The Spirituality of Food

We may need to work on our spiritual health in order to ensure our physical health.

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In this article, a contemporary rabbi mines classic rabbinic sources and later ethical writings to argue that Judaism offers insights into healthy eating and healthy living. Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

Judaism postulates that we can approach food and eating in a spiritual way.

Godlike Bodies

A midrash compares the creation of human beings to the striking of coins. As coins are struck, each is produced in the same image. When God creates people, each is created in God's image, yet each one is unique.

spirituality of foodThis midrash is a basic affirmation of every body. No body can be more Godlike than any other. One could even say that this body is the one that has been given to me by God. In a sense, this is similar to saying that some people are overweight because of a genetic disposition, not because they cannot control their eating. For superficial reasons, plastic surgery can make some difference. When it comes to how tall or short you are, however, these things cannot be significantly changed at all. Thinking of your body as a gift from God is good beginning, though clearly for those born with disabilities there are difficult burdens that accompany that gift.

Still, this gift, this body, is give into our care and--like Hillel, who considered it a mitzvah (precept) to bathe in the bathhouse--we are responsible for striving for a healthy body because our body is the image of God. According to some rabbinic authorities, an understanding of the verse v'nishmartem m'od l'nafshoteikhem--"for your own sake, therefore, be most careful" (Deuteronomy 4:15)--is broader than avoiding harmful situations. It also implies not doing things that are clearly detrimental to our health. For these authorities, alcoholism, cigarette smoking, and overeating fall into this category.

Healthy Eating

"'He who does good to his own self is a person of mercy' (Proverbs 11:17)--as may be inferred from what Hillel the Elder once said. After bidding farewell to his disciples, he kept walking along with them. His disciples asked him, 'Master, where are you going?' he replied, 'To do a good turn to a guest in my house.' They said, 'Every day you seem to have a guest.' He replied, 'Is not my poor soul a guest in my body, here today and tomorrow here no longer?'" (Leviticus Rabba 34:4).

"And whatever he eats or drinks…his intention will be to keep the body and limbs healthy….he will eat what is healthy, whether it is bitter or sweet. His practice will be to have as his intention that his body be healthy and strong so his soul will be fit and able to know God. For it is not possible to understand and become wise in Torah and mitzvot when you are hungry or sickly or when one of your limbs hurts." (Orhot Tzaddikim [an anonymous Hebrew ethical work from the 15th century], Gate 5, p. 39).

The impulse that we have to nourish ourselves through food is a good one, reflecting God's desire that we feel cherished. (Thanks to Joyce Krensky for this insight.) Thus we see food equals love not because we are sick but because it reflects a measure of truth. There is an emotional quality to eating. Food gives pleasure. (By the same token, hunger is also a gift from God, for it promotes self-preservation and impels us to action.)

Eating All That Is Excellent

"In the world-to-come, a person will be asked to give an account for that which, being excellent to eat, she gazed at and did not eat" (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin, end).

"[You should realize that] God created the good that is before you, and God gives it its existence and puts within it its taste and nourishing qualities. And God gives to a person the desire to eat and also his sense of taste, whereby the food tastes good." (Menorat Zahav [by Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli, a leader of 18th century Hasidism])

Food, however, cannot replace love. There may be an uncontrolled desire to attain through food that which it can not ultimately provide. Clearly, then, a healthy approach to eating is rooted in a healthy body and a healthy psyche. Thus eating can be transformed into a spiritual exercise.

A healthy/spiritual approach to food is rooted in three areas of traditional teachings: berakhot, "blessings"; kashrut, "dietary laws"; and seudah, "food as celebration and pleasure." Taken together, they make the everyday act of eating an essential part of a spiritual path.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.