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The Chassidic Masters on Food and Eating

The Chassidic Masters on Food and Eating

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It is written: "Man does not live on bread alone, but by the utterance of G-d's mouth does man live" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Rabbi DovBer, the "Maggid" of Mezeritch, explained the deeper meaning of this verse:

The Kabbalists teach that nestled within every created thing is an "utterance of G-d's mouth" -- the letters of Divine speech that are the instrument of its creation (as described in the first chapter of Genesis). When the human body hungers for a piece of physical bread, this is but a reflection of its soul's craving for the Divine utterance that is the "soul" of the bread, which the human being "redeems" by utilizing the energy he or she derives from the food towards a G-dly purpose.

This, says the Maggid, is also the deeper meaning of the verse (Psalms 107:5): "The hungry and thirsty, in them does their soul envelop itself." A person desiring food may sense only his body's hunger. In truth, however, "enveloped within" his physical hunger and thirst is his soul's hunger for the "soul" of the food -- the "sparks of holiness" within it which it is his mission to redeem.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi adds: This explains a most puzzling fact of life: how is it that man, the highest form of life, derives life and sustenance from the lower tiers of creation -- animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds? But it is "not on bread alone that man lives." The life-sustaining quality of the food derives from the "utterance of the mouth of G-d" it embodies. And like a collapsing wall, in which the highest stones fall the farthest, so, too, the more lofty the Divine "spark", the lower it descended into the physical world. Thus the vegetable derives sustenance from the mineral, the animal receives its nourishment from the vegetable and mineral, and the human being is nourished by animal, vegetable and mineral. For the "lower" a thing is in the physical ladder of life, the higher its source is in the spiritual realm.


The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the "Ari", 1534-1572) taught that every created thing possesses a "spark" of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. When a person utilizes something toward a G-dly end, he brings to light this divine spark, manifesting and realizing the purpose for which it was created. In all physical substances, a material "husk" (kelipah) encases and conceals the divine spark at its core, necessitating great effort on the part of man to access the spark without becoming enmeshed in the surface materiality.

No existence is devoid of a divine spark -- indeed, nothing can exist without the pinpoint of G-dliness that imbues it with being and purpose. But not every spark can be actualized. There are certain "impregnable" elements whose sparks are inaccessible to us. The fact that something is forbidden by the Torah means that its husk cannot be penetrated, so that its spark remains locked within it and cannot be elevated.

Thus, one who eats a piece of kosher meat and then uses the energy gained from it to perform a mitzvah, thereby elevates the spark of divinity that is the essence of the meat, freeing it of its mundane incarnation and raising it to a state of fulfilled spirituality. However, if one would do the same with a piece of non-kosher meat, no such "elevation" would take place. Even if he applied the energy to positive and G-dly ends, this would not constitute a realization of the divine purpose in the meat’s creation, since the consumption of the meat was an express violation of the divine will.

This is the deeper significance of the Hebrew terms assur and mutar employed by Torah law for the forbidden and the permissible. Assur, commonly translated as "forbidden," literally means "bound", implying that these are things whose sparks the Torah has deemed bound and imprisoned in a shell of negativity and proscription. Mutar ("permitted"), which literally means "unbound," is the term for those sparks which the Torah has empowered us to extricate from their mundane embodiment and actively involve in our positive endeavors.

The "bound" elements of creation also have a role in the realization of the divine purpose outlined by the Torah. But theirs is a "negative" role-they exist so that we should achieve a conquest of self by resisting them. There is no Torah-authorized way in which they can actively be involved in our development of creation, no way in which they may themselves become part of the "dwelling for G-d" that we is charged to make of our world. Of these elements it is said, "Their breaking is their rectification." They exist to be rejected and defeated, and it is in their defeat and exclusion from our lives that their raison detre is realized.

(Based on Tanya chapters 7-8)


Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch told:

When my grandmother, the Rebbetzin Rivkah, was eighteen years old, she fell ill and the doctor ordered that she eat immediately upon waking. But grandmother, who did not wish to eat before prayer, would pray at an early hour and only afterwards eat her breakfast.

When her father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the "Tzemach Tzeddek", 1789-1864), heard of this, he said to her: "A Jew must be healthy and strong. Concerning the precepts of the Torah it is written (Leviticus 18:5), "live in them" -- one is to infuse life into the mitzvot; and in order to infuse life into the mitzvot, one must be healthy and joyful."

Concluded Rabbi Menachem Mendel: "Better to eat in order to pray, than to pray in order to eat."

(Hayom Yom, Shevat 10; free translation)


It was a hot July day during the summer of 1866. The children of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1834-1882), five-year-old Sholom DovBer and his brother Zalman Aharon, had just come home from cheder and were playing in the garden which adjoined their home.

In the garden stood a trellis overgrown with vines and greenery which offered protection from the heat of the sun. It was set up as a study, with a place for books etc., and Rabbi Shmuel would sit there on the hot summer days.

The children were debating the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. Zalman Aharon, the elder by a year and four months, argued that the Jews are a "wise and understanding people" who could, and do, study lots of Torah, both its 'revealed part' and its mystical secrets, and pray with devotion and 'd'vaikus', attachment to G-d.

Said the young Sholom DovBer: But this is true only of those Jews who learn and pray. What of Jews who are unable to study and who do not pray with d'vaikus? What is their specialness over a non-Jew?

Zalman Aharon did not know what to reply.

The children's sister, Devorah Leah, ran to tell their father of their argument. Rabbi Shmuel called them to the trellis, and sent the young Sholom DovBer to summon Ben-Zion, a servant in the Rebbe's home.

Ben-Zion was a simple Jew who read Hebrew with many mispronunciations and barely understood the easy words of the prayers. Every day he would recite the entire book of Psalms, pray with the congregation, and make sure to be present in the synagogue when Ein Yaakov was studied.

When the servant arrived, the Rebbe asked him: "Ben-Zion, did you eat?"

Ben-Zion: "Yes".

The Rebbe: "Did you eat well?"

Ben-Zion: "What's well? Thank G-d, I was sated."

The Rebbe: "And why do you eat?"

Ben-Zion: "So that I may live"

The Rebbe: "But why live?"

Ben-Zion: "To be a Jew and do what G-d wants." The servant sighed.

The Rebbe: "You may go. Send me Ivan the coachman."

Ivan was a gentile who had grown up among Jews from early childhood and spoke a perfect Yiddish.

When the coachman arrived, the Rebbe asked him: "Did you eat today?"

"Yes".

"Did you eat well?"

"Yes"

"And why do you eat?"

"So that I may live"

"But why live?"

"To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat," replied the coachman.

"You may go," said the Rebbe.

(From a letter by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; free translation)


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Discussion (2)
September 12, 2009
Answer
Obviously the gentile is not the point of the story. To convert gentiles has never been a goal in Judaism.

The point of the story was to show the difference between the most simple Jew to a gentile.

Read the story more carefully!
Bochur
Surabaya
June 11, 2008
Thank you for the story.
What of the fact that the coachman did not absorb anything of what the Jews *know* bring goodness to life? Is it not also a Jewish responsibility to spread this Torah so that it is infectious..even to the gentiles?

Or is the coachman, and those gentiles like him, are he and they like the assur or "bound" elements of life? Maybe he had been too "dense" to pick up the subtle persuasions?

Can humans play the role of assur also?
Anonymous
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