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Returning to What’s True, Part II - Mealtime Meditation

Late winter is the time of Tu b’Shevat, the holiday of trees and nature. We often celebrate it with a ritual seder (meal) that includes the foods mentioned in the Bible, or by planting trees in Israel and elsewhere. It is also a good time to remember how consuming food, something we do several times a day, can be the time of t’shuvah – return to our authentic, spiritual selves – a meditative practice, done both individually and with others.

As a spiritual practice, the act of eating makes us aware of the entire universe, ha-olam, that supports our existence, of the many hands that grow and process food that appears on our plate, and of the natural and divine elements present in anything we consume.

Papaya Seeds © Lane Igoudin, 2020

Sacramental Eating

The Hasidic tradition teaches of avodah ba-gashmiyut – the service to G-d through corporeal things. In other words, the acts of fulfillment of bodily needs – as long as they are not excessive – can become acts of worship, of celebration of the Divine. Bread and soul – how do they connect? The rabbis taught that there are sparks of G-d in everything around us, including food and water, so eating food allows us to incorporate these sparks into our bodies.

Blessing the Creator of the food makes the meal a worshipful experience. There are many pre-meal blessings, depending on the kind of food, the best known of which are part of the Friday night kiddush – blessing of the One who creates the fruit of the tree (p’ri ha-gafen) and brings forth the bread from the earth (ha-motzi). These blessings should be said slowly, not as something to get over, but to feel each word, engage with its power.

Another service aspect of taking a meal is that the life-giving energy we obtain from it should be dedicated to the source – the Creator. When we eat mindful of this purpose, this act is counted as “a sacrifice on the Great Altar in Jerusalem” (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 144).

Giving an Apple a Smile

One Buddhist master who pays particular attention to ‘eating meditation’ is Thich Nhat Hahn. On retreats at his Deer Park Monastery, I became accustomed to breaking my usually hurried, un-mindful eating habits to turn every breakfast, lunch, and dinner into a meaningful ritual. It is possible to incorporate some of Thich Nhat Hahn’s guidelines even into the most hurried mealtimes of our lives.

  • Take as much as you need for a meal. The need here is defined as what your body needs to function, not the desire to satiate it to the fullest. Simplicity and contentment over greed; satisfaction in having enough. Or as Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol put it: “Seek more than you need and you will hinder yourself from enjoying what you have.”