Tag Archives: Food

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!   

Taking Care of the Environment: A Torah Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, “Judges” (not to be confused with the Biblical book of the same name). It begins with the command to appoint judges and officers, then describes many details of the justice system, as well as a long list of interesting laws.

Fruit Tree

One of these laws is known as bal tashchit, the prohibition of not wasting resources, primarily based on the verse in this week’s parasha that prohibits soldiers from destroying fruit trees in the midst of battle (Deuteronomy 20:19). The famous passage concludes by saying “Is the tree of the field a man that it should go before you under siege?” The simple meaning of this verse is that a tree is not a human, has never wronged anyone, and does not deserve to be needlessly destroyed. However, the verse can also be read in a different way, as if saying, “Because the tree of the field is a man…” In fact, many of the sages throughout the centuries have interpreted the verse in this way, suggesting that trees are comparable to humans, and should be equally respected as important living creatures. After all, trees (and all other plants, for that matter) provide us with the oxygen that we breathe, the bulk of the food that we eat, as well as many of the vital resources we use regularly such as wood, fabric, and medicines.

Back to the Garden of Eden

The command to take care of trees, and nature as a whole, actually originates much earlier in the Torah: “And God took the man and placed him in a Garden of Eden, to work it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). Man was tasked with tending the garden and keeping it wholesome. Commenting on this, the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7) elaborates:

“When God created the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’”

It appears that the very first thing God instructed Adam was to take care of the world that He created. Thus, being environmentally-conscious is undoubtedly a Torah mitzvah. Reducing our waste, limiting our consumption of fossil fuels, recycling, composting – all of these fulfil a divine command! Whenever we hold on to our water bottle just a bit longer so that we can put it in a recycling bin, we should keep in mind that this is a mitzvah. Whenever we choose to walk to that place down the street instead of firing up our gas-guzzling engines, we should keep in mind that this, too, is a mitzvah.

This is all the more important today, with the health of our planet at its worst point in history. The air is unbreathable, the ice caps are disappearing, the oceans are strewn with garbage, entire landmasses are contaminated, and wildlife is suffering immensely. As God told Adam in the Garden of Eden, if we don’t do anything about this, we are jeopardizing our own existence, and there won’t be anyone left after us to fix it.

Restoring a Perfect World

In fact, the Garden of Eden was far more sensitive when it came to the balance of nature. It wasn’t just that Adam was tasked with guarding his environment and “keeping it green”. Eden was in a state of complete peace, where nothing living perished, and where fruit was the only food permitted for consumption. Meat was forbidden until the time of Noah, and even then, was initially only allowed under specific circumstances. It is safe to reason that with the coming of Mashiach and the inevitable return to a state of Eden, meat consumption will once more be forbidden*, and total peace in nature will be restored. Perhaps the current global rise in vegetarianism and veganism is a reflection of the world edging closer to Messianic times. May we merit to see it soon.

The environmental impact of just one hamburger (Courtesy of Dailytech.com)

The environmental impact of just one hamburger (Courtesy of Dailytech.com)

 

*If you are worried about this, artificial, lab-grown meat is on its way, and it will be healthier, too. Click here to learn more.

The Spiritual Power of Bread and Challah

This week’s Torah reading is Shlach, most famous for recounting the incident of the spies. One distinguished member of each of Israel’s twelve tribes was appointed to scout the land of Israel in preparation for the Jewish people’s conquest and habitation of the Holy Land. After forty days, the twelve returned, with ten of them giving over a less-than-positive report that frightened the nation. Despite God’s promise that Israel belonged to the Jewish people and they would be able to settle it effortlessly, the people’s faithlessness caused them to fear and err, resulting in their own banishment from the Holy Land. They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness, over which time all of the adult males that came out of Egypt (and participated in the sin of the spies) would pass away.

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Dore

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

Following this account, a number of Torah laws are introduced. One of these is that of challah, the portion of every large quantity of prepared dough that was separated and donated to the priests (Numbers 15:20). Rashi tells us that this was a portion equivalent to an omer. An omer was a tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which is defined by Chazal as equal to the weight and volume of 432 eggs. So, whenever a Jew prepares around 43 eggs’ worth of dough (or more), they must separate a small portion as a donation. The exact mass and volume of an egg are in dispute. Today, it is customary to separate challah when preparing about 8 cups of flour or more. Because of the uncertainty of the measurements, however, a blessing is only recited when preparing at least 12 cups, and some say at least 16 cups. Rashi tells us that a person at home should separate 1/24th, while a baker separates 1/48th of the total amount.

Challah and Shabbat

Although challah strictly refers to the separated portion that was donated to the priests, today it is associated with the special loaves of bread baked for Shabbat and holidays. Some connect challah to the Sabbath by the fact that it typically has seven ingredients: flour, water, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Others point out that the mispar katan mispari, the “reduced” numerical value, of the word challah (חלה) in Hebrew is seven: ח is 8, ל is 30, and ה is 5. Together, that makes 43, where the digits themselves add up to 7 (ie. 4 + 3).

Challah

This happens to be a peculiar pattern with a number of other Shabbat-related things. The meal starts with Kiddush wine, yayin (יין), where each י is 10 and ן is 50, making a total of 70, which once again sums to 7. After the challah, the first course is fish, dag (דג), where ד is 4 and ג is 3, making 7. The main course is meat, bassar (בשר), where ב is 2, ש is 300, and ר is 200, totalling 502, with the digits again adding up to 7.

One important question to ask is: why must the entire Sabbath meal start with challah? Moreover, why does any meal typically start with bread? In Jewish law, the blessing on the bread covers all the other foods on the table. This isn’t so when one eats other things, in which case the person would have to say a separate blessing for each type of food. Yet bread somehow includes all the foods within it. What is so special about bread?

The Quintessential Human Food

Before the modern industrial age, food was quite simple. People typically ate fruits and nuts, legumes and vegetables, meat, milk, and bread. One will notice that all of these are also consumed by animals – except for bread. Producing bread is a long and complicated process, starting with hard, inedible stalks of wheat. These have to be harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled, carefully combined with other ingredients, and baked. Such a complex procedure requires a higher intellect; no other organism is capable of such a feat.

For this reason, bread is a potent symbol of humanity as a whole. It is symbolic of man’s higher spiritual condition, and greater intelligence. Bread represents our divine mission in this world: taking the raw material that God has prepared for us, and perfecting it into an elevated state. It reminds us that we are not just animals eating to satisfy a physical need. Bread is human food, and carries a far more powerful spiritual potential, including within it all other “lesser” forms of food. And so, we begin each meal with bread, and every Sabbath meal with challah.