Eating as a Spiritual Ecosystem

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March 1, 2012
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Joel Hecker

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes . . . If a man makes a vow . . . he shall not break his pledge; he must fulfill all that has come out of his mouth.”1 It is well known that the whole world and its contents “were created through the word of YHVH and all of its hosts through His breath,”2 for it is through [Divine] Speech that all of reality — all things large and small — were created…

If not for the hiyyut (life force) within an object, it would not exist.3 [All things] come from the words that fell into this lower world as a result of the shattering [of the vessels], … from the sin of Adam. In succeeding generations as well, there are countless sparks of fallen souls, garbed in the things of this world: in foodstuffs, drink, and the like…

This [spark] is the taste — sweet to the palate — within the food… When you taste and see that something is good: That is YHVH! For [YHVH] is the holy spark within that item, garbed in it. After a person has eaten a certain food, the hiyyut remains within while the waste is cast out — without any hiyyut, which is useless and foul.

This is the entire essence of our worship: To bring all of the holy sparks from the shells where they reside in fragmented form back to the domain of holiness, attaining holy ascent from their fragmented state.4

—Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Parashat Mattot, Me’or Einayim

In this passage, R. Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, a third-generation Hasidic rebbe, discusses the spiritual pathways of holy sparks and food: how they appear, the human role in consuming foods containing them, and the sustenance of our souls and the cosmos that results.

Divine words descend, morphing into food, providing life-sustaining energy, which in turn transmutes into words, sustaining divinity itself. This teaching portrays a spiritual ecosystem in which the spiritual seeker can participate in a continuous cycle, sending the holiness embedded within our reality back upward with the proper spiritual intent.

Menahem Nahum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730-1797) was a student of the Maggid, Dov Ber of Mezeritch, and the founder of the Chernobyl line of Hasidim. The passage above teaches about the practice of avodah be-gashmiyut, worship through materiality. Avodah be-gashmiyut is the Hasidic term referring to the mystical act of raising sparks contained within the physical world and restoring them to their source within the realm of divinity. While many Hasidic texts address how avodah be-gashmiyut can be practiced — in eating, sexual relations, and commerce — the vast majority explicate the dynamic regarding eating. The material world was regarded as a world of kelipot, shells or husks, which obscured the holiness within. Hasidism expanded the arena in which these holiness-redeeming practices could be performed to include all of material reality, excluding foods or practices deemed forbidden in Jewish law.

In R. Menahem’s text, the details of the practice are spare, but the meaning is front and center: Through our most basic activities, with eating as a prime example, we are able to participate in the flow of divine being that underlies all of reality. The text begins by implicitly comparing our speech to God’s, the medium by which God created the world.: “Let there be light,” “Let there be a firmament.” (Genesis 1)  Then, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, Adam’s sin caused the holy words that undergird reality to shatter, ultimately being cast into the materiality of this world.5 Those shattered words, as holy sparks, inhabit and sustain all things — living and inanimate.

The Hebrew word ta’amu bears an equivocal meaning, corresponding to both “taste” on the one hand, and “consider” or “understand” on the other. The Chernobyler rebbe states that the experience of the sweetness of the food is itself the experience of God. Holiness, divinity, and redemption are all realized when one eats.  There is a wide range of positions within Hasidism about the relationship of God’s being with the world, but it can often be described as a moderate pantheism in which divinity and mundane reality are not poles apart; rather, our this-worldly reality barely conceals the holiness lying behind its veils. According to this perspective, eating creates a unification within the body — for animals and humans — in which the hiyyut, the life force or holy sparks, contained within the food bond with the hiyyut already residing within the diner’s body. The spark of holiness that originated within the food boosts one’s energy, providing continued sustenance, while the waste that is generated, lacking that holy life force, is cast out.6

R. Menahem turns the simple act of eating into a spiritual practice by emphasizing that a transformation in the cosmos itself is achieved when eating is performed with the appropriate consciousness and faith. The text elaborates how this system works. Words of speech, particularly those of prayer and Torah study, energized by the hiyyut in the food’s sweetness, unite with divine speech located in the initial holy spark, causing that spark to ascend. Ultimately there is an identity of divine speech and human speech, with human speech participating in the continued circuit of holy overflow, proceeding downward, inward, outward, and upward.

For the Chernobyler, like the literary artist, language is the ultimate vehicle of creation,
instilling and sustaining “being” itself. When we heed the luminous letters and words that infuse our being, our own inwardness fuses with the divine inwardness that is shot through all of reality. It is through this kind of engagement that, to use Martin Buber’s language, our interactions cease to exist in the realm of I-It, now transpiring in the realm of I-Thou. Each moment becomes an opportunity for reflection upon the nature of our relationship to that item.

Menahem Nahum teaches that all of our activities bear holy sparks, which means that we must regard each moment as uniquely ours. So, when an individual eats an apple, for example, the apple’s inner spark is personalized, belonging to that individual alone. We must, then, question: How was it transported to my kitchen? Who picked the fruit and how were they treated? Was the apple grown in a way that fosters the earth’s sustainability? Looking at the world in this way fosters not only spiritual consciousness but also an enhanced sense of responsibility for oneself, one’s environment, and, ultimately, the world.

1 Numbers 30:2.

2 Psalms 33:6.

3 The term hiyyut connotes the vitality that animates not only persons but

also all things in this material world.

It is common to all of reality and is a central feature of Hasidic pantheism.

4 Menahem Nahum ben Zvi Hirsh Twerski, Sefer Me’or Einayim

(Slovita, 1798), 92a.

5 Lurianic Kabbalah treats the formula of “Adam’s sin” as shorthand for the cosmic catastrophe that is otherwise called the “breaking of the vessels.” In other words, the story in Genesis 3 is not about the first transgression of God’s will in the Garden of Eden; it is to be understood in symbolic terms, referring to the very possibility of this world withstanding God’s being.

6 One might contend that waste could also be recycled, but that’s not how the author conceptualizes human waste.

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Joel Hecker is an associate professor of Jewish mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. The author of Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah, he is now writing a translation of and commentary on the Zohar’s treatment of the Song of Songs for the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar. This essay is adapted from Hecker’s chapter in a 2011 book published in honor of Rabbi Arthur Green, Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections, edited by Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or N. Rose.

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