New Shabbat mantra: Stop and taste the chocolate

“Here comes No. 6,” Rabbi Michael Lezak said to 50 completely silent congregants who were seated at long tables, the remnants of five previous chocolate samples in front of them.

Volunteers then emerged from the kitchen doors — also silently — bearing trays full of tiny pieces of high-quality dark chocolate. They distributed the morsels, again without saying a word.

Rabbi Michael Lezak (right) guides people through the “Mindful Eating Shabbat” in San Rafael.

“Look at the chocolate,” said Lezak. “Consider how it broke off from the rest of the bar. Now smell it. What does it smell like? Now, slowly, you can taste it. Let it melt. What are the flavors? Does anyone need another card for taking notes? No chewing.”

Your typical Saturday morning Shabbat service this was not.

But according to Lezak, a self-described foodie as well as a proponent of meditation, the “Mindful Eating Shabbat” that took place at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom on Dec. 1 was well within the line of traditional Jewish thinking around the day of rest.

“The Slow Food Movement was started by this group of people in Italy who were proponents of, literally, slowing down your relationship to food — there were events where people would take hours tasting two kinds of mushrooms,” said Lezak in his service, to chuckles from the congregation.

“That’s absolutely living with kavanah [intention], which is what we’re trying to get at here: being present with your whole body, using all of your senses to experience a moment with your community.

“In a way, Shabbat was the original slow food movement,” he added.

The event, organized jointly by the Women of Rodef Sholom and the Men’s Spiritual Journey Group, was headed up by Lezak and Judi Sheppard, president of the women’s group.

“I think this is a topic that resonates with a lot of people, men and women, young and old,” Sheppard said. “I’m really pleased with the turnout,” especially considering it was raining.

The congregational email had explained: “In our all too-busy world, the practice of mindful eating helps us bring our full attention to the process of eating — to all the tastes, smells, thoughts and feelings that arise during a meal. And what better time to slow down and focus than Shabbat?”

The mindful eating meditation took place near the end of the Saturday morning service, when congregants were instructed to move silently into the social hall. There, they sampled seven kinds of chocolate — from Nesquik hot chocolate, Hershey’s kisses and Lindt squares to Israeli chocolate and small-batch San Francisco-made confections — thinking carefully about the flavors, textures and smells.

The last and richest sample was an almost soup-like hot chocolate based on the much ballyhooed hot chocolate served at Town Hall restaurant in San Francisco. A recipe for it was distributed, along with “Meditations for a Mindful Motzi.”

Lezak, who began attending silent meditation retreats for rabbis through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in 2011, brought the practice of meditation to Rodef Sholom earlier this year via short congregational retreats. But this was the first time he’d incorporated it into a regular service.

“It was an opportunity to experiment,” he explained in an interview. “My goal is always to help people learn portable practices, to bring heightened spirituality to every day moments, and I think people are hungry for ways to do that.”

Lezak said he received a lot of positive feedback, especially from congregants who appreciated the chance to “slow down, be silent and just be with their community.”

At the potluck lunch following the service, of course, participants were anything but quiet. Most were all smiles — and, to be sure, a few were a bit sugar-high.

Others, it seems, surprised themselves with their reactions to the chocolate.

“The first big surprise for me was the strong, emotional reaction I had to the smell of the first cup of hot chocolate,” wrote congregant Susan Esther Barnes, in a blog post about the event. “It immediately transported me back to the summer camp I attended as a child, as I pictured crisp, clear mornings at the dining hall, full of anticipation about what great fun the new day would bring.”

The Hershey’s Kiss, she wrote, “tasted nothing like the thousands of Hershey’s Kisses I had eaten before it.”

A statement like that means the event accomplished a big part of its goal, according to Lezak. Another goal, he said, was to have people contemplate praying “as we eat” in addition to before eating.

“And what better time than Shabbat to consider that?” Lezak said. “Let’s use eating as a way to be mindful of the sacred gifts of life — to slow down and pay attention to the simple miracle of being alive.”

Emma Silvers