I recently spent a couple of days at Disneyworld with my sister and brother and their families, who were visiting from Israel. As we walked through the parks, a few of my nephews and nieces independently shared the same observation: “Why are people in America so fat?” While their comment may not be politically correct or sensitively articulated, it is accurate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of adults in America are clinically obese.
In fact, a few years ago Disney had to shut down its signature “It’s a Small World” ride for major renovations. Interestingly, when it reopened, it looked exactly as it had beforehand. So what did they renovate? It turns out, Disney had to widen the boats and deepen the ride’s channel in order to accommodate for the weight increase in the average visitors to Disney. The ride was originally designed and built in 1963 on the statistics of the time that indicated an average adult male rider would weigh 175 pounds and a female rider 135. However, with the increase in fast food, junk food and “super-sized” food, adults today frequently weigh north of 200 pounds. Increasingly, over-weighted boats would get to certain points in the ride and bottom out, becoming stuck in the flume.
Forbes magazine reported at the time that, ironically, customers whose boats got stuck and whose rides needed to be aborted were given free vouchers for the food court to compensate them. It may be a small world after all, but we, the inhabitants of that world, are getting larger and larger, heavier and heavier, every single day.
Safeguarding our health and preserving our wellbeing are fundamental Torah values. “V’nishmartem m’od l’nafshoseichem.” Though the verse in context is actually referring to something else, our rabbis have encouraged us to interpret it to mean, “be exceedingly cautious regarding your well-being.” The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 4) writes: “For the body to be healthy and wholesome is among the ways of Hashem…therefore a person must distance himself from those things that cause his body damage.”
Many explanations and reasons are suggested for the Torah’s kashrus laws, though ultimately they remain a chok, a divinely ordained diet. Whatever the reason, it is clear that a commitment to a rigorous kosher lifestyle is to ingrain within us a sense of discipline, self-control, restraint and the capacity to honor limits and boundaries. These are the exact same attributes and qualities necessary to have healthy eating habits.
It is ironic, therefore, that many of us who are strict and disciplined adherents to the laws of kashrus, struggle greatly to apply the same vigilance and mindfulness to portion control and eating only healthy foods. I know first-hand the challenge of healthy eating habits as I have struggled personally and every time I think I have changed my eating lifestyle permanently, I find myself reverted back to bad habits and bulging belt. My intent is not to be judgmental or critical. For some, weight is a function of genetics and factors beyond just self-control. I am also very sensitive to the issues of body image and eating disorders and the danger of overemphasis on weight and diet. I am simply trying to call our attention to an unintended consequence of elaborate and endless Shabbos and yom tov meals.
This week, our local JCC and Winn Dixie supermarket hosted celebrity chef Susie Fishbein, author of the Kosher by Design cookbook series. The room was overflowing for her demonstration as her fans turned out in droves to learn more about her techniques, recipes and presentations. In 2008, the Forward listed her as one of the 50 most influential Jews in America. There is no doubt that Chef Susie has done a great service to our community by raising the level of sophistication of kosher recipes and food. However, I worry that her books have also raised the level of expectation, competition, effort, cost and consumption at today’s typical Shabbos and yom tov meals.
Do you remember when a Shabbos meal consisted of a piece of fish or a slice of melon, or a bowl of soup followed by one main dish, one side dish, and one kugel and ending with a dessert of fruit or one cake? Now our meals have endless courses, multiple main dishes, countless side dishes, and practically a Viennese table of desserts. Our Bubbie’s gefilte fish, chicken and matzah ball soup and simple recipes are not sophisticated enough for us. We need tri-colored gefilte fish, tri-colored matzah balls, and menus that would challenge the Next Iron Chef.
Of course I am not blaming Susie Fishbein or authors of similar kosher cookbooks. To her credit, Chef Susie has written a cookbook on healthy living called Kosher by Design Lightens Up. Ultimately, the responsibility falls to us to limit our menus, choose healthy recipes and bring the same mindfulness to the health impact of what we eat that we do to the kashrus of what we eat. Together, we can create a new culture of simplified meals presented in a healthier fashion. It begins in our homes, at our kitchen and dining room tables, but it extends to the menu and options at kiddushes at shul and the snacks we provide through the youth department.
Fewer courses and fewer options at our Shabbos meals will lessen the financial burden, physical drain and even emotional stress on those shopping for and preparing the meal. Setting food up on a buffet rather than leaving it on the table will eliminate mindless nibbling and noshing at endless meals. Being forced to get up to get more food will likely increase thoughtfulness about whether or not we are really still hungry. Even if we enjoy spending all evening or afternoon with friends, we should bentch as soon as the meal is done and enjoy each other’s company on the couch or around an empty table, rather than sit there and continue to eat, even though we are beyond full.
This past Sunday, our wonderful BRS Sisterhood sponsored an incredible Women’s Health and Halacha Day. Close to 150 women from all over South Florida gathered to address topics such as genetic testing, birth control, the agunah crisis, domestic violence and intimacy. Programs such as this can effectively inspire our community to elevate our commitment to living healthier lives. We are already working on next year’s program that will focus on nutrition, raising healthy children, health challenges of aging and more.
A good friend, Rabbi Zvi Engel, recently wrote a message to his congregation about Friday’s fast, Asara B’Teives. He began:
“A friend recently sent me the following line now making the rounds: Black Friday: Because only in America do people trample over others for sales, exactly one day after being thankful for what they have. Tomorrow we observe a Black Friday of another kind, as we recall the dark day when the Babylonians laid siege to Yerushalayim, a precursor to what we would soon lose with the churban, the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash. If we ever take Yerushalayim for granted, this date calls us to remember a time when our nation was on the brink, about to lose its central address as a people, and to recognize that a Yerushalayim isolated and besieged ought to cause us discomfort, an awareness of hunger in an empty stomach that longs for sustenance.”
Upon seeing the message, a mutual good friend, Rabbi Shalom Baum remarked, “And how will we behave at kiddush the day after our black Friday.” The truth is, we don’t even need to wait until kiddush on Shabbos morning to determine if we have retained the lesson of Friday’s fast.
Changing eating habits is incredibly hard if we do it alone. However, if we work together to create a culture of simplicity and healthy choices at our Shabbos and yom tov meals, we can radically improve the well-being of our community. At dinner tonight, after breaking our fast, which was designed to remind us that we can live without food, let’s show that for now on we eat to live instead of living to eat.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue and grew up in Teaneck.
By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg