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An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Jewish traditions on diets, cooking, and eating.

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About human diets:

Both Islam and Judaism stress that diet should not just be about calories. A religious diet is an exercise in spiritual discipline and in God consciousness. We do not eat only to fuel up. Nor should we eat only to enjoy ourselves.

From the Jewish point of view, God has a diet that is good for us physically and spiritually. That diet is found in the Bible, and in the later Jewish writings, as interpreted by Reform Rabbis for our generation. Non-Jews can also gain many benefits from following most or all of this diet. Like all diets, a Kosher Holy Diet must be followed daily, to be effective. Like all diets, you should not become a fanatic in following this diet. Moral issues are more important than any one particular part of the diet. Thus, honoring a parent while visiting at home, is more important than strict observance of a Kosher Holy Diet. Nevertheless, like all diets, and all forms of exercise and meditation, the more frequently you fail to keep your Kosher Holy Diet, the less you will benefit from it.

Food is the most important single element of animal life. But unlike all other animals humans do not live by bread alone. The act of eating is invested with psychological and spiritual meanings. The Torah asserts that we should “EAT! BECOME SATIATED/SATISFIED! AND BLESS THE LORD!” (Deut. 8:10) This is how I, as a Reform Rabbi interpret these words.

  • EAT!: Humans, like all animals need to eat in order to live, but unlike all other animals some humans will not eat certain foods that other humans will gladly eat. This universal human trait proves that “humans do not live by bread alone, but humans may live on anything that God decrees.” (Deut. 8:3) Thus by periodically not eating at all (fasting) Jews, Muslims and Christians live by God’s words. But some people reject the enjoyment of eating and add extra days of fasting to their diet. Other people carry vegetarianism to far and stop eating all egg and milk products. The Torah commands a moderate path between on one hand simply killing and eating any thing you want, and excessive fasting and/or rejecting broad categorizes of food such as vegetarians and vegans do.

  • BECOME SATIATED/SATISFIED!" If we only eat foods that we enjoy, we end up with a physically unhealthy diet. Obesity accounted for almost 26,000 American deaths in the year 2,000 and it gets worse each year. Our natural tastes do not lead us to good health. Maximizing enjoyment in the short run leads to disaster in the long run. Self-discipline leads to longer life. Religious self-discipline leads to a higher spiritual life. If you eat your fill you will become satiated. If you eat according to God’s decrees you will become satisfied.

  • BLESS: The Sages rule that we should say a blessing even if we eat only a small piece of bread the size of an olive. If that is all you have, be grateful you have that. One person can be satiated and not be satisfied, while another can be satisfied yet not satiated. “Who is wealthy? Those who are satisfied with what they have.”

    (Avot) The blessing after the meal is a Mitsvah from the Torah. The Sages also ruled that we should say a blessing-the Motzi, before we eat. The Motzi ends “who brings forth bread from the earth.” This phrase from Psalm 104:14 is preceded by “who makes the grass spring up for cattle” to reminded us every time we eat that we are part of the animal world and need to be considerate of their needs too. Thus it is a Mitsvah not to eat until one’s animals have been fed. (Deut. 11:15) The Motzi phrase from Psalm 104 is followed by “who makes wine to rejoice the human heart” to remind us that unlike Buddhism and Islam, Judaism doesn’t prohibit wine even though it can be abused. Yet we should always drink and eat in moderation.

  • THE LORD: We should also thank the cook, the baker, the miller, the farmer and everyone else involved in producing our food. But the four fundamental elements for producing food are sun, rain, earth and seed-none of which we create. Usually we are so caught up in using the end products that we forget our dependence on the fundamentals. That is why we so blithely harm our environment. The Motzi helps us remember what life is really based on, and why we should be both grateful and reverent to God. Those who live by all these Mitsvot are regarded as if they dine with the Lord as it says, “This is the table, which is before God.” (Ezekiel 41:22)
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The Torah also tells us, "DO NOT COOK A KID (A YOUNG GOAT) IN IT’S MOTHERS MILK." (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21) Orthodox Rabbis ask why this verse is repeated three times in the Torah? The Sages of the Talmud say: Once to teach us that we should not cook meat and milk together. A second time to teach us that we should not eat meat and milk products together. A third time to teach us we should not derive any benefit from this mixture even if it was done inadvertently. Few, if any, Reform Rabbis would agree with the third interpretation.

We mustn’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk because that is cruel and insensitive. We could universalize this sensitivity by cooking all mammals, which must be killed, separately from all milk products, which give life to their young. We could go even further and not eat the products of slaughter and the products of nurture at the same meal. We might even go further yet and use different plates, and eating utensils and dishwashers. This would be extreme. The prohibition against mixing meat and milk products together has expanded further and is applied in a stricter way than any other dietary law in the Torah. There are some individuals who even abstain from food that the Torah permits. Rashi says that when we are with these people we should follow their practice, for by abstaining from that which is actually permitted, we can attain a higher level of holiness.

But doesn’t this line of thinking violate the Mitsvah (repeated twice in Deuteronomy) that you should not add to the Mitsvot? (4:2 and 13:1) Yes it does! By continually expanding the strictness of mixing meat and milk products you end up with separate dishwashers for meat and dairy dishes. The Orthodox say the prohibition against adding to the Mitsvot applies to literal adding (2 days of Yom Kippur or 9 days of Hanukkah) and not to extending the application. Yet they add another hour to Shabbat making it last 25 hours, and celebrate Rosh HaShanah for 2 days even in the Land of Israel. The orthodox also added poultry to the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy although poultry do not produce milk. Fortunately the Orthodox did not add fish to the forbidden meat/dairy mixture because of an idea in the Talmud that eating fish and meat together is unhealthy.

But if you can’t add to the Mitsvot how can you adapt the rules to new conditions and situations? By following the whole Mitsvah, which is not to add or subtract i.e. do not add unless you subtract elsewhere. Do not subtract unless you add elsewhere. Thus the Torah will not become rigid but will always be balanced and flexible. We should not teach future generations to be, either to the far right (constantly strict) or to the far left (constantly permissive).

The Mitsvah to avoid the far right and the far left is repeated four times in the book of Deuteronomy. Once to teach us not to direct others towards undue strictness or leniency (5:32). A second and third time to specifically teach judges (17:11) and rulers (17:20) the same lesson; and a fourth time to teach all of us to be very careful because both blessings and curses can result from a consistently one sided emphasis for Mitsvot (28:14).

A good way to understand the correct philosophy of the Kosher Holy Diet can be found in the following words from Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the American Jewish University. He writes:

"Without attempting to explain the elaborate Jewish dietary laws, the Torah provides a lengthy list of kosher and non-kosher animals. Animals with cloven hooves that chew their cud are kosher. Fish with fins and scales are kosher. Birds which eat grain and vegetables, and which can fly, are kosher. Insects, shellfish and reptiles are not."

Since the earliest stages of our history, Jews have understood the patterns of 'kashrut' to be a center of our heritage. From biblical days to the rabbinical period, new guidelines and restrictions developed resulting from the yearning of Jews to be even more kosher, yet the core of 'kashrut' has remained unchanged over the millennia. Some of our most stirring stories of Jewish martyrdom center on the laws of 'kashrut.'

Yet, the Torah gives no explanation for 'kashrut.' Consequently, Jews throughout history have struggled to understand the reasons underlying kosher eating. One explanation, popularized by the Rambam (12th Century Spain and Egypt), is that God is a cosmic doctor, providing a prescription to ensure the health of the Jewish People. This view understands 'kashrut' as a medical plan to ensure the health of individual Jews. The problem with such a viewpoint (that pigs cause trichinosis, and were prohibited for that reason, for example) is that it implies that God doesn't care about the health of the rest of humanity. After all, 'kashrut' applies only to the Jews.

Another view of 'kashrut,' advanced by persons interested in abandoning the dietary laws, is that 'kashrut' was an early compensation for unsanitary conditions. Now, with modern technology, we don't need these outmoded precautions. Such a viewpoint has no basis in science since it requires advanced medical knowledge unavailable 3,000 years ago.

A better view is that kashrut was a way of differentiating the Jewish minority, to keep them separate from the Gentiles, thus promoting Jewish survival. This is partly correct, especially in a Christian society, but this view ignores the fact that most of the world's majority religions observe some form of dietary laws (Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism).

Why, then, is 'kashrut' significant? If its not health or social separateness, what is the goal of the dietary laws? The answer is found in the Torah itself. "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I [the Lord] am holy." (Leviticus 19:1) 'Kashrut' is a way of welcoming the holiness of Judaism into our daily lives. At each meal, we discipline our natural desire for self-gratification and rededicate ourselves to the high standards of Jewish living and behavior. The network of Jewish values -- loving our neighbor, caring for the widow and orphan, affirming a connection to the Jewish people, and embodying God’s rule on earth -- gain strength and depth through the regular practice of 'kashrut.' Every form of effective pedagogy involves regular repetition and frequent exposure. Since we eat three times each day (at least!), 'kashrut' is a daily school recalling and reinforcing a sense of living in 'brit' (covenant) with God, making the values of Judaism visible through deeds.

As a Reform Rabbi I would add that dozens of kosher rules are spiritual exercises to strengthen a Jewish soul. Even if you do not do them all, doing many of them will make you a more spiritual person, and if done with the intention of fulfilling your part of Israel's covenant with God, a better Jew.

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Rabbi Allen Maller's web site is at www.rabbimaller.com

First posted: 2011-DEC-31.

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