By: Sarah Schneider
Run a search on food and Jewish culture on Google and you will get about 2,380,000 results, including one which starts with the observation that “Jewish culture is often associated in the popular imagination with food.” For that matter, Jewish culture is often associated in the Jewish imagination with food- as are our spiritual beliefs and practices. It’s difficult to even think about a Jewish holiday, any Jewish holiday, without thinking about a. what you eat that day or b. what you aren’t allowed to eat on that day.
So where does this obsession come from?
Actually, there are some deep spiritual roots to the Jewish obsession with food- what, how, and when it should be consumed.
When the first man and woman were created, Adam and Eve, they were given two explicit commandments: to eat from all the trees of the garden, and not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet, they ate from it. So the first sin committed in this world was a sin of improper eating. It was through this sin that the yeitzer hara (evil inclination) became a part of each of us, challenging us to this day with obstacles to our spiritual growth. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, an impurity was brought into the world as a whole as well.
On Tu’B’shvat we have a unique opportunity to fix all of that.
Rav Tsadok HaKohen (a Chassidic rebbe who lived in Poland, 1823-1900) explains that at our Tu’B’Shvat table we are reenacting what life was like for Adam and Eve before their sin, when they were fruitarians. When we sit before our Tu B’Shvat spread, our table filled with fruits of every sort, it is as if we have returned to the Garden of Eden, and are fulfilling the one explicit positive commandment that we received there- one of the most ancient commandments in the Torah. It’s really pretty awesome in its simple way.
Yet how do we account for the negative commandment of not eating from the Tree of Knowledge? Especially since many of the fruits of our table are suspected of being of the same species as the infamous forbidden Tree of Knowledge. One opinion says it was a fig tree, another says it was a grape vine (which actually was a tall tree in the Garden of Eden, but was lowered to a vine by the sin of Adam and Eve), another opinion says that it was wheat…. In fact, for each of the seven species of fruit associated with the Land of Israel, all of which are eaten on Tu B’shvat, there is an opinion that it is the species of the forbidden tree.
It seems like when we sit down to eat fruits on Tu B’shvat, we’re doing the same thing Adam and Eve did- we’re obeying the positive commandment while violating the negative one. It can’t be that we are brazenly disobeying G‑d’s command and eating specifically from the Tree of Knowledge (i.e. olives, dates, etc) and calling it a mitzvah.
Rav Tsadok explains that the Tree of Knowledge was all of the seven species and none of them at the same time. He explains that the Tree of Knowledge was not one species of fruit as opposed to another- it was not a thing at all but a way of doing something- a way of eating. Whenever a person grabs pleasure from the world, he falls spiritually and it is as if he is eating from the Tree of Knowledge. What does it mean to grab pleasure? It means to get so distracted by the pleasure of consumption that we forget about our Creator. We take the gift and leave the Giver behind.
When we eat the many fruits associated with the Tree of Knowledge on Tu B’shvat and do so with consciousness of our Creator, that in itself is a rectification of what happened in Garden of Eden.
Based on a tradition from the Sefer Yetzira, the world’s oldest work of Kabbalah, we all know that the Hebrew month of Shvat is a time when there is a unique opportunity to rectify our relationship with food and with pleasure in general.
This is expressed in the passage which states: “G-d made the letter tsadik rule over indulgent eating, the month of Shvat and the gizzard in the soul.”
The word used for eating is l’eita , and not achila . L’eita is more gluttonous. It’s the word that Esau uses when he comes in from the field, famished, and asks Jacob to “stuff some of the red stuff you’re cooking down my throat.” For these words, his generations carry the name Edom (related to adom, “red”), to this day.
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