What Does Judaism Say About Overeating?
Dear Jew in the City-
There are so many delicious foods on the Yom Tov table and so much of them! What does Judaism say about overeating?
Good Yom Tov,
Thanks for your question. Maimonides in Hilchos Deios discusses the path of moderation. This is the approach that Judaism takes in most areas, including when it comes to eating and drinking. We don’t believe in hedonism – eating, drinking and indulging in every pleasure for the mere sake of pleasure – but we likewise don’t believe in asceticism – by which we mean self-deprivation and denial.
In the classic work of musar (self-improvement) called Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal tells us that many people mistakenly think that the path to piety involves praying all day, fasting, immersing in icy water and other forms of affliction or self-denial. While there may be appropriate times for such things, that’s no way to live. Rather, God gave us a wonderful world full of all sorts of pleasures that we are meant to enjoy. We must remember, however, that these pleasures are not an end to themselves. This world is where we prepare ourselves for the Next World. Accordingly, the pleasures of this world are tools intended to assist us in our service of God.
We see the principle that food is important but not all-important reflected in many dicta. Among these:
- Orchot Tzaddikim, another work of musar, says that a fool lives to eat but a wise person eats to live;
- The “minor tractate” of Sofrim (3:14) says that we are not permitted to treat food disrespectfully, such as by throwing bread, sitting on a sack of produce, etc.;
- The ancient Jewish philosopher Ben Sira said that wine can be as good as life to a person if he limits himself to an appropriate amount;
- The Jerusalem Talmud (Horiyos 3:5) say that the world can survive without wine (which is a luxury) but it not without water (which is a necessity). Similarly, the world can survive without pepper but not without salt.
There are many other illustrations of this dichotomy. Perhaps the most striking appears in Talmud Nedarim (10a). Regarding the nazir (a nazirite, one who vowed to abstain from wine for a certain period of time), we are told that he must bring a sin offering upon returning to normal life. The Talmud asks what the nazir’s sin was and it offers two opinions. One is that he is leaving his period of holy abstention and returning to mundanity; the other is that he deprived himself of permitted pleasures in the first place!
Getting back to yom tov, we’re meant to eat, drink and enjoy ourselves. The Rambam codifies this in Hilchos Shvisas Yom Tov (6:18): there is no joy without meat and wine (a paraphrase of a Talmudic dictum from tractate Pesachim; let us leave the issue of vegetarianism nor another day!). But one must remember that gluttony is an actual Biblical-level sin! The ben sorer u’moreh (stubborn and rebellious son) could be liable to capital punishment for his gluttony, from which we can easily infer that it must be sinful! (See more here.)
Ultimately, food is a mundane thing but God has enabled us to elevate it through the mitzvos that He has given us. We slaughter animals in a certain way and we remove the blood. We don’t eat the fruit of trees for the first three years. We tithe produce of the land of Israel. We don’t mix meat and milk. We remove a portion of our dough. We check our eggs for bloodspots. Wine has special ritual restrictions. We recite blessings of praise and thanks both before and after eating. There are many more mitzvos pertaining to food. Through these, we transform eating from a purely physical act to a spiritual one.
Yom tov is coming, so “Go, eat your bread with happiness” (Ecclesiastes 9:7) but remember that feasting is a means to an end and not its own goal. It’s to give us strength to perform our duties to God. One must remember to “Eat, be satisfied and bless Hashem your God” for all the good He has given us (Deuteronomy 8:10).
Bottom line: Eat up! Enjoy and don’t feel guilty about it. But also make sure not overdo it to reasons of both physical and spiritual health.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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