awareness of the vital life force that animates all creation. When we contemplate the way the food before us will be converted to holiness, we elevate it. A contemporary expression for such an intention might be: May the food that I am about to consume strengthen me for good thoughts, words and deeds in the world.
A second teaching, by Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polonne, goes further.
A great principle in serving God is this: in everything you do for the sake of heaven, see to it so that you what you do will immediately be a service of the Lord. When eating, do not say that you are eating for the sake of heaven in the sense that the food will give you strength to serve the Lord. Although this too is a good intention, the ultimate perfection is for the act itself, in and of itself, to be an act for the sake of heaven. [emphasis mine]
While it is a virtue to eat with the intention that the food be converted to energy for the performance of good deeds, that dedication is a form of mental intention before eating only; it is not a devotion that takes place in the moment-to-moment act of eating. To eat in a state of contemplative mindfulness is “an act for the sake of heaven,” unifying God’s creation through our own awareness of its essential unity.
To eat for the sake of heaven is to cultivate a contemplative mind that tastes the truth that nothing is truly separate. Everything is interconnected and nothing is self-sufficient. We can practice this awareness by ceasing to identify the particular foods by type — as the early rabbinic practice enjoined us to do — and simply entering the experience of eating, connecting moment by moment to its taste, texture and temperature as we chew and swallow. Mindful eating puts us in direct touch with the flow of life, the hiyyut (life-force), God.
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This sense of interconnectedness is conveyed in one of the early rabbinic blessings after eating, Borei Nefashot Rabbot, which thanks God for creating many living souls, all of them with their own needs and the means of fulfilling them.
“In all of rabbinic Judaism, the blessing Borei N’fashot may be the finest expression of what we would call ecological consciousness,” Rabbi David Seidenberg writes. “It blesses the Creator for making creatures that need to use each other to survive. The needs of every creature unite it with all life and tie all species, all our relations, together, whether they be plants or animals or fungi or microscopic organisms or soil. Those needs compel creatures to evolve and reproduce as part of ecosystems of multitudes of species. All together they, and we, create a world that is alive and vibrant with life, and vibrant with the ‘Soul of all Life.’”
The truth is that we typically experience many distractions in eating, such as wandering thoughts (or the newspaper or radio) if we are eating alone, or conversation if we are eating with others. Perhaps it is realistic to ask ourselves, as the early rabbis did, to raise our awareness through blessing and contemplation only before and after eating. But a Hasidic mindfulness practice would ask more of us, directing us to recognize the interconnection of all with every bite, as we taste and feel the many sensations of chewing and swallowing as a participatory act in the divine being.
One might devote oneself in just this way with one meal during the week (such as a solo workday lunch), or for the first few bites of a meal at dinnertime, or in some other fashion. Putting all the early rabbinic and later Hasidic perspective into practice, we might do the following:
- Look at our food
- Acknowledge that everything in the created world is dependent on other life forms for survival
- Appreciate the way these expressions of divine vitality now contribute to the divine vitality flowing through us
- Select the appropriate blessing to say in gratitude for the specific food before us
- Eat with mindful, embodied presence connected to the flow of all being, moment by moment
- Offer a final blessing of thanks after finishing one’s meal.
This would be, as the Hasidic rabbis themselves might say, a high madrega, a high level of spiritual attainment, indeed!