Holy Pleasure: Tu B'Shevat and the Transformation of Eating

Holy Pleasure: Tu B’Shevat and the Transformation of Eating

The Sefer Yetzirah, among other texts, reveals a constellation of unique energies, themes and spiritual practices for each month of the year. We will build on these teachings in order to discover some of the deeper meanings of the month of Shevat, and its special day, Tu b’Shevat. This will allow us to unleash the transformative powers of these times.

The Letter-Combination of the Month

There are four letters in the name of Hashem (Yud, Hei, Vav, and Hei) and each month of the year has an inner light that shines as a different sequence of these four letters. The month of Shevat shines as the combination Hei–Yud–Vav–Hei. It’s interesting to note that the only difference between this combination and the original spelling of the Divine Name is that the sequence of the first two letters is reversed.

There are two parts of the month of Shevat. The first part, from the first of Shevat until the eve of the fifteenth (Tu b’Shevat), is considered ‘harsh’ (din). This is because the natural flow of the first part of Hashem’s name is reversed in this month’s letter-combination: Hei then Yud. The second part of Shevat is much less harsh, and contains more kindness (chesed). This is because the second part of the letter-combination is in the natural flow of the Divine Name: Vav then Hei.

The second part of the month begins with Tu b’Shevat. As the fifteenth day, Tu b’Shevat is the fulcrum between the two sides, the Hei–Yud, and the Vav–Hei. As a fulcrum contains the qualities of both sides, so the day of Tu b’Shevat includes the four letters of the Name. Tu means 15, and this is the numerical value of Hei–Yud (or Yud–Hei). Shevat is the eleventh month of the year (starting from Nissan), and 11 is the numerical value of Vav–Hei.

Tu b’Shevat is thus the shifting point where din is diminished and the proper flow of chesed is restored. How can we activate this shift in our own lives?

The Torah Verse Connected with Shevat

The letter-combination of the month is found in Vayikra, 27:33: “Hamar Yamirenu V’haya Hu…” This verse says that when selecting an animal for a Temple sacrifice, if a person wanted to exchange the designated animal for different one, both animals would then be considered holy. The theme, therefore, is expanding Kedusha -holiness. In Shevat, we expand holiness in the realm of eating.

The real pleasure of eating comes not from the physicality of the food, but from the spiritual “word of Hashem” within the food, as it is written, “for not on the bread alone will man live, rather from the word of Hashem….” (Devarim 8:3) What if we could taste the spiritual reality within the physicality of the food itself? Then the “word of Hashem” and its “exchange”, or the physicality, would both be holy, and we would have expanded holiness into the realm of physical pleasure.

Major Events in Shevat

On the first day of Shevat, Moshe Rabbeinu 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: Tzadi

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

Sense of the Month: Taste

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 Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Parshas Va’eira, p.141.)

Tribe of the Month: Asher

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 Shenos Ilanos, or ‘the Rosh haShanah of the Trees’, an epithet of Tu b’Shevat.(Ma’or vaShemesh, “Rimzei Tu b’Shevat“)

What does Asher represent? The Torah says (Bereishis 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 b’Shvat 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 haNassi 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 Bereshis, “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: Stomach

According to some readings, the body part of Shevat is the kurkban, the stomach. The Talmud (Berachos 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.

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 Shusvinim 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.

New Year of the Trees

Shevat means “rod”, meaning that it’s a time of ‘judgment’, an allusion to Rosh haShanah. Tu b’Shevat 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 Sukkos, or even on Rosh haShanah itself. In what sense then, is Tu b’Shevat a new beginning for the trees, and for us?

Tu b’Shevat 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 Taanis, suggests that Tu b’Av represents the ‘subconscious’ glimmer of love that led to the act of Creation. The Baalei Ha’Tosefos, 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 Nissan.

Tu b’Shevat is forty days before the Twenty-fifth of Adar. According to the Baalei Ha’Tosefos, the Twenty-fifth of Adar would be the first day of Creation of the world, as it is five days before the First of Nissan. Tu b’Shevat 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 Nissan. It is the first glimmer of the chesed that will nourish us in the coming year.

Tu b’Shevat 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 b’Shevat repairs ones eating for the entire year, so much so, that our eating can become like that of Adam and Chavah 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 b’Shevat 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 Chassidus.

Obviously, the first is not really a “way of life”, for it is a detriment to life. The three paths of Mussar, Kabbalah, and Chassidus, 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 Chassidus, 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 Shemos) The Shabbas 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 b’Shevat, 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’hisaneg el Hashem,” ‘…take pleasure in the Infinite One.’(Tehillim, 37:4)


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