Dear Jew in the City-
What are the benefits of a kosher diet, strictly from a health perspective?
Thanks for your question. Not to be glib but, who says there are any?
I’m not saying that a kosher diet doesn’t have health benefits, just that such is not necessarily the reason for keeping kosher.
I’ll give you an example. There are those who lobby to declare meat unkosher if the animals were mistreated before slaughter (such as by being kept crated) or if the workers are not paid a living wage. Treating animals properly is an important Jewish value. Equitable pay for labor is an important Jewish value. It’s just that neither of these values affects whether or not food is kosher. If bad things are happening in a factory, it’s a problem and they should be fixed but not everything is tied up in whether or not food is kosher.
The same is true when it comes to health. Safeguarding our health is an important Jewish value but it’s not part of the kosher-diet package. If a person gets up in the morning and starts his day with a kosher hot fudge sundae, followed by a loaf of kosher garlic bread, a pan of kosher lasagna, a kosher cheesecake, etc., etc., etc., that may be a violation of the directive to protect one’s health but his diet is perfectly kosher. (This is not to justify such a lifestyle. A glutton is considered a “naval birshus haTorah” – one who acts inappropriately within the Torah’s parameters. The act of eating kosher food – even if it’s unhealthy food – is permitted. Doing it to excess, however, is just wrong.)
That having been said, historically there have been health benefits to a kosher diet, although these are merely “fringe benefits.” For example, trichinosis is a disease caused by a parasite found in pork. Those who keep kosher have been unaffected by trichinosis outbreaks because they don’t eat pork. The 14th-century Black Plague occurred long before germs were discovered, so hand-washing was not regularly practiced. Observant Jews wash their hands for religious reasons before eating, so they were largely unaffected by the plague. (The down side of this was that, because the Jews weren’t dying, they were blamed for causing the plague and persecuted. All in all, it was probably still the better scenario.) The various kinds of shellfish carry a large number of pathogens and parasites that kosher consumers avoid. Some say that kosher meat was safer during the mad cow disease outbreak, though others disagree. Generally speaking, the inspections associated with kosher food supervision help to ensure the purity of our food’s ingredients.
But, as noted, any health benefits that may have arisen from a kosher diet are purely ancillary; they are not the reason for the mitzvah. The danger in conflating kosher food with health is that as medical science progresses, people under such misconceptions tend discard the mitzvos. If someone thinks that the reason God prohibited pork was to save us from trichinosis, then he could potentially replace that mitzvah with a regimen of antiparasitic medications.
The ultimate reason for any mitzvah is “because God said so” but we look at the mitzvos and try to discern lessons. There are many such lessons that can be derived from our kosher food laws. For example, we’re allowed to slaughter animals for food but we may not slaughter an animal and its young on the same day. The lesson of this mitzvah is that, while we may be permitted to kill an animal as needed, we must be aware of God’s providence over all species and not be wantonly destructive. Other mitzvos likewise carry meaningful lessons. (I’m not going to tell all of them to you here but I wouldn’t be devastated if you picked up a copy of The Taryag Companion.)
Does kosher food have health benefits? Sure. But any physical health benefits are incidental. The real health benefits of keeping kosher are spiritual, as is the case with all mitzvos. God gave us the mitzvos as a means to purify our souls and get closer to Him. If you’re looking to trim down and tone up, try fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, proper hydration and maybe some light cardio. Cheese snacks and chocolate pie won’t do the trick, no matter how kosher they might be.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent