Tevet Herbalism: Aromatics & Anger
In this season of war, I’ve been caught in a loop that is likely familiar to many of us. It goes something like: emotional stuckness > anger > softening into the pain, grief, and compassion > getting emotionally triggered and starting the whole cycle over again. Learning about this Hebrew month of Tevet has given me gifts that clarified and sweetened these many journeys through my inner landscape. I’m continually amazed how Jewish tradition is layered with meanings. A time of year, a word, or a single letter can hold deep oceans of imagery and connections. I’ve been exploring two associations that have felt particularly relevant and a corresponding herbal tea that feels deeply necessary in these dark times.
Tevet: Month of Righteous Anger
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the mystical Book of Formation, Hebrew letters created the universe through their individual spiritual frequencies. Every month in the Hebrew calendar corresponds with a letter, which in turn influences the zodiac sign, and has a dominant emotion/sense and a corresponding part of the body.
Anger is the emotion of Tevet and the liver is the body part. I was struck that the liver is closely tied to anger here, because in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we see the same association. One of the liver’s jobs in TCM is maintaining the proper flow of qi, or energy. Liver Qi Stagnation, which can result from stress and suppressed emotions like anger, can lead to irritability, frustration, and a sense of stuckness. The first stop on my miserable-go-round.
This month I learned about Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Silent Scream, and it’s become a dear tool in helping me feel my anger and let it flow. Rebbe Nachman says:
When do I have my personal hitbodedut [spontaneous prayer]? When everyone is around me, that’s when I seclude myself with G-d. I know how to cry out in a silent scream. What I say is heard from one end of the world to the other, yet those standing around me hear nothing at all! Anyone can do this. Imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Just as the throat brings sound from your lungs to your lips, there are nerves that draw sound into your head. When you do this, you are shouting inside your brain. Direct that shout to the One above and it will open Heaven’s gate.
Tevet: Month of True Seeing
In TCM, the sense organ related to the liver is the eyes. And we see this in Jewish traditions of Tevet as well. The name for the letter ע, Ayin, is also the Hebrew word for eye. And if we look back to paleo Hebrew, the letter perfectly resembles this eye.
And so, there is a tradition that Tevet is the month of true seeing. True seeing is a wonderful companion to anger because our ability to see can help us discern righteous anger from blind rage, and seeing in a different way can transmute anger into compassion.
At the beginning of this month I came across a story of the Baal Shem Tov, Israel ben Eliezer, the great mystic of 1700s Ukraine. This is A Blessing of Eyes to See from the essential book by Yitzhak Buxbaum:
Once, [Israel ben Eliezer, as a boy] ran away to the woods because he could not bear the cheder, the religious school, anymore. The melamed, his teacher, was always screaming, the teacher’s wife acted like a crazy woman, the schoolchildren were fighting, and the house was filthy. When he came to the forest, he stood there for a while, crying and praying for some sort of salvation, because what kind of life did he have? He was a little boy all by himself in the world, and surrounded by troubles.
Suddenly an old man appeared and called him by name. “Israel,” he said, “I want to give you a blessing that you should have eyes to see.” “What do you mean by that?” Israel asked. “Who are you?” The man just said, “May you have eyes to see.” And he left.
Israel never learned who the man was, but later, as he wandered back to cheder, things looked different: The teacher was still screaming, but Israel realized that sometimes, when a person experiences poverty and other difficulties, he is no longer in control of his temper. And when Israel saw that the teacher’s wife, it was true, was still agitated and upset, nevertheless, he understood what she had been through and felt compassion; and he saw the unruly students and the unkempt house too in a different way.
Israel understood that he had received a precious blessing from this elder, who, he now realized, was a holy man, a tzaddik. That blessing helped him to understand that if there are people who are acting in ways they should not act, he should seek to comprehend why that person is behaving that way, what that person is going through. After this mysterious encounter Israel had “eyes to see.”
At that time, in that land, there were more than a few hidden tzaddikim who wandered about the countryside with their knapsack on their back. On a number of occasions, little Israel came across these holy men in the forest and talked to them about the Torah and asked them questions about God and His world and about divine service.
Many of us today think it unlikely that we’ll stumble upon an old tzadik in the woods, but on second glance, perhaps the woods are full of old tzadikkim, green tzadikkim— the plants. And as I read this story I found myself asking, what plants might give us the blessing to be able to see more clearly, more compassionately?
A Simple Aromatic Tea
Aromatic herbs have a unique ability to trick our busy heads into thinking we’re relaxed. By reducing neuromuscular tension and relaxing tight bellies, these gentle herbs send signals up through the vagus nerve that things are going to be ok. They help bring us out of a sympathetic fight-or-flight state and into a parasympathetic state of rest-and-digest– a state much more conducive to prayers of compassion and collaboration and grief. And importantly to this moment, aromatics help us move through challenging emotions, conversations, and reactions with some small amount of grace.
I’ve found myself making chamomile and honey tea these last few months, and recently I’ve been adding peppermint as well. Peppermint, the archetypal aromatic, is used in TCM to move stagnant liver qi and refresh the mind, so it makes a perfect companion to the sweet and relaxing chamomile. Both of these common herbs have been used extensively in Jewish communities from Morocco to Poland. My friend Naomi Spector writes, “In Jewish tradition, chamomile is one of the first herbs you turn to in times of need. The flowers almost seem to smile as they steep in a cup of hot tea, their fuzzy yellow hearts swelling as they flavor the water with their golden, apple-like fragrance.”
Chamomile has been used by Jewish folk healers for a wide range of ailments, including digestive complaints, colds, eye and skin support, and fertility. Chamomile is mentioned in the Talmud a few times as well, for example we read in Berakhot:
Six things cure the ill person of their disease and their cure is an effective cure, and these are: Cabbage, beets, chamomile water, honey, stomach, heret, and liver.
For a deeper dive on chamomile, see Naomi’s The Jewish Book of Flowers.
This herbal tea of chamomile, peppermint, and honey is simple, accessible, and tastes delightful. You can buy chamomile and peppermint as loose tea and brew a few teaspoons of each per cup of hot water for up to five minutes, adding honey to taste after straining the herbs. You can also buy teabags of each herb from the grocery store, I recommend the brand Traditional Medicinals.
The power of tea is not only in the herbs, but also in the ritual. Taking ten minutes to drink tea in meditation, in nature, in prayer, or with a lovely nigun can briefly disentangle us from the news and our own agitation. May this soothing and strengthening of our spirit allow us to engage the world tomorrow with a more compassionate and grounded nervous system.
May we all have eyes to see. May we see a path towards peace.