Is Eating Supposed To Be Spiritual?
Eat to fix the world.
Have you ever seen anyone meditating while eating a sandwich or a salad?
I didn’t think so.
Eating doesn’t seem like a very spiritual act to most people.
However, it’s supposed to be.
Allow me to explain.
Even though eating is usually something we do while we’re talking with friends or scrolling through our phones, Judaism teaches that the moment of eating is actually a very important moment, not just physically for our bodies, but spiritually as well.
In order to really understand this we need to take a quick look at a teaching from the Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism, that gives us a peek into the spiritual “behind-the-scenes” of the moment the world was first created.
The Kabbalah explains that, before there was anything, there was only God’s light and when God wanted to create the world God created ten vessels, called sefirot, to receive that light and to be used in the creation of the world.
But then something cosmically tragic happened.
God’s light was too powerful for these vessels and they broke into countless shards, known in Kabbalah as “holy sparks”, and these holy sparks became embedded throughout the newly created world.
According to the Kabbalah, our essential work in this world is to “elevate the sparks”, through the performance of good deeds and other positive actions, and thereby fix the brokenness that is literally part of the world. This is where the well-known Jewish concept of tikkun olam, fixing the world, comes from.
So how does eating fit into all of this mystical talk?
The Kabbalah teaches that the food we eat is “home” to many of these holy sparks and, consequently, each time we eat we have the opportunity to elevate the sparks and thereby participate in fixing the world.
You heard me right. Fixing the world through eating. (Such a Jewish idea, no?)
This idea is illustrated through one of the very first stories of the entire Torah: Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Now, the sin of Adam and Eve is traditionally understood to be that they ate what they weren’t permitted to eat.
But Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen (1823-1900), a prominent leader of the Hasidic movement first developed by the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century, had a different take on this.
He taught that it wasn’t what Adam and Eve ate that was the problem…it was how they ate.
In fact, he believed, in classic Hasidic fashion, that the Tree of Knowledge wasn’t even a tree or a thing at all. Rather it was a way of eating. Their eating was motivated by self-centered seeking of pleasure instead of recognizing the potential that the act of eating has for being a holy and spiritual moment.
And if this was the sin that caused Adam and Eve to be kicked out of the Garden of Eden then, as the teacher Sarah Yehudit Schneider teaches, “the primary fixing of human civilization is to learn to eat in holiness.”
But what does it even mean to eat in holiness? Bringing back our first teaching, what does it mean to eat in a way that “elevates the sparks”?
Bringing together different Jewish teachings and practices, I think we can say that it means the following:
- First and foremost, to give thanks for the food we have. To recognize that simply having food is a huge gift. That’s why Judaism has a system of blessings both before and after we eat, built-in reminders of the good we have in our lives and the importance of expressing gratitude for it. Giving thanks for one’s food immediately has the potential to transform one’s eating into something more than just ensuring physical survival.
- To eat with health and wellness in mind. Yes, we can enjoy the foods that we eat, but in proper measure and not at the expense of our bodies. Without bodily health we cannot fully accomplish what we are capable of doing in this world. As Maimonides, the famous rabbi, philosopher and doctor of 12th century Spain writes, “Bodily health and wellbeing are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits.” When we choose to eat healthy we are making a statement that our eating is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to help us to become our best selves and live our greatest lives.
- To focus on the food in front of us and not be involved with other things while we’re eating– like phones, books, or even conversations. Yes, eating is a very social act and sharing food with others is both meaningful and important, but we can’t forget to give attention to what should be the main focus of any meal: the food itself. It is even written in Jewish law that one should not speak while eating, not only to prevent one from choking, but also to help us create that focused experience of eating.
- Lastly, for those who want to take the act of eating to a deeper level, they can intentionally turn it into a form of meditation. Here’s how: Ideally sit by yourself in a quiet location free of distractions. Before even beginning to eat, look at the food in front of you and think about all of the different ingredients that went into the making of your food. Try to picture the farms where these ingredients came from. Picture the people who were part of the process of getting the food from the farm to your plate. Then take your first bite. Put your fork or spoon down (very important), close your eyes and chew slowly. Chew as many times as you can. You can mentally count the number of times you chew or even go through the alphabet with each chew. When the food is completely gone from your mouth take another bite and repeat. Do this until you have finished eating. At the end of chewing your last bite, keep your eyes closed and think about what you want to do with the energy that this food has just given you. What good do you want to bring into the world? How can you use this energy from the food to help others and make the world a little better?
Judaism is all about infusing the physical world with spiritual awareness. That’s one of the reasons the Jewish star, the main symbol of Judaism, is made up of two triangles, one pointed up and the other pointed down, one pointed towards the heavens (the spiritual) and one pointed towards the earth (the physical). When we choose to approach the very physical act of eating with spiritual attention we literally have the ability, as we have already seen, to change our lives and even the entire world.