Home Ask the Rabbi FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD…


by Chaim Kramer
According to the Kabbalah, Pharaoh is symbolic of the neck and throat (see Likutey Torah, VaYeshev). His enslavement of the Jewish people signified his control over the power of holy speech, which he silenced by keeping it trapped in the throat. Hence, only when the Jews were finally able to cry out, were they redeemed from Egypt. Now, Pharaoh had three servants: the sar hamashkim (chief wine steward), the sar haofim (chief baker)  and the sar hatabachim (chief butcher); corresponding to the windpipe, the food pipe, and the [jugular] veins, all located in the throat. These are the “chiefs,” the heads, of all desires and they draw their strength from Pharaoh, the source of impurities (Likutey Moharan I, 62:5). Therefore, contact with these servants (which happens whenever we eat) brings us into direct contact with Pharaoh himself. Seeing that this is anything but desirable, might it not be better for anyone wishing to grow spiritually to stay away from eating altogether?

However, we know that this is impossible. What’s more, it’s forbidden, because denying ourselves nourishment leads to death – not at all the desired result of our spiritual yearnings! So we should eat, we have to eat. The question is: Where do we draw the line? How is it possible to eat, yet keep our eating holy? Is there a way to eat and avoid contact with Pharaoh’s henchmen, thereby saving ourselves from the dangers of a spiritual death?

The answer is yes. How? By showing compassion for our bodies, by purifying ourselves, by not compartmentalizing and separating our physical needs from the spiritual. “You are what you eat,” the saying goes, and it’s true. It’s also true, as Rebbe Nachman shows us, that we are how we eat and why we eat. Taken together, they have the power to keep us from being enslaved in Pharaoh’s clutches.

The nature of the food a person eats, gives rise to a similar temperament within him
What we eat. Rebbe Nachman teaches: The nature of the food a person eats, gives rise to a similar temperament within him (The Aleph-Bet Book, Da’at A:4).

The most obvious requirement concerning what we eat is that we eat kosher food. Non-kosher foods and products lead us right into Pharaoh’s hands. The Torah tells us (Leviticus 11:43,44): “Do not titam’u (defile yourselves) with them, because it will v’nitmeitem (make you unclean)…. You must sanctify yourselves and be holy”. Rashi states (v.43): This refers to eating. If one defiles himself in this world, one will be defiled in the World to Come. The Talmud comments (Yoma 39a): The word v’niTMeiTeM is written to teach us that not only does it defile the person, but it even makes him m’TuMTaM (foolish and spiritually insensitive). The very act of eating non-kosher food, even a little bit, defiles the person who eats it and, as Rashi explains, closes off all the channels of wisdom from him.

Rebbe Nachman also warned against eating unhealthy foods. Of course, in his day there were no packaged fast-foods, chemical dyes and preservatives, but two foods which the Rebbe specifically mentioned as unhealthy were raw onions and unripe fruits. This prohibition applies even on Shabbat. There are those who maintain that because eating on Shabbat is a special mitzvah, one can eat anything, even unhealthy foods, but Rebbe Nachman warned very strongly against this (Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom #65; see Likutey Moharan II, 88).

fine cuisine

Why we eat. Eating kosher and healthy is not enough. A lot depends on why you’re eating. Is your eating motivated by a lust for food? Of course, before you try to answer that, you’ll want to know what exactly is a lust for food? Is it the same as gluttony? Rebbe Nachman explains lust as a desire for that which is unnecessary. He indicates that a person who can eat a lot, is free to do so. This would not be considered a lust for food (Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom #193). However, eating even a little, if motivated by desire rather than need, would be considered lust for food. Some people eat large amounts because physically, their body chemistry demands this of them. Others don’t have a need for much food. Every person is different. If you need to eat a lot, go ahead. If not, don’t.

It’s your attitude towards food that makes the difference. Why are you eating? Do you want nourishment, or a full belly? Are you eating because your body needs to replenish its strength, or because the food tastes so good you just had to take another helping? One of the best ways to check this out is your attitude towards the way the food tastes. Rebbe Nachman says that being fussy about what you eat is considered a lust for food (Aveneha Barzel p. 21). Are you particular, does your palate have to be pampered? Or will simple foods do? Do you require fine cuisine? If the food is not “just right,” how do you respond?

The Shulchan Arukh points out that on Shabbat it is a mitzvah to eat fish, meats and various delicacies. But, one should eat only what he likes (Mishnah Berurah 242:2). The Rebbe never intended that we should feel obligated to eat unappetizing foods. What he meant was that when you are served your normal meals, eat them with joy and happiness, even if they could use improvement (see Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1-10). [Who knows? Either your cook will get better, you’ll get a better cook, or you’ll get used to it!] The main thing is not to be picky. We can all learn from Reb Nachman Chazan, Reb Noson’s closest follower, who, when served his meal, didn’t season his food (Aveneha Barzel p. 21).

We all know that eating too much is harmful, but most of us don’t know there are spiritual reasons for this. Rebbe Nachman explains in spiritual terms what is generally assumed to be a purely physical matter: Like everything in Creation, food has a source from which it draws its spiritual vitality. When you eat and draw nourishment from your food, you are, in turn, giving spiritual nourishment to the food itself. This is because the appetite in man is a spiritual force. As you satisfy your appetite, its energy transfers into the food, giving it the vitality it seeks. This is why eating a proper amount brings health to a person: you nourish the food, it nourishes you. The problems start when you’ve already satisfied your appetite and continue eating. The extra food you eat has nowhere to draw its vitality. So it draws it from you – from your vitality and strength. This is physically very harmful and why overeating (stuffing one’s face) causes illness and sickness  (Likutey Moharan I, 257). (Also see Likutey Moharan I, 263; Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom #143.)

Elsewhere, Rebbe Nachman teaches that eating excessively gives strength to the body, while at the same time weakens the soul (Likutey Moharan II, 8:1). So excessive eating causes double trouble. It drains your body and vitality, and it strengthens the Other Side at the same time, by weakening your soul.

eating excessively

How we eat. How to eat? The main thing is to realize that it matters. “A man’s table is like an altar, it purifies him of all his sins” (The Aleph-Bet Book, Eating A:7). If that’s the case, then how we eat certainly is important. Rebbe Nachman teaches: Get into the habit of eating without haste, calmly and with manners. Avoid grabbing a quick bite while on the run. Even when you’re alone, eat with the same dignity and respect you would show if someone important were sitting at the table (Tzaddik #515).

This same point is emphasized when the Rebbe speaks about the value of fasting. The main value of a fast is in how you end it. Don’t gobble the food, but eat it calmly and without haste (Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1-82).

It’s also important not to eat when you are angry. Don’t sit down to the table if you’re really upset, and do your best to avoid getting angry during the meal. The seat of anger is the liver, the organ most associated with blood. The liver is also connected to Esav. His power is in the sword, in the spilling of blood. Because of this, anger gives strength to Esav, the Other Side incarnate. Conversely, controlling this anger gives strength to your intellect (Likutey Moharan I, 57:6).

There are positive things we can do to ensure that Pharaoh and his henchmen have no influence over our eating. We can add holiness to our eating habits with such things as washing our hands prior to the meal, reciting all the appropriate blessings, engaging in Torah study and conversations (between portions), and so on. Here is a selection of Breslov teachings related to these practices:

After washing your hands for bread, the custom is to raise them up so as to receive holiness (see Orach Chaim 162:1; Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Ekev). Rebbe Nachman explains that this holiness can only be attained if you believe that this act of raising the hands brings holiness. It is faith in one’s own actions that actually brings holiness into a person. Every person has the power to do this (Likutey Moharan I, 91). “There will yet come a time,” the Rebbe once remarked, “when a person who washes his hands before eating bread will be as big a chidush as the Baal Shem Tov was” (Sichot V’Sipurim p. 76, #6).

Offering praise to God is the joy of the World to Come
Reciting the blessings is also of major importance. Rebbe Nachman teaches: Offering praise to God is the joy of the World to Come (Likutey Moharan II, 2:1). Reb Noson comments: A person should constantly attach himself to the World to Come. He should always think about it and try to bring the joys and delights of the Future into the present. This can be accomplished through the blessings we recite before and after eating. When reciting a blessing over the food, we are taking a physical object and using it to praise God. This is a concept of the World to Come (Likutey Halakhot, Betziat HaPat, 2:1). See how great a level is reached just by reciting a blessing – and over something physical at that!

Reb Noson writes: The Torah, which comprises the Names of God, is life. By speaking words of Torah at your meal, you draw Godliness to your table (Likutey Halakhot, Netilat Yadayim Li’Seudah 1:3). It’s easy to understand that when engaged in any of the spiritual activities, such as studying Torah or praying, we have the power to draw holiness upon ourselves. Reb Noson reveals that the same levels of holiness can be drawn into a physical act. This is not an analogy; it is for real. You can draw Godliness into every morsel of food that you eat, by thinking and speaking words of Torah [and by reciting the blessings.

taken from the book Crossing the Narrow Bridge, Chapter 12 – Daily Needs                 

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