Jonathan Lubliner, Jack F. Shorstein Senior Rabbi, Jacksonville Jewish Center
The limits of language force us to talk about our relationship with God in terms of sensory experiences, e.g., hearing or touching God. But can one “taste” God? The Psalmist thinks we can: “Taste and see how good the Lord is; happy is the one who takes refuge in God” (Psalm 34:9). Rabbi David Altschuler, the 18th century author of Metzudat Tziyon, a commentary on Scripture, explains that in this context the word “taste” means to experience God’s qualities in some cognitive fashion.
Still, I prefer the literal meaning. The Torah teaches us to “Eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). Satisfaction in eating is inextricably linked to the taste of what we eat. If we savor God’s bounty and are grateful, we are tasting how good God is, so to speak.
The idea of eating meditations comes from the Buddhist tradition, but it strongly echoes values built into Judaism. The goal is to deepen one’s awareness of the ordinary miracle of eating by making the experience a mindful one. Taking the time to recite a bracha (blessing) before biting into food represents a kind of eating meditation that is thoroughly Jewish, but there are other things we can do, too: pick up a single, small piece of food, marvel at its color, texture and fragrance; put it in your mouth and think about the texture and taste as you chew very slowly -- Does its flavor change as you are chewing? Do you experience its taste in different ways if it’s moved from one part of your mouth to one another? Consider the chain of creation and all the necessary steps that brought this one small comestible from birth to the moment of its consumption. In a brief paragraph it’s impossible to do justice to the spiritual potential of eating meditations, but I’d encourage you to read Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. It’s a wonderful resource.
The flavor of various foods also serve as vehicles of Jewish meaning for our various celebrations. On Passover the bitterness of maror and the humble simplicity of matzah are ways to taste the inhumanity of slavery and the blessings of freedom. On Rosh Hashanah, we say, “May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that you renew us for a good and sweat year,” immediately after eating an apple dipped in honey; the taste of the sweetness a gastronomic prayer to accompany its verbal counterpart.
Just about everyone is familiar with the apple-and-honey tradition of Rosh Hashanah, but you may not know there is a whole list of symbolic foods associated with the Jewish New Year, known collectively as Simana Milta, “Significant Omens.” Each item is eaten after reciting a brief prayer expressing a particular hope for the future. Through word plays on the Hebrew name of the food, its shape or taste, we express our desires for a better world in the year ahead.
I have created an updated version of Simana Milta in which I’ve included some of the traditional wishes, but have composed new ones reflective of contemporary values and hopes. You’ll find them on my web page under the heading of “creative liturgy”: go to rabbilubliner.com. Of course, you may also find the traditional text of Simana Milta in some High Holy Day mahzorim (prayer books). I encourage you to incorporate this easy, brief, and fun custom to make your Rosh Hashanah meals more special. Above all, I would urge all of us to make the time down occasionally to slow down our eating (Shabbat is a great time to do this), to meditate on the miracle of eating, and to truly focus on the gift of flavor. Gratitude is a fragrant spice all its own; use it liberally and then you will truly taste God in the food you eat!
Shanah Tovah Tikatevu u’Tehatemu. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of life, health, and flavors both sweet and savory.