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Chocolate and Melancholia

Chocolate and Melancholia

Soul Foods of the Secret-Bearers


So you’re a chocolate lover. Maybe even a bona fide “chocoholic,” as the popular diagnosis goes. And yet, could you say you actually know the secret of chocolate? Here’s a test. Have you ever found yourself surveying the chocolate bar shelf at the supermarket and shaking your head in wonder: “Wow, who actually likes this 99% cocoa stuff?” Well then, you haven’t met a true blue-blooded chocolate aficionado. You’re a respectable chocolate dilettante like the rest of us; at best, a chocolate connoisseur.

A breed entirely apart, the aficionado alone still guards the secret of the Mokaya passed down by the ancient Mayans in their culinary discovery of the frothy, harsh proto-chocolate beverage known as xocolātl, “bitter water.” The aficionado alone knows that chocolate is not really a confection. With each percentage point that the 100% cocoa mark of his afición is compromised by means of mellower substances like sugar, vanilla and lecithin, to say nothing of actual milk, one descends a step from his princely elevation down to the hoi polloi of so-called chocolate lovers.

Is there anything at all of this dark secret that can be communicated to the uninitiated, us chocolate beinonim?

As in other such esoteric matters, the best explanatory approach involves a good metaphor. And there may be no better metaphor for the extreme gustatory phenomenon in question than the experience known in the Chabad psychoanalytic school as marah shechorah, “black bitter,” or more simply merirut, “bitterness.”

The phrase marah shechorah has a long history. It is evidently a Hebraicization of the ancient concept of melaina kholé, the “black bile” secreted by the spleen which post-Hippocratic physicians saw as the humor responsible for the dark mood that came to be named after it, namely melancholia.1 In common parlance, of course, “melancholy” is often taken as a synonym for “sadness.” Chassidic psychology, however, perhaps with an eye to etymology, prefers to put the stress specifically on the bitterness that belongs to melancholia.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains the difference as follows:

A broken heart and a bitter soul . . . are not called sadness (atzvut) in the Holy Tongue. For in sadness the heart is dull like a stone and devoid of vitality. But in bitterness (merirut) and a broken heart there is, on the contrary, a vitality in the heart that percolates agitation and bitterness.2

Agitation and bitterness over what? The most immediate domain of experience in which bitterness can have a positive value is teshuvah, repentance. In this domain, bitterness is in fact an immediate and urgent desideratum. But the fuller horizon in which bitterness is appropriate includes every preoccupation with bodily existence. Not just the sins for which one must repent, but even the desires one has not acted upon, and even the kosher pleasures in which one has indulged,3 are an appropriate occasion for bitterness, even to the extreme emotional limit where one “despises one’s very life.”4

It is not appropriate, on the other hand, to be sad over this. And here is where the critical difference comes into play. Sadness tends to be bittersweet, rather than purely bitter. Which is why one can wallow in sadness: “O sinner that I am!” Indeed, an entire movement of Romantic poetry was even able to raise such emotional loitering to a methodical delectation in bittersweet “melancholy” or Weltschmerz. The feeling that “It’s a pleasure to be sad!”5 thus corresponds to the common run of chocolate that titillates the taste buds with a hint of uncomfortable dark depth while keeping the tongue at a safe distance from the full abyss, by comforting it with sugar and, if necessary, a splash of milk. Is this perhaps milk chocolate’s secret as a “comfort food”: that its sweetness keeps one comforted like a baby at its mother’s bosom, while the darker cocoa tones resonate with whatever feelings of loss one needs to wallow in pathetically?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, in any case, confirms that such sadness is essentially a pathetic, passive experience. It lacks vitality. Whereas bitterness, by contrast, is an experience of heightened vitality. It is not like a piece of sweet milk chocolate melting scrumptiously in one’s mouth. It is like a piece of purest dark chocolate that provokes one to irritation and makes one want to spit out the stuff. It’s not comfort food. If anything, it’s discomfort food.

For this reason, the experience of bitter melancholia presents itself as an opportunity, a “propitious hour” for actually doing something, changing something about one’s life.6 In fact, it is instrumental for producing joy. “For there is no greater joy than the escape from exile and imprisonment.”7 Melancholy is an instrument in the way that Egypt, that “iron crucible” (Deuteronomy 4:20), was an instrument for refining the souls of the Israelites so that they could know prophetic joy at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Using this to explain the issue at hand, then, we might draw the following comparison. Just as the captivity in Egypt, where the lives of the Israelites were “made bitter” (Exodus 1:14), has an instrumentality that must not be forgotten even by the former captive who might have wished to put the days of his captivity altogether behind him,8 so too, for the exclusive club of chocolate aficionados in question, 100% pure bitter chocolate is not something to spit out, despite the natural desire to do so. Indeed, the natural desire to spit it out, paradoxically enough, constitutes the sublime supernatural appeal of this chocolate.

How does one enjoy the taste of something one wants to spit out? More or less the same question: How does one enjoy the taste of maror, “bitter herbs,” on Pesach?

We have the son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Rabbi DovBer, to thank for revealing a secret told to him by his father which untangles the paradox.

This is something I heard straight from the lips of my father and master, of blessed memory, who heard it in these very words from his teacher, the Maggid of Mezeritch, of blessed memory: A person cannot receive the secret truths of the Torah or experience the light of the Infinite in a deep way, a way that really grabs his soul, unless he suffers from a natural and essential bitter melancholy. . . . This is genuine, natural soul-brokenness, to the point that he is constantly irritated with his life from minute to minute. Then the Source of all life, the Source of everything, will reside within him and bring him back from his depression. As Scripture says:9 “Where will I dwell? With him who is depressed and humble of spirit.” In all that he does in contemplating the secrets of the Torah, these secrets are transmitted to his soul in a truly revealed manner. . . . Then all his sighs and bitter melancholic emotions will be transformed into joy and pleasure . . .10

There is a secret wisdom to which bitter melancholia alone is privy. As the wisest of men, King Solomon, put it, with memorable succinctness: “Vanity of vanities! . . . Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

Existential melancholy is an experience of the soul arising from the latter’s antipathy toward the body and all its pleasures. Again, where more typical forms of melancholy arise from “bodily lacks and deprivations”11 and pathological needs, existential melancholy arises from the fulfillment of the body’s desires. Bitterly enduring human life in a half-embodied half-disembodied state, the soul rises to an altitude where it experiences new powers of perception. It is given a higher vision. It is permitted to peer into another dimension, the innermost dimension of the Torah.

How does the joy of such spiritual soaring and sublime visions coexist with the bitterness? Is the bitterness altogether overcome and completely replaced by joy?

Not so long as the soul is embodied, even if only in part. Rabbi Schneur Zalman cites a teaching from the Zohar regarding the simultaneity of the conflicting emotions: “Weeping is lodged in my heart on that side, while joy is lodged in my heart on this side.”12 There is no such thing as holistic joy, according to chassidic psychology. That’s an ideal for pagans and hippies, illusory and unattainable. Joy, true joy, simchah, is an experience that can be attained only in a perfectly “schizoid” or bicameral psyche.

The animal soul is at war with the divine soul, like two nations fighting over a small city.13 Thus, when the divine soul has the ascendancy, so that the animal soul is forced to turn upon itself in bitter melancholia, this bitterness actually complements the joy. It even supports it. For the weeping of the animal soul is what creates the necessary conditions for the divine soul’s rejoicing. The weeping is positively instrumental. And not like a styrofoam cup to be crumpled up and thrown in the garbage after use. The instrumentality of the weeping is like that of a sacred vessel in the Holy Temple.

The Talmudic sages require that the cosmic mysteries in Ezekiel’s vision of the supernal Chariot, the Maaseh Merkavah, be transmitted “only to one whose heart is anxious within him.”14 “His heart is in a state of constant anxiety,” Rabbi DovBer explains, “over when he will get to see the face of the living G‑d.”15

If our metaphor has been adequate to the task, to conclude, any intelligent chocolate lover should be able to draw the necessary parallels. The special appeal that the darkest bitter chocolate has for those few who can “enjoy” this biting flavor (for, indeed, this anti-flavor is really that of an anti-food that bites back) is the secret knowledge that knows: All the delicacies of this world, chocolate included, are empty vanities—and beyond these hollow delights, yet on this side of life, a “flavor” is to be found for which the milkiest, sweetest, most truffle-like chocolate confection is but a remote, all-but-insipid metaphor.

See Hippocrates, Aphorisms, 6.23; Aristotle, Problem 30.1; Galen, De locis affectis 3:10.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Vilna edition, 1900), ch. 31 (p. 39b).
Ibid., chs. 7 and 8 (pp. 11b–13b).
Ibid., ch. 29 (p. 37a).
Viz. the Mamas & the Papas, “Glad to be Unhappy” (1967).
Tanya, ch. 31 (pp. 39b–40a).
Ibid., p. 40a.
See Talmud, Berachot 12b, re the Shema’s “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your G‑d” (Numbers 15:41). Even the sages who disagree with Ben Zoma acknowledge that the commemoration of Egypt in messianic times will not be altogether dispensable.
Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, Kuntres ha-Hitpaalut, in Maamarei Admor ha-Emtza’i—Kuntresim (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1991), pp. 168–9. Cf. Shaar ha-Tefillah, in Derech Chayim (Brooklyn, Kehot, 1947), pp. 35a ff.
Kuntres ha-Hitpaalut, p. 168: כי אין בטבעה רק להיות במ”ש מחסרון והעדר גופני ולא מחסרון אור אלקי. Cf. Tanya, ch. 26 (p. 33a), regarding the difference between pathological sadness and עצבות אמיתית (genuine melancholia). Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Trauer und Melancholie,” in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 10 (London: Imago, 1949), pp. 430ff. Pathological melancholy mopes over the loss of worldly beauty and pleasure. Thus, in his Ode to Melancholy (1819), John Keats sings: “She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die. . . . Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine . . .” But, of course, wise King Solomon anticipated Keats when he said, in his usual pithy style: “Beauty is vanity” (Proverbs 31:30).
Zohar II:255a and III:75a. See Tanya, ch. 35 (p. 43b). See Kuntres ha-Hitpaalut, pp. 165ff. It should be noted that this constitutes nothing less than the answer to the opening question of the Tanya.
Tanya, ch. 9 (p. 14a).
Talmud, Chagigah 13a: אמר רבי זירא אין מוסרין ראשי פרקים אלא לאב ב"ד ולכל מי שלבו דואג בקרבו איכא דאמרי והוא שלבו דואג בקרבו.
Shaar ha-Tefillah, p. 36.
Michael Chighel (Kigel) received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job, after a specialization in 20th-century French and German thought. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen’s and Waterloo. He produced Passages and Messages for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). Until this year he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna, where he taught Torah, European ethics and political economy. He has translated a number of books and published various articles in Jewish thought. Michael and his family have recently made aliyah, and now live in Jerusalem.
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Michael Kigel Jerusalem July 14, 2015

Why an imperfect psyche is indeed perfectly schizoid. Dear Katelyn,

There is an ideal psyche. Meaning, a perfect psyche that serves as an ideal for all other imperfect psyches to emulate. This is the psyche of a Tzaddik, a perfectly righteous person. In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe sees such perfection embodied in King David, who wrote: “And my heart is a void within me” (Psalm 55:5). The Alter Rebbe explains: "i.e., void of an evil nature, because he [David] had slain it through fasting."

Such a perfect psyche is certainly NOT schizoid. It is perfectly self-unified. How so? Because it has killed one of its two "selves." It has starved the animal self to death. So teaches the Alter Rebbe.

For an imperfect psyche like my own, such self-unification is an ideal. So -- to simply and unparadoxically grab one of the horns of your dilemma-bull -- sadness does not cause the winding road and the inner fragmentation. No, the winding road causes the sadness.

What is this winding road? What hinders my climb into the yummy treehouse you mention?

The impediment is simply my animal soul which -- unlike Kind David (or Aaron of Psalm 133) -- I myself, personally, have not yet managed to slay through starvation. (Still working on just domesticating it a bit.)

My physical, still all-too-animal existence blocks my access to G-d. So I pine away in tremendous longing. "My souls thirsts for G-d." Which hurts. Which is bitter, not sweet. But at least this bitter pining aligns me with the truth that the Tzaddik has attained.

BTW when you manage to get up into your treehouse, I fully understand if you don't want to come down. But please, please send me down a rope to climb. Better still, pull me up! I'd love to join you for some of that celestial chocolate!

Thank you for your delicious question. Reply

Katelyn Cafe Mocha July 14, 2015

a 'perfectly' schizoid psyche? i find your insistence that there is a natural see-saw relationship between chassidic joy and melancholy a little confusing.

why not ask, for instance, what is blocking divine union? Is sadness causing the winding road or is the winding road causing sadness?

i found your talk on the interactive interview Messages some years back ... this helped me find some clarity.

So, not arguing here that the Rabbis discussions (above) were inauthentic ... all possibiities of what the human mind is capable of.

However, when i recently read through Psalm 133, about Aaron experiencing the precious oil pouring down over his beard and cascading over his robes ... like the dew coming down upon the mountains of Zion ... i thought, well if that joy and quality of restfulness happened to me ... would i be thinking about anything material at all? Is this what manna might be like?

In other words if i were up in my tree house how many delectable treats could tempt me to come down? Reply

Michael Naftaliev Austria July 11, 2015 not that hard. As I said, I do not usually post, at the risk of rambling on and on, and so I re-read the article before continuing..
I think the point I was trying to understand is: Is "chocolate" an anti-frustration serum? I am lucky to have been given a decent education, to know enough to understand how much vanity exists in the world. My actions do not yet coincide with my understanding, though. Knowing, both intimately and through theory, does not seem to be enough. I am still drawn the sweetened milky chocolate things of life. But I am not wallowing in sadness throughout. The temporary enjoyment that comes with the small stuff easily outweighs the unpleasant bitter thoughts that are so deeply hidden (for now). Perhaps this is the struggle of the optimist? Someone once told me, to be happy, one must be happy that they will be, B'ezrat Hashem, happy even if they are not at the moment! But if one can invoke G-d in everything they do, true and not temporary joy is the byproduct?

Ok, enough... Reply

Michael Naftaliev Austria July 11, 2015

Removing the "bitter" from bittersweet. I usually do not comment, but I read your work. I read this article a while back and had some time to reflect on it. The concept of "bittersweet" really stands out to me. In the sense that with most of the things I consume in life, personally, I am left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Without involving the concept of G-d, or holiness, and attributing it to one's daily actions, it is difficult to find pure joy in anything. Is this a pessimistic point of view? I consider myself mostly an optimist...

Let's take, for example, something as basic as eating fresh vegetables. You are not killing an animal for your own survival, you are not contributing to the demise of your health- overall, it's a pretty good thing that's happening. Rarely one thinks about the large population of people who cannot afford the luxury of going to the store and magically trading coins for fresh veggies! Who thinks of the harm caused by monopolistic corporations in the production of these vegetable? Reply

Andrew July 11, 2015

choking your soul is not the wisest think to do friends! Reply

Steve Finson West Haven,CT July 10, 2015

chocolate and caffeine Chocolate contains caffeine in varying levels depending on the type of chocolate.A candy bar in the afternoon can definitely perk one up and cheery too!Sure works for me. Reply

jamie moran London, UK July 10, 2015

This article is confused! But then the whole study of 'depression' is confused.. As there are different kinds of anxiety -- Tillich lists 3 -- so there are different kinds of depression. If we run them together, we confuse the quality, the phenomenology of the experience, that marks the specific depression, and thus confuse its spiritual meaning. Every depression seeks to drag us from shallows into deeps, and to instigate a 'death', a letting go, that changes the deeps and rebirths us. Biblically, David refers to atleast 3 depressions= pit and rising wasters; furnance burnt out, going from hot to icy cold, a dry state [not wet and soggy mud, like the first depression]. Then an empty abyss, or void, that Eastern Christian monastics called 'accidie'= the floor boards fall in, and you just keep falling. 'Bitterness' belongs to the second depression; Freud's melancholy to the first= loss of desired object, and the plaints are complaints. Second is 'father depression'= Saturnine Despair. Reply

Anonymous July 9, 2015

Wonderful article Special! A pleasure to read something truly erudite, with real content, including humor and a writer's flair for expression. Thanks so much! Reply

Cathy Dyer Ramat Gan, Israel July 9, 2015

Thank you Thank you Michael.

My question didn't come from any experience. While reading your article, I had to Google search "bicameral psyche," as that is a term I never heard before. After reading the definition, and about Julian Jaynes, I was more confused. It was explained in Wikipedia that bicameral thinking is something people grew out of as they gained self awareness (about 3K years ago, according to the article).

I will read your footnotes and more about this subject. It has grabbed my interest!

Thank you for the time you took to write a thoughtful reply. Reply

Michael Kigel Jerusalem July 8, 2015

In Praise of a Dear Cathy,

I hope it's okay if I assume (and please do correct me if I'm wrong!) that your question comes from a certain experience of cognitive dissonance regarding Chassidut. Aren't chassidim all about joy? Isn't the highest category of the soul known as "yechida," which indicates precisely a unity of the psyche rather than a fragmentation? How then can the great Rebbes of Lubavitch, beginning with the Alter Rebbe, promote a fragmented view of the the self -- and not just that, but a view that encourages one of these fragments to endure in bitterness?

First of all, I highly recommend following through with my footnotes, if you can, to hear how the Rebbes themselves formulate this. Especially with the underlined chapters from the Tanya which can be accessed with a click.

Let me try to clarify this admittedly counter-intuitive idea in a few words. Like most psychologists (beginning with Freud), the Alter Rebbe teaches that in a human psyche there are two souls, not one.

his in itself already tells us that the human psyche is inherently "schizoid," i.e. internally divided -- and at war with itself! So this "schizoid" state is not a matter of preference. It's a psychological fact. To run away from it in the hopes of finding some lovely unity, somewhere over the rainbow, is childish. The adult's job is to deal with it.

What is the right way to deal with it? Well, since there are two different types of souls, each one requires its proper treatment.

The divine soul needs to let in infinite joy. It does this by plugging into the source of infinite joy, namely the Good Lord.

The animal soul, on the other hand, should not be allowed to feel joy. Because its joy is the root of all evil. It is the root of sensual indulgence and insensitivity to others. Its experience must be one of bitterness.

The most remarkable aspect of this teaching is that this bitterness is not to be felt over various disappointments over animalistic pleasures.

That would just perpetuate the focus on sensualism. Bitterness is to be felt precisely over the fulfillment of animalistic pleasures.

I know all of this may sound frightfully "medieval." With Hashem's help, I'll write another article to explain why it is not the case.

To conclude, let me just cite again the key phrase that the Alter Rebbe quotes from the Zohar: “Weeping is lodged in my heart on that side, while joy is lodged in my heart on this side.” Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel July 8, 2015

"Call me (Mara) Bitter, for the Lord hath delt Bitterly with me" The quotation is from the Book of Ruth. But I doubt if chocolate was popular then!

Golda Meir's Grandmother (in Russia) used to put salt instead of sugar in her tea. She claimed that she did it so that she would taste the bitterness of having to live in the Gallut, outside of our promised Land. But those of us who are living here In Israel no longer need to do this, and also we enjoy chocolate that is far from 100% cocoa!

We are not justified to deliberately make ourselves depressed or sad, even if it might help us with our Tanakh studies. Reply

Cathy Dyer Ramat Gan, Israel July 8, 2015

say what? Will you please further explain this statement; "Joy, true joy, simchah, is an experience that can be attained only in a perfectly “schizoid” or bicameral psyche."

Do you mean that a bicameral psyche is preferred over a conscious mind? Reply

eat well July 7, 2015

Beware of Chocolate Chocolate especially, and other sugary foods in general can wreak havoc on one's emotional balance. There is a well known book "Sugar Blues" which documents how perilous this can be. Chocolate, like any drug, creates a high--but there is the inevitable come down which can show up as depression, fatigue, sadness, hopelessness.. yes, all that from chocolate if the person has a sensitivity to it.
More is needed over time to get the same high. It can be an addiction for some people. So please be careful with chocolate. Monitor yourself and if you have any of those reacions.. fruit is the best substitute. Over time, fruit becomes more desirable because there are no side affects. Dates, bananas, tropical fruit,.. making smoothies or fruit salads.. there are many ways to satisfy one's sweet tooth in ways that are 100% healthy. Chocolate, over time can create bothy physical and emotional dis-ease. Reply

Anonymous July 6, 2015

Wow... ...who would have thought about chocolate in this manner...

Thank you for the article Reply

Anonymous July 5, 2015

Thank for connecting this truth to the physical plane.

I had wondered about my fascination with straight instant it all makes sense! :) Reply

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