Our Generation’s Challenge: A Healthy Diet

Today’s reality of material abundance has created a norm of harmful eating habits, not seen in the past * Overeating on Shabbat causes a feeling of heaviness and depression, and impinges on Oneg Shabbat * Self-control at meals is not a reason for agony, but rather, for a positive feeling * Eating habits vary from one person to the next, consequently, be wary of radical diets * Determining the proper menu for a community kiddush, weddings, or refreshments served during Torah lectures, requires examination * Reproaching an unhealthy eater must be done gently * Happiness is essential to good health, therefore measures taken to improve one’s health should be done wisely, without causing emotional harm * How to handle a parent who asks for unhealthy food

Health and Nutrition in Our Times

In recent decades it has become increasingly evident that conventional eating habits are unhealthy. Our generation has to learn how to live with the material abundance that has been placed at our doorsteps. In the past, food was so expensive that the majority of an individual’s hard work was devoted to producing food in order not to starve from hunger. The mitzvot to set aside tithes from fruits, zeroa, lechayim and keiva (foreleg, cheeks and stomach) and bechorot (firstlings of a flock) which were all given to the Kohanim (priests) were not taxes placed on certain economic sectors, but rather personal mitzvoth for individuals to set aside twenty percent of their total profits for the Kohanim, Levi’im and the poor, and also for religious vacations spent in Jerusalem on Pilgrimage Festivals (ma’aser sheni, and ma’aser behema). Consequently, when the masses began earning a living in factories and through trade, the halakha was determined to set aside a tithe as midda benonit (moderate figure), and chomesh (one fifth) as midda tovah (a good figure).

Until a few generations ago, most people received their nutrition from foods containing about 1,500 calories a day – they simply didn’t have enough money to buy more than that. Even people who were able to eat more, were more active; there were no cars, people walked more, and jobs demanded more physical activity. Today, even unemployed welfare recipients can easily buy food containing tens of thousands of calories daily. The only limitation, fortunately, is that most people can’t eat that much! However, since there is so much food available, people who should eat about 2,500 calories a day eat way more than that, gain weight, and develop heart problems and diabetes.

Oneg Shabbat

Even the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat (the joy of Shabbat) is difficult to fulfill under such circumstances. In the past, people were used to eating moderately during the week; when Shabbat arrived, they ate till they were satisfied, allowing for a feeling of pleasure and well-being. Today, however, when a person eats nearly as much as his stomach allows every day, what will happen on Shabbat? How can one fulfill the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat? Such a situation is analogous to an opera singer who has to sing an operatic piece which, at its peak, requires him to reach a very high tone, but already at the beginning, started at such a high tone that he can barely sing – after that, how will he able to sing the main, higher portion of the song?

As a result, when people try to enjoy more sumptuous meals on Shabbat they eat so much that they start feeling heavy, and are unable to enjoy the meal. In spite of this, since the food is enjoyable – all the fine and tasty dishes are laid out on the table, and of course, the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat must be fulfilled; attempting to eat a little bit more, the heaviness intensifies, and later, one has no strength to study, or even hold a deep conversation. Moreover, no pleasure or joy is gained from such eating, because the burden placed on the digestive system is so great that all of the body’s energies have to be mobilized for the demanding work of digesting the food, draining the body the resources necessary to create a good feeling. As a result, many people feel tired and depressed after eating.

One of the Generation’s Challenges

One of the moral tasks we face today is finding a way to cope with the material abundance allotted to us; how to enjoy food in such a way that it adds joy, strength, and health.

To this end, we need to carefully study the different types of food and their effects on one’s health – the damage caused by excess sugar, fats, and salt. We must learn how to enjoy food; how to recite the blessings over food with joy, and also, how to delight in the self-control of ceasing to eat before reaching the point of complete satiety. In other words, it’s not enough for a person to think if he reduces his eating that in a few months he will be thinner and healthier; he must also feel good, satiated, lighter and more refreshed today. Perhaps in the course of a meal when a person should stop eating, he will feel a bit distressed; but he must be highly conscious that a half-an-hour later, he will already feel more comfortable. To do so, one must learn restraint and to enjoy the gentle feeling of partial satiety.

Caution from Extremism

One must also be ware of extreme methods. Although, most likely, they all possess a certain degree of truth, nevertheless, they can be appropriate for certain people, while for others harmful, seeing as people are very different. There are some for whom fats, sugar, or salt is extremely harmful, while for others, less so. As a result, sometimes refraining from a certain ingredient can cause damage, rather than benefit.

For example, for a long time – over sixty years – one of the main topics discussed was the risk of eating fatty foods. Entire countries in Western society reduced their animal fat intake, and surprisingly, the percentage of people suffering from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes greatly increased. Apparently, instead using oils to flavor foods, they substituted with sugar, which is no less detrimental.

Questions Concerning Organizing Meals and Celebrations

Of course, in wake of growing awareness of the damage caused by sugar and salt, trans fats, and saturated fats, halachic questions arise: Is it appropriate to serve someone burekas, or sweet cakes saturated with oil, or perhaps by doing so, one transgresses the prohibition of “Lifnei Iver” (the prohibition of misleading people by use of a “stumbling block”)? What should organizers of a community kiddush do, and is it proper to serve sugary soft drinks as refreshments during Torah lectures? And at children’s birthday parties – is it appropriate to serve cakes and sweets? Perhaps it’s best to serve a moderate amount, and not overdo it? And who determines what is over doing it? And perhaps certain foods should be completely removed from the menu?

Such questions also relate to a wedding feast which indeed should be the most important festive meal, seeing as the halachic order of precedence is: first Shabbat meals, above that – holiday meals, and surpassing all – a wedding feast. Nonetheless, is it proper to serve each wedding guest a meal that contains enough calories for an entire day?

These questions, of course, depend on the medical-scientific positions acknowledged by the majority of experts, and since their position is also unclear, it is difficult to determine a halachic position.

Community Health Teshuva

Here it should be noted that this issue has become an important one for me, because in the past few weeks, I began arousing the community (Har Bracha) towards physical teshuva (repentance) (in accordance with the words of Rav Kook in his book ‘Orot HaTeshuva’). This is reflected in regards to refreshments served at kiddush’s and Torah classes, and also refreshments served in educational institutions, kindergartens, primary schools, Ulpana, and the Yeshiva; encouraging the opening of additional classes for gymnastics, jogging clubs, and the like; and also, as to the degree of investment required to establish hiking trails, a swimming pool, and similar projects. If I have any important insights into these issues, I hope to share them with my readers in the future.

Be Careful Not to Upset People

In any case, even if a certain community decides to improve their eating habits and health, members should be very careful not to upset people who find it difficult to restrain themselves from eating, and wish to eat sweet and oily foods.

First of all, one should not judge his fellow man until he has been in his position, and who can say that if he was in his position, he would be able to restrain himself. Second, even if the food in question is definitely harmful, one should not comment in a way that is liable to offend another person. For indeed, even if one were to see his friend commit a sin, although it is a mitzvah to rebuke him, it is forbidden to do so in an insulting manner, as the Torah says: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:17-18). And our Sages said: “From where do we know that if a man sees something unseemly in his neighbor, he is obliged to reprove him? Because it is said: You shall surely rebuke. If he rebuked him and he did not accept it, from where do we know that he must rebuke him again? The Torah states: ‘surely rebuke’. One might assume this to be obligatory even though his face blanched (i.e., he was insulted), therefore the text states: ‘You shall not bear sin because of him’.” Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah added: “I wonder if there is one in this generation who knows how to reprove!”

A Feeling of Joy – The Key to Health

Also from a health standpoint, feeling good is undoubtedly an important element of a person’s physical well-being; consequently, what good stems from upsetting and discouraging a person who loves to eat sweets and oily foods? There are studies suggesting that people who report being satisfied and happy in life, live an average of nearly ten years longer than people who are not happy. Therefore, although it is proper to encourage people to reduce their intake of unhealthy foods, one must find a way to do this in the most pleasant manner. And if a person cannot convince his friend in a nice way, he should respect him, and let him be. Who knows, perhaps the distress of dieting might cause him more serious health problems.

Cigarettes and Honoring One’s Parents

I also referred to such logic regarding the question of honoring one’s parents and cigarette smoking: Rabbi Haim David Halevy ztz”l, Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was one of the first rabbis who, in light of scientific studies, issued the halakha that it was forbidden to smoke cigarettes. Accordingly, he ruled that if a father asked his son to buy him cigarettes, it is forbidden for the son to fulfill his request, because by doing so, he places a stumbling block before his father, and is an accomplice to a sinful act.

In my book “Peninei Halakha”, I wrote that in principle, Rabbi Halevy is right. But if not buying the cigarettes will cause a major conflict, ultimately, the son will cause serious damage to the loving relationship and respect that should prevail between father and son, and his gain is cancelled by his loss. Therefore, it appears that in a case where avoiding buying cigarettes will not be understood by one’s father, and will cause stress and grief in the family, it is preferable for the son to buy cigarettes for his father, thus refraining from harming the relationship between himself and his father. Nevertheless, if smoking were to cause imminent danger to life, it would be forbidden to give him a cigarette; however, since cigarette smoking does not cause immediate danger, there is no prohibition to fulfill his father’s request, and buy him cigarettes.

Furthermore, there is a certain amount of doubt whether smoking will cause damage to the father. This is because the damage caused by cigarettes differs from one person to the next, while on the other hand, quitting smoking is sometimes liable to cause psychological harm, which can also indirectly lead to physical dangers. Therefore, although great efforts should be made to quit smoking, it should not be done with excessive force. Accordingly, one should refrain from causing a major conflict with his parents over such an issue. If a son is able to say he doesn’t want to cooperate, and with difficulty, his father understands, it is preferable; but if it will cause considerable tension, it is better to buy him the cigarettes.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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