Shevat and the Democratization of Righteousness

According to Kabbalah, every month in the Hebrew calendar was created by means of one of the letters of the alef-bet. Here, we delve into the mysteries of the letter tzadik, which is the source of the month of Shevat.

Can anyone become a tzadik (righteous individual)?

On the one hand, “tzadik” is a title given to very unique individuals. A tzadik is someone who has completely overcome his evil inclination, so much so that he has totally released himself from its clutches, and all that interests him is what is good and pleasant, “The desire of the righteous is only good.”[1] Becoming completely righteous is a Divine gift,[2] indeed, the sages state that the righteous are few, “God saw that the righteous were in the minority and He planted them in each generation.”[3]

On the other hand, there is a famous verse that states, “Your people are all righteous, they will inherit the land eternally.”[4] Even if this is referring to a vision of the future, nonetheless, we are gradually approaching it, and we can realize that inside every Jewish individual is a potential tzadik. Maybe some of our readers feel somewhat uncomfortable with this thought, because they presume that being righteous means no longer taking pleasure in the joys of life. However, stay calm – it’s not such a terrible thing to be righteous… Quite the contrary, a tzadik knows best of all how to enjoy life to the fullest and get full satisfaction from his efforts.

How Does a Tzadik Eat?

This month we are all invited to follow in the footsteps of tzadikim by revealing our own inner point of righteousness, because the month of Shevat was created with the letter tzadik (צ), whose very name alludes to a righteous individual. Of all the twelve senses of the soul, the month of Shevat corresponds to the sense of taste, or refined eating habits. So let’s focus on how a tzadik eats, which in practice relates to how each and every one of us should eat.

Our first insight here is that a tzadik does eat, and does so unashamedly. The Torah does not command us to fast, nor to afflict ourselves in any way. The only time in the year when we are commanded to fast is on Yom Kippur (the other fasts relate to the destruction of the Temple and once it is rebuilt they will transform into days of joy and the fasts will become festivals). On every other day of the year we have many commandments that relate to food: on Shabbat and festivals it is a mitzvahto eat, and even on regular weekdays there are an abundance of reasons why we serve a “mitzvah feast” (סְעוּדַת מִצְוָה), such as at a wedding or a bar mitzvah, etc… And, of course, before and after we eat we say a blessing every time.

The most significant day of the month of Shevat is Tu Bishvat, the fifteenth of Shevat,[5] which is the New Year for Trees, and although there is no explicit commandment to eat on this day, who doesn’t sweeten the bitter cold of winter by observing the custom to eat fruit on Tu Bishvat?[6]

According to Judaism, there is no particular holiness in excessive abstention from the material world. Our aim is to make use of the world correctly by moderate contact with materiality through which we do not drown in our natural instincts but elevate and sanctify them. The true test is not whether one fasts or eats; the question is whether one eats like an animal, or like a human-being. Does food control you and pull you down to it, or do you control it and elevate it towards you? Instead of being enslaved to food, constantly flooding the taste buds and loading the poor stomach with more food, a tzadik is in full control and feeds his body in exactly the right measure. This is why, “A tzadik eats to sate his soul; but the stomach of the wicked wants more.”[7] Unrefined spiritual taste buds cannot truly enjoy food, because they constantly desire to consume more and more. By contrast, a tzadik, who neither starves himself nor eats crudely, can take pleasure in good food, thankfully blessing God “for eating the food with which You nourish us and constantly provide for us, every day and at all times and every moment.”[8]

Soul over Body

Let’s delve a little deeper into the form of the letter tzadik (צ), which we mentioned above is the letter that corresponds to the month of Shevat. The exact way that the scribes write it in a Torah scroll,tefilin (phylacteries), or a mezuzah (parchment attached to doorpost) is a bent-over nun (נ) with ayud (י) above it to the right. However, there are two methods of writing the yud (י) that is part of thetzadik (צ): some write it like a regular yud (י), in which case it turns to the back of the nun (נ) “looking” at it from above, like so:

 tzadik

Others write it as a backwards yud, turning to the right with its back to the nun (נ), like so: [9]

 tzadik reverse

The letters yud and nun correspond respectively to the soul and the body: the letter yud is the opening letter of the Essential Name, Havayah, and its form is like a concentrated point, which represents the light of the soul before it enters the vessel of the body. The nun is one of the seven letters that “fall” from the root of a word, and it is also the initial letter of the word “fall.” Like a body without life-force flowing through it from the soul, the nun is constantly falling. Each of us has a body and a soul, and we need to put our soul in control over our body. The tzadik is the one who successfully completes this task, like Joseph who overcame his strong physical inclination and listened to his soul. To be sure, this is the symbolic meaning of the letter tzadik in which the letter yud “rides” upon the letter nun and directs it.

The initials of “mind” (מֹחַ), “heart” (לֵב), “liver” (כָּבֵד) allude to the word “king” (מֶלֶךְ), meaning that when the mind, the seat of the soul, controls the heart and the liver, the individual becomes a “king.” The word “king” (מֶלֶךְ) has a numerical value of 90, which is also the value of the letter tzadik (צ). This teaches that within himself, the soul of the tzadik is like a king who rules over his physical body (which means that he is suited to rule over others too).[9]

The Body Assists the Soul

After the soul takes hold of the reins to control the body, what type of relationship can we expect it to have with the body when the tzadik needs to eat and take care of his other physical needs?

There are two different approaches to this question: one approach states that, “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.”[10] At every meal, even when it is not a Shabbat, a festival, or a mitzvah-feast, we should not just be eating for the sake of eating, except as an act by which the body contributes its part in assisting the soul to do good deeds “for the sake of Heaven.” Eat well, sleep well, be healthy, work for your living, rest and take a stroll―all as a means to a positive end. This is how Maimonides, the great legislator and a great doctor in his times guided us in his codex of Jewish law regarding correct nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. He sums up the subject with the words:

One who follows medical guidance… should have the intention that his body should be whole and strong so that his soul should be unswerving in knowing God, for one cannot understand and comprehend intellectual pursuits when he is hungry and unwell… this means that one who follows this path throughout his life is constantly serving God… for his whole intention is to supply his needs so that his body will be whole in God’s service.[11]

Indeed, a healthy soul requires a healthy body. This approach is alluded to in the letter tzadik that is written with the yud looking to the right. Because, in this case the ultimate purpose is the service of the soul―the letter yud― turns upwards to know God, while the body―the letter nun―is no more than an instrument to allow the soul to advance towards its goal. This is why the “soul” turns its back on it and concentrates on the main issue at hand.

Perfect Harmony between Body and Soul

However, there is a second, higher level than this, which is the approach of the genuine tzadik.

Firstly, the tzadik has succeeded in releasing himself from the identity problem that accompanies us. We all live with a type of personality disorder in which we are unable to decide whether “I” am my soul or my body. Sometimes one may be true and at other times, the other. Sometimes a regular individual just wants to gobble up everything in sight, to laze around, get annoyed and throw off any yoke of authority. But at other times the “I” wants to do good, shining deeds, like a tzadik. So we always have this question of who am “I”? By contrast, the tzadik identifies entirely with his soul, and when he says, “I,” it has only one positive, pure meaning.

Since this is so, the tzadik is exempt from the dual-personality complex that accompanies the standard relationship between body and soul. He looks at the body from the perspective of his soul and he sees it as a God-given gift. He understands that just as he must perform loving-kindnesses for others, he must also do a favor to his own body. Just as I feed my children and just as I feed my livestock or pets (who must be fed before I sit down to eat), in the same way, I feed my body and care for it. This is what is related of Hillel the Elder―a classic example of a tzadik―who before he ate would say that he was about to do a kindness for the “miserable pauper,” referring to his body (or more accurately, the lowest part of the soul that is enclothed within the body.)[12]

In this way, eating and other physical needs are not just a means by which we achieve a positive goal; rather, they are the purpose in themselves. I tend for the needs of the body that was entrusted to me, and that in itself is God’s will. Thus we not only observe the saying that “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven,” we also follow the precept to “Know Him in all your ways.”[13] Even as I carry out the most trivial tasks, I am aware of God and perform His will at that moment. This level is alluded to in the letter tzadik when the letter yud turns towards the letter nun―the soul compassionately looks towards the body, taking care of all its needs. Since the body in itself is lifeless “dust of the earth,”[14] Every time the soul feeds the body, it literally revives it like resuscitating a dead body.

When all is said and done, there was a good reason why we were born as human beings with a physical body, and not as Heavenly angels. It is clear that the body equips the soul with something that it is lacking. Kabbalists explain that trapped within the foods we eat are holy sparks, fragments of a special life force that cannot be found elsewhere. Only our bodies are able to release these sparks from their prison, and this is the way the soul is nourished with Divine life force. The tzadik hunts down[15] the holy spark and elevates it. In this way, every time we consume food in the correct way, the bond between body and soul is reinforced: the soul is kind to the body and the body nourishes the soul, and from the bond that is created in this way, the letter tzadik is formed. Even if we are not tzadikim(yet…), nonetheless, we can all learn from the tzadik’s behavior and begin following in his footsteps, “But the way of the righteous is like the light of dawn; shining ever brighter until the day is perfect.”

Wishing us all a good month in which we merit “to eat of its fruit and to be satisfied by its goodness.”[16]



[1] Proverbs 11:23.
[2] Tanya ch. 14.
[3] Yoma 38b.
[4] Isaiah 60:21.
[5] This year (2014) Tu Bishvat falls on the16th of January.
[6] See Magen Avraham 131:16.
[7] Proverbs 13:25.
[8] From the Blessing after Meals.
[9] See the Kuzari, beginning of 3rd article.
[10] Avot 2:12.
[11] Hilchot Dei’ot 3:3; see also Shemoneh Perakim ch. 5.
[12] Vayikra Rabah 34:3; as explained in Tanya, ch. 29.
[13] Proverbs 3:6. Although Maimonides in Hilchot Dei’ot equates “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven,” with, “Know Him in all your ways,” nonetheless, Chassidut explains that these are actually two different levels – as explained in our book in Hebrew, “The inner dimension” in the article relating toParashat Tetzaveh.
[14] Genesis 2:7.
[15]  Note that the letters of the word “hunt” (צָד) are the initial letters of the word “tzadik” (צַדִיק).
[16] The blessing after eating fruit of the seven species (בְּרָכָה מֵעֵין שָׁלוֹשׁ).

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