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.