Are Chanucah donuts bad for obesity?

December 2, 2010
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Question: It's hard to encourage healthy eating habits in your children when the foods we have for Chanucah — latkes and doughuts — seem just the opposite. Shouldn’t rabbis be doing more to combat the threat of obesity and do you have any ideas for an alternative festival food?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The basis for the custom of eating deep fried foods like latkes and doughnuts on Chanucah is to commemorate the miracle of the oil that burned in the great menorah for eight days. Having said that, it is not imperative that one consumes a particular quantity of the stuff. Unlike the mitzvot of eating matzah on Passover or drinking wine at kiddush, which require the consumption of a minimum amount, no such rule applies to oily food on Chanucah.

The mitzvot of Chanucah are to light the menorah each night and to recite Hallel each morning during prayer. These are far more important in religious terms than the foods we eat or the giving and receiving of gifts, which is a rather late innovation.

I do not think anyone would disagree with the assertion that traditional Chanucah foods are not great for one’s health. But it is all a question of context and quantity. A century ago, when our ancestors in the pale of settlement could afford little more than black bread and herring, eating something sweet or fried in oil was a delicacy of the highest order and something that made Chanucah special. A few potato latkes once a year did not threaten anybody’s health.

Today, however, our diets and our lifestyle have changed dramatically. We eat foods that are too high in fat and sugar content all year round and children in particular consume far too much junk food. What is to distinguish Chanucah when kids pack in doughnuts and oversized candy bars on a regular basis?

The solution is not to deny your children such foods but rather to teach them healthy eating habits so that they come to see such foods as a treat to be enjoyed in moderation on special occasions such as Chanucah.

My role model for healthy living was my late grandfather who lived well into his 90s. He enjoyed life fully but everything he did was in moderation. His was not a life of denial but rather one of discipline and balance.

Society in general today tends to swing between the extreme self-denial of popular diet fads and the unfettered self-indulgence that inevitably follows.

Judaism does not have much time for either extreme. It wants us to enjoy God’s world and take pleasure in His creation. But it also expects us to do so in a disciplined and balanced way.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

You are absolutely right about obesity — it is a major threat, which can lead to heart problems, diabetes, causing ill-health to the person concerned, making them a burden to their family and being a drain on NHS resources.

Of course, there are those who have genetic and/or medical problems that mean their size is beyond their control, and they deserve every help; but when obesity is self-induced — the result of over-eating or eating the wrong types of food — then it is hard to be sympathetic.

Judaism values every individual’s life and one of the consequences is that everyone has an obligation to take care of their physical health.This can range from taking exercise to not smoking. Smoking is a form of slow suicide, while self-induced obesity, which often shortens one’s life-span, comes into that same category.

Jews who think that keeping kosher is the only dietary matter about which they have to be concerned are wrong, and are dishonouring the gift of life that they were given. Moreover, parents who provide unhealthy foods for their children, and who also neglect to educate them in sensible eating, are doing them a terrible disservice.

At the same time, healthy eating does not mean being neurotic about every single morsel. If one eats in a measured way most of the year, then having a few latkes and doughnuts at Chanucah will not harm you and will be part of making the festival special.

But here, too, the key is moderation. So there is a big difference between having some latkes and scoffing dozens of them.

Still, it seems that gluttony is not a modern problem, for back in the 12th century Maimonides — scholar and physician — laid down that one should always leave the table with room for more.

Incidentally, the rest of the festive diet balances itself out over the course of a year: very healthy with apple and honey at Rosh Hashanah, fasting at Yom Kippur and fruit at Tu Bishvat; though go easy on the cheesecake at Shavuot and matzah at Pesach, and limit the number of hamantaschen you eat at Purim.

As for alternative foods at Chanucah, how about fresh salad served in a way that makes a colourful figure of eight? No, stick to the latkes even if you restrict them to the first night.

Last updated: 2:53pm, November 28 2012