Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 99-100.
Eating as an act of devotion occupies a prominent place in hasidic life and thought. In addition to the sacred meal in which the hasidim gather round the tzaddik (the tish, “table”) and eat of the food he has consecrated (shirayyim), the act of eating is repeatedly mentioned in hasidic literature as a means of evaluating the holy sparks (see KABBALAH), which are in the food. Furthermore, the taste of food is produced by the spiritual vitality that is its source on high. Consequently, hasidim are urged to let their mind soar above the more physical enjoyment of the taste, allowing it to become associated with the spiritual worlds by means of which the lower world is nourished. A favorite quotation of the hasidic masters in this connection is the verse “And they saw God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:10-11), which the kabbalist Elijah of Smyrna (d. 1729) applies in his Midrash Talpiot (ed. Warsaw, 1875, pp. 50b-51a, from Bahya Ibn Asher): “When man needs to eat he should free his mind from other thoughts so that it can soar to think on God while each mouthful is being swallowed.”
Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, p. 225) remarks that there are two kinds of intention while eating. The simple intention is to eat in order to have strength to serve God. The higher and more difficult intention is to eat in order to elevate the holy sparks and raise in thought all the spiritual forces inherent in the food. This is why God makes the tzaddik experience hunger and thirst. The desire for food and drink is an inducement to people to eat and drink so that they might elevate the holy sparks in that which they consume. The spiritual aspect is concealed by the physical pleasure in the way that an honest woman whose face is veiled may be mistaken for a harlot, but the tzaddik knows how to see the reality, and his thoughts are only on the holy sparks to be elevated. Rabbi Nahum of Chernobyl (Meor Enayyim [Jerusalem, 1968], mattot, pp. 168-170) states that the holy spark in the food one eats becomes united with one’s own essential being, providing energy and vitality. This spark is in reality spiritual food because therein is contained the divine nature, albeit covered as with a garment. We should have this in mind when we eat and we should use in God’s service the fresh energy the food has given us, once the spark has become assimilated. By so doing, we unite the spark to its source in God. Fasting is, consequently, sinful (Taanit 11a) because it constitutes a refusal by people to engage in their allotted task. It is true that there is also a talmudic saying (Taanit 11a-b) that one who fasts is called a holy one, but very few can serve God by fasting. The easier way is to serve God while enjoying food. R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev (Kedushat Levi [Jerusalem, 1964], Likkutim, p. 288) similarly states that we can have the intention of eating in order to have strength to serve God or in order to release the holy sparks, but in the first instance, our eating is only a means to God’s service, whereas in the second instance, our eating is itself an act of divine worship.
Further ideas mentioned in the hasidic sources regarding eating and drinking are the great value in one’s breaking off in the middle of a meal one is enjoying as an act of penance or sheer devotion to God; that the very word for food—okhel—has the same numerical value as the tetragrammaton and the name El; that a wandering soul may have been punished for its sins by being condemned to exile in food until that food is eaten by a saint in a spirit of holiness by which the saint releases the lost soul from its bitter lot.
Leshon Hasidim, s. v. “akhilah,” pp. 18-19.
A. Roth, Shulhan HaTahor.
Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin, Kunteros El HaOkhel in Pri Tzaddik, pp. 235-240.