Chassidic Psychologymain postsTevet

Tevet: Are we Allowed to Enjoy Bodily Pleasures?

The month of Tevet is a cold, wintry month, with no festivals or celebrations. Yet, in a surprising twist, exactly because of the winter cold and the seeming lack of light (both physical and spiritual), the sages described this month as, “The month in which the body takes pleasure from the body.” This is certainly not typical of Torah scholars, whom we would expect to find something spiritual in every situation. What then does this statement mean?

One way of understanding this statement is to note that the month of Tevet lies in between the two winter festivals: Chanukah, which ends in Tevet, and Purim, which is celebrated a few weeks later, and which is highly anticipated. Both Chanukah and Purim are festivals consecrated by the sages with the purpose of giving thanks to God for the miracles performed, miracles that delivered the Jewish people.

There is, however, a pronounced difference between these two festivals. On Chanukah, we celebrate the spiritual salvation from Hellenic culture. On Purim, conversely, we celebrate the physical salvation from Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jewish people, physically. Hence, Chanukah is a spiritual festival, which does not incorporate elements of physical pleasure. Chanukah’s spirituality is reflected in the halachah that prohibits us from gaining any benefit from the Chanukah candles—we are only permitted to look at them. Purim, conversely, incorporates many physical pleasures including drinking wine and feasting. Thus, the month of Tevet, which is between Chanukah and Purim, is a time of transition from the non-corporeality of Chanukah to the corporeal pleasures of Purim. As such, the statement that Tevet is the month in which the “body takes pleasure in the body,” seems to reflect this shift from the spiritual to the corporeal.

Indeed, the context in which this statement appears is revealing. It is offered in the Talmud[1] a comment on the verse from the Book of Esther, “Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, to his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tevet….”[2] The sages are saying that part of the reason that Esther found favor in the eyes of Ahasuerus—a fact upon which the miracle of Purim, seems to have depended—came about because she was taken to him in the month of Tevet, “when the body takes pleasure in the body.”

The Supernal Body and the Mundane Body

Now that we have seen the source of this statement in the Talmud, we might be even more bewildered. It is understandable that a pleasure-seeking king like Ahasuerus would prefer shallow physicality over spiritual matters. But what meaning can the pleasure of body-from-body have for a Jew who seeks to serve God?

Here too, Chassidic teachings provide us with a revolutionary explanation for the pleasure of body-from-body. At its higher source, the sages’ statement is about the pleasure the supernal body receives from the mundane body. Who do the supernal and mundane bodies refer to? The Creator is also referred to as “true being” (הַיֵּשׁ הָאֲמִתִּי) for it is only His existence that is infinite and absolutely independent of anything. The world created by God, conversely, is referred to as “created being” (הַיֵּשׁ הַנִּבְרָא). Its existence absolutely depends upon God’s will, which renews its existence at every moment. And yet, for all its dependence, it is the material-physical mundane reality that evinces an external appearance of robustness and independence, as if it actually was independent of the Creator. Mundane, physical reality seems to exist perfectly fine without any need for a supernal Creator. In spite of the fact that mundane reality’s robustness and independence are superficial, Chassidic thought explains that it is meant to reflect the true unconditional being and independence of the supernal being, i.e., of the Creator. This follows the general principle that that which is most supernal is reflected in that which is lowest.

Moreover, the similarity between the supernal body (the true being) and the mundane body (the created being) testifies to the mutual attraction between them. Accordingly, the sages say that God created the world for He “desired a dwelling place in the lower realm.” And thus, the reason that the commandments of the Torah relate to mundane, physical actions that are performed with the body is that the supernal body takes pleasure in the mundane body through the fulfillment of practical, physical commandments.

The Commandments were not Given for Pleasure

What does the fulfillment of commandments have to do with pleasure? Many people perceive the fulfillment of commandments, which begins by accepting the yoke of Heaven, as running opposite to personal freedom and pleasure. In fact, it would seem that the perception that performing commandments has nothing to do with taking pleasure also has a foundation in the Torah itself. The Talmud rules that “the commandments were not given for pleasure. Instead, say the sages, the commandments were given to serve as a yoke on people’s necks. Thus, Jewish law does not see a commandment as an instrument of pleasure; one should fulfill commandments with a feeling of submission before God. One might categorize the ideal fulfillment of a commandment as happening when a person receives no personal pleasure or benefit from his act, and his sole intent is to fulfill the legal requirements of the commandment as they were commanded.

On the other hand, the Chassidic explanation for the pleasure of body-from-the-body does assume the existence of an element of pleasure incorporated into the fulfillment of commandments. In fact, the commandments bring about two dimensions of pleasure: first, for the supernal body (the true being) which takes pleasure in the mundane body and at the same time, the mundane body also enjoys the supernal body. How can we reconcile these two approaches?

Four Levels of Pleasure in Mitzvah Fulfillment

The great 19th century Chasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Arye Leib Alter, of the Ger dynasty (better known eponymously as the Sfat Emet), was once asked: How can we reconcile the great spiritual pleasure that tzaddikim get from the fulfillment of mitzvot with the statement that “commandments/mitzvot were not given for pleasure?” The Sfat Emet explained that so long as a person’s consciousness is separating him from the Creator, he is in a state in which the commandments were not given for pleasure, but rather, to extract him from his separate-consciousness and connect him to God, His Creator. In Hebrew, the word for “commandment” is mitzvah (מִצְוָה), which shares a root with tzavta (צַוְתָּא), which means “together.” Thus, the mitzvah has the capacity to create unity and togetherness between the person commanded and God who commands. But once a person has attained a state of full unification of his consciousness with God and flows with the Creator with what we call “natural consciousness,” all that he does becomes the will of God (even if his actions are not explicit mitzvot) and he feels great pleasure even when fulfilling the explicit commandments.

On the way to this lofty level, we can rank four levels of taking pleasure in the commandments:

  1. In the first stage, a person should feel that he is not searching for any type of satisfaction and pleasure in the commandment. His sole purpose is to give pleasure to his Creator. This means that the pleasure in the commandment, “the body takes pleasure from the body” refers only to the pleasure that God—the Giver of the Torah—takes from the fact that we are fulfilling His commandments. “It is pleasurable to me that I commanded, and My will is performed.”[3]
  2. In the second stage, a person should take pleasure in the fact that God is taking pleasure, just as a devoted servant feels pleasure when he succeeds in performing his duties properly and his master enjoys the fruit of his labor.
  3. In the third stage, a person should recognize the fact that God, Who is our Heavenly Father, enjoys the fact that His beloved children take pleasure in life. After having recognized this, a person will choose to enjoy a lifestyle based on keeping Torah and mitzvot, all because he realizes that when he takes pleasure in life, this brings pleasure to God.[4]
  4. In the fourth and highest stage, a person reaches a state in which his pleasure and God’s pleasure are one and the same. When his consciousness is connected to God and “the body takes pleasure from the body” in both directions: the supernal body and the mundane body enjoy every commandment together.

Back to the Body

Let us conclude with an important idea that takes us back to the initial association of the pleasure of body-from-body. The sages were very severe in their statement that “the Jewish people worshipped false idols only for the sake of permitting themselves to engage in debauchery” (i.e., to engage in all the prohibitions pertaining to sexual impropriety). What this tells us is that if we find the attraction toward foreign ideas and cultures presenting itself in the guise of an ideology (of openness, universality, etc.), its true motivator is actually (even if not at the conscious level) the sexual drive and the will to free it from its restrictions. Moreover, often people fear a return to a life of Torah observance because they fear that this will reduce their pleasure in the relationships that they currently enjoy. Conversely, people who are already attempting to return to a Torah-observant lifestyle often feel great frustration with their difficulties with sexual attraction and pleasure.

Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, another Chassidic giant, expressed himself on this topic. He says that as opposed to other urges, the sexual drive cannot be annihilated. The only way to deal with it is to sanctify and elevate it. Even if we might have some questions on whether or not commandments produce pleasure, there is no question regarding the Torah’s first commandment: to be fruitful and multiply, as well as all the commandments relating to having a constructive marriage. All these commandments are intrinsically pleasurable.

In the month in which “the body takes pleasure from the body,” we learn that there is good, desirable pleasure. We can contemplate how we can sanctify our emotional and physical pleasure when we build a healthy, good marriage, according to the Torah’s guidance.

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[1]. Megillah 13a.

[2]. Esther 2:16.

[3]. Rashi on Exodus 29:18.

[4]. Indeed, the value of “Jew” (יְהוּדִי) is the same as “lives well” (חַי טוֹב).

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