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
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.”
Don’t rush to start, but first see the food, really see it, on the plate before you, and consider the following ‘Five Contemplations’:
This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our [community], and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings. (“Be Mindful in Everyday Life”)
One could also add a religious dimension to these contemplations. “Concentrate for a moment on a dish,” suggests Rabbi Kaplan, “and realize that it is an expression of God’s will and essence.” (143)
Eat slowly, chewing each mouthful, as the Deer Park monks instruct, “at least 30 times, until the food becomes liquified,” noticing the flavors, temperatures, and textures of each element as they move around and change in your mouth.
Eat in silence, noticing the present moment. At Deer Park, a bell would ring 20 minutes after the start of the communal meal, allowing those who want to start conversations around the table. I often chose to finish my meal in silence, wanting to prolong the contemplative experience.
Don’t leave right after the last bite. Why hurry? Take the time to notice the ending of a meal. Appreciate the opportunity to have had it. Feel the gratitude to all those who made this meal possible, who grew the food, delivered it, and cooked it.
In the Jewish tradition, we end a meal with the after-meal blessings, Birkat ha-Mazon, which bridge our eating experience with service, draws us close to the Divine presence. This is one last reminder that every meal can be the time of pleasure, contemplation, and devotion.
References and Resources
Please see here for Jewish sources and practice instructions for eating meditation from AJS.
“Be Mindful in Daily Life.” Based on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn. Retrieved January 14, 2021 from DeerparkMonastery.org.
Also see “How to Eat an Apple” for a delicious excerpt from Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung (2010).
"Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Judaism." Encyclopedia of Religion. (2020). Retrieved January 14, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com. It includes the discussion of avodah ba-gashmiyut. For Hasidic writings on eating, see, in particular, Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl.
Kaplan, Aryeh. (1985). Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide. New York: Schocken Books.
Lane Igoudin, M.A., Ph.D., blogs for Applied Jewish Spirituality and produces Blessing the Sea, a monthly newsletter on Jewish mindfulness. He is a member of Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Long Beach, California, and of Zen Center of Los Angeles. For more information, please visit www.laneigoudin.com.