Why over-eating does not satisfy the rabbis

With obesity a worldwide problem, we look at rabbinic advice on sensible eating

By Rabbi Daniel Levy, January 7, 2010
King-sized: Actor Timothy Spall plays Georgie Godwin in the recently shown ITV1 drama, The Fattest Man in Britain

King-sized: Actor Timothy Spall plays Georgie Godwin in the recently shown ITV1 drama, The Fattest Man in Britain

A person’s table is compared to an altar — just as an altar atones for our sins so does genuine hospitality. But for increasing numbers of people, their table is an altar on which they are sacrificing their health.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in many countries. More than 26 per cent of the United States population are obese, the highest percentage of any country. In October social workers in Scotland took a newborn baby into care because its 23-stone mum was considered too fat. Officials swooped after repeated warnings to her and her partner, who together weighed 41 stones, to bring their other six children’s weight under control.

Although research had suggested that obesity rates in England may be levelling off, a University College London study found that this was occurring most in children from wealthier backgrounds. Obesity rates among the lower classes were likely to be significantly higher by 2015.

China experienced a 28-fold increase in obesity over a 15-year period to 2000. Experts blame this on Western lifestyles that include less exercise, increased meat consumption and the use of cars rather than walking. Most astonishing, however, is that in seven African countries, obesity is becoming more common among poor city-dwellers because of easier access to cheap, high-fat, high-sugar foods.

The World Health Organisation said in October that being overweight has now overtaken being underweight among the world’s leading causes of death. Even animals are suffering, with owners of obese pet dogs having been prosecuted for neglect.

Maimonides dedicated an entire chapter to healthy eating (Laws of De’ot, 4). He observed that out of every thousand people who die, most die from excessive eating. Rambam encouraged people not to eat when on the move, to leave their stomachs a quarter empty, to progress from light foods to heavier foods and to sleep on their side (this helps with digestion). Rambam believed that most illnesses are due to either eating the wrong foods or eating essentially good foods but in excess (4:15).

The founder of Ponevez Yeshivah, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (1886-1969), thought excessive eating not only unhealthy for the body but also the soul. The primary intention of eating, he explained, should be to enable the soul to function properly.

It is therefore surprising that a number of great Chasidic Rebbes tended to be on the portly side. It has been suggested that they became large for altruistic reasons, following the kabbalistic doctrine of reincarnation; they avoided food wastage by eating it with the intention of elevating the soul of the reincarnated person within the food.

For most people however, we should bear in mind the teaching of Rav Avraham Pam (1913-2001), head of Yeshivah Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, New York, that if the only reason a person is eating the food is to prevent it from being thrown out, then the person has become a garbage can.

As well as advocating sensible eating, Judaism has, in addition to the mandatory five biblical fast days, other optional fasts. However, many rabbis encouraged holy eating rather than optional fasting. Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona (died 1263) counselled self-restraint at the table : “When food is before a person and they still have an appetite to eat it, they should refrain from eating out of honour for the Creator, they should not eat to their desire,” he wrote. “Such conduct will prevent a person from sinning and remind him of his love for his Creator more than one [optional] fast a week…”

When warning of the dangers of obesity, the message must be clear. It may be for this reason that the sages used graphic language to discourage obesity: “He who increases his flesh increases worms [in the grave]” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:7). Perhaps this stresses that death may come quicker than expected.

On the other hand, when dealing with individuals we need to be sensitive. The Tanach is careful when referring to Eglon, King of Moav, the Bible’s best-known obese character, as “ish bari”, a “healthy man”. This appears to be a euphemism, thereby teaching us not to use derogatory language for the sake of it. Eglon was the grandfather of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, and merited such descendants, according to the sages, because when Judge Ehud brought him a divine message, he stood up, despite the great effort this entailed owing to his unusual weight (Judges 3:17-20). Although a wicked man, he performed such a respectful act that he received a reward in this world rather than the next.

It is both ironic and catastrophic that, while in parts of the world people are dying because of obesity-related illnesses, millions of others are dying from starvation. It is chilling to think that every six seconds a child dies from hunger and related diseases. Clearly, there is enough food to go round. Perhaps by eating less we will learn to share more.

Daniel Levy is rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation, Leeds

Last updated: 10:41am, January 7 2010