Is Judaism a religion of heaven or earth? Is Torah preoccupied with this world or the next? Where is the locus and focus of spiritual endeavor and fulfillment to be found?

The Sages1 teach: Without bread, there is no Torah. More than just communicating an inescapable fact of human existence, this teaching, when understood properly, can serve as the mission statement of Torah itself.

The Hebrew word for bread, the foundational staple of the human diet, is lechem, a cognate of the word lochem, a warrior.2 The Zohar teaches: “The time of eating is the time of battle,”3 and “One who desires bread should eat it at the point of a sword.”4

In Judaism, the spiritual battlefield is not limited to overtly “spiritual” moments, such as when one is wrapped in a tallis and absorbed in fervent prayer in the synagogue. Torah’s true mission is to bring heaven down to earth, to suffuse the physical world with spiritual energy and light.

The Torah’s ultimate concern extends beyond the prescribed bounds of ritual and worship, including also, and even especially, the seemingly “mundane” aspects of human existence and experience. Everyday activities such as getting dressed, eating breakfast, or doing business all fall under the purview of the Torah’s mission to Divinize our lives.5

In fact, bread is used in Scripture6 and Rabbinic writings as a symbol for various forms of physical engagement, including marital relations. Every moment of life is thus a “battle”—an opportunity to open ourselves to the Divine Presence in that experience.

In many religions, the highest ideal is to remove oneself from all worldly pleasures for the sake of spiritual enlightenment. Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that the real battle is not to withdraw from the material realm in order to avoid the obstacles it presents to spiritual devotion, but to engage and uncover the spiritual purpose within one’s everyday activities.

An interesting example of this principle is found in the case of the nazirite. A nazirite was someone who chose to consecrate themselves to G‑d by living a more reclusive, ascetic, and isolated lifestyle for a period of time. Surprisingly, these fervent spiritual seekers were instructed to bring a sin offering at the conclusion of their vow! In explanation of this curious law, the Talmud teaches that this was in order to atone for their misplaced self-imposed asceticism.7 In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud8 : “Is what the Torah forbade not enough that you must voluntarily forbid other things too?!”

Simply put: Completely withdrawing from the sensual world is not the Jewish way to live a spiritual life. To the contrary, one’s true spiritual state is revealed precisely in how one integrates their physical and spiritual needs and desires. This path of integration is what ultimately resolves the seemingly intractable dichotomy between spirit and matter that has troubled so many mystics and philosophers from time immemorial. From the Jewish perspective, the holy work of the spiritual warrior is to acknowledge and amplify the sacred presence within all aspects of existence.

For instance, the Talmud9 teaches: “A person’s true character is ascertained by three things: his cup [how he eats], his pocket [his financial dealings], and his anger [how he treats others].” Notice that none of these examples include any specifically spiritual activities; they are, in fact, all about how one conducts oneself in material and social realms.

Moreover, when a person arrives in the World to Come, the first question he is asked is not about spiritual matters; rather, it is, “Did you engage in business with honesty?”10

Judaism teaches that one’s spiritual state is expressed not only in their levels of learning or depth of prayer, but in how they conduct themselves on the most physical of levels.11

As Maimonides writes12 : “Just as a wise man is distinct in his wisdom and his character traits, and he stands apart from others regarding them, so, too, he must be distinct in his deeds, in his eating, in his drinking, in his marital relations, in his use of the bathroom, in his speech, in his walk, in his clothes, in satisfying his needs, and in his business dealings. All such deeds of his should be especially pleasant and proper.”

The Talmud13 even goes so far as to compare one’s dining table to the altar in the Holy Temple: “When the Temple stood, the altar effected atonement for a person. However, now that the Temple no longer stands, a person’s dining table effects atonement for him.”

How does eating become a spiritual experience, let alone comparable to the service of the altar in the Holy Temple?

Simply put, the “battle of bread,” and by extension all permissible physical activity, is determined by our intention and approach. Eating can be an act of hedonism or an act of holiness, depending not only on what we eat, but on how we eat.

The Torah states14 : For not on bread alone will man live, but upon that which issues forth from G‑d’s mouth. In the Lurianic mystical tradition,15 this verse speaks of the spiritual potential hidden within the physical food we eat. The challenge is to recognize and consciously connect to the Divine energy present within the food, and all physicality. This is not so simple.

In overtly “spiritual” experiences, such as prayer, meditation, and fasting, we are focused entirely on the spiritual realm. When we eat, or engage in any other physical act, it is much harder to remain conscious of the spirit concealed within the material world, as our physical appetites, when given free rein, tend to dominate our awareness. However, by cultivating the awareness of the food’s Divine origin and expressing that awareness by reciting a blessing before16 and after eating, we are able to align and integrate the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives into a unified whole.

Furthermore, beyond the initial act of articulated awareness, what we do with the indwelling Divine energy matters, too. For eating to be a truly holy act, we need to ensure that we utilize the energy we receive from the food17 to grow morally and spiritually in study, prayer, and good deeds.18

The spiritual complexity of holy eating helps explain a curious Talmudic statement.19

R. Yehudah the Nasi says: “It is prohibited for an ignoramus to eat meat.” He expounds: “Anyone who engages in Torah study is permitted to eat meat, and anyone who does not engage in Torah study is prohibited from eating the meat of animals or fowl.”

In many traditions, the more spiritually sensitive one is, the more they are encouraged to abstain from eating meat. According to Judaism, however, the heights of spirituality are attained not by abstaining from foods like meat, but by enjoying and elevating them.

In fact, the spiritually delicate act of refining other forms of life is reserved specifically for those who are most spiritually sophisticated and therefore capable of this unique spiritual artform.

In other words, Judaism encourages us to engage the world more deeply and directly, not less, by finding ways to contextualize our material pursuits and engagements within a spiritual framework, thereby elevating them, and us.

Taking this spiritually embodied perspective even further, the Sages teach that if a person’s home is compared to the Temple and their dining table to the altar,20 their bedroom is considered the Holy of Holies!21

As discussed in the previous chapter, in the Jewish tradition, acts of love and intimacy are not shameful activities that a couple engages in despite their religious devotions. Rather, they are considered acts of holiness when done in the right context and with the right intention.22 The notion of becoming “one flesh” and experiencing such unity with another is sacred inasmuch as it mirrors G‑d’s oneness on high. Moreover, it is through marital relations that one comes closest to the act of creation itself, by bringing new life into this world.

In a broader sense, marriage itself is a holy practice. Unlike other monastic traditions that idealize abstinence and encourage celibacy among their clergy, in Judaism, the high priest was not allowed to perform the service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, if he was not married. In fact, so critical was it for the high priest to be married when performing the holiest service of the year that a woman would be designated before Yom Kippur as his wife-in-waiting should his current wife suddenly pass away on Yom Kippur.23

The celebration and sanctification of all aspects of life and the human condition is Judaism’s response to the overwhelming urge to compartmentalize our lives into separate spheres—heaven and earth, soul and body, sacred and secular.

Similarly, many people perceive a separation between their religious and personal domains, leading them, for example, to see the synagogue as a place for spiritual life and their home as the personal space where they live out their mundane lives.24

Against such a dichotomization, Judaism teaches that spirituality is not just the “battle” to find connection during prayer or meditation; rather, it is equally, if not more importantly, expressed and experienced in how and why we eat, sleep, relate, and do business.

And, therefore, while the synagogue is the place where we gather with others for prayer, our homes are the “Holy Temples” where heaven meets earth in the totality of our lives.

The Big Idea

The aim of Jewish spirituality is to dissolve the false dichotomy between heaven and earth, soul and body, and the sacred and secular.

It Happened Once

In his introduction to the classic work of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch titled, Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld shares the history of an important debate over the center point of Judaism.

He writes that in an attempt to assimilate Judaism to the dominant faith, the German-Jewish Reformers of the nineteenth century introduced into modern Jewish thought the idea that worship of G‑d in the synagogue is the central point in Jewish life; whereas, in reality, the laws of the Torah should inform and permeate the whole of life.

Against this fundamental error of “localizing” G‑d in the house of worship instead of allowing Him to be the central force in our life, R. Hirsch wrote some of his most trenchant essays.

In one of those essays, he states:

“If I had the power, I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.”