Tu Beshvat, (numerical value of “TU”: “Tet”= 9, “Vav” = 6), the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is almost here. Considered by the Talmud as the New Year of trees, since the 16th century Jewish mystics have celebrated Tu Beshvat with a Seder similar to that of Passover. Four cups of wine were drunk; white wine represented the whiteness of winter while the red wine elicited associations to the full warmth and lushness of summer, and mixtures of white and red wines symbolized the transition phases of spring and autumn. A wide variety of produce associated with the Holy Land is eaten.
The number fifteen has specific mystical significance in its equivalence to the numerical value of the first two letters in the Tetragrammaton,( yud=10; heh=5 ,YAH) the original name for God. Thus mysticism understands God’s Presence to suffuse everything, especially the bounty of the land that nurtures life.
Unlike the Passover in many ways, one culinary feature stands out. Passover enjoins a full and satisfying repast; eating of the Paschal lamb in Biblical time, a full entrée. Tu Beshvat ordains only appetizers, fruits and grain products ie. cookies, designed not to satiate as much as to stimulate. Tasting is the order of the day.
Aryeh Kaplan, the late, well-known interpreter of Kabbalah, in his Jewish Meditation, makes these insightful comments: “In Jewish teachings…it is taught that when a person eats, he should concentrate totally on the food and the experience of eating. Clearing the mind of all other thoughts, he should have in mind that the taste of the food is also an expression of the Divine in the food, that by eating it, he is incorporating the spark of the divine into his body. A person can also have in mind that he will dedicate the energy that he will obtain from this food to God’s service. It is taught that when a person does this, it is counted as if the food he is eating is a sacrifice on the Great Altar in Jerusalem. Therefore, eating itself can be a form of meditation as well as a means to draw closer to God”
One particular experience that made a deep impression on me while at the retreat program at Eilat Hayyim was the eating meditation. Each participant was given an item of food i.e., nuts, dried fruit, and instructed to eat not only slowly but mindfully. We first touched the food to gain a sense of its tactile texture; then we smelled the item to make conscious the olfactory aspect of the eating experience. When we had the food in our mouths, we did not chew and swallow quickly or immediately but rather let the food rest in our mouths to mindfully become aware of the foods’ various qualities of solidity and taste, the subtle dimensions and sources of giftedness each food item could impart to us. Only at the end of this process were we instructed to swallow. Each meal thereafter became a marvelous experience in mindfulness eating which greatly enhanced the spiritual meaning of the act and imbued us further with the sense of greater gratefulness for our food.
At the conclusion of the retreat, I remember my first meal with my family. They were utterly astounded when they observed how I ate, slowly and with mindful deliberation. This was in stark contrast to how I used to gobble down my food and be the first to finish the meal at the family table. Food has become a source of great wonder and giftedness, a genuine mystery and reason for endless gratefulness and praise.
If you celebrate the Tu Beshvat seder, taste the wonderful fruits of the Land of Israel in order to attune your mind and hearts to the wonder of these gifts. Make Tu Beshvat a time of thanksgiving. “Ta’amu u’reu”- Taste and see how good the Lord is. (Psalm 34:9)