Food, Health & Judaism

Does the Torah require us to avoid unhealthy foods?

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What is the halakhic response regarding the need to protect one's health? For example, some foods, including non-organic foods, animal foods and dairy products with hormones and antibiotics in them, and genetically-engineered foods, may be considered to be unhealthful. Is there an obligation not to eat these foods, or to avoid unhealthful environmental practices that may cause damage to our health? 

Protect Yourself

According to the majority of later halakhic authorities and some early halakhic authorities the following two verses in the Torah, "Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully…" (Deuteronomy 4:9) and "Watch yourselves very carefully…" (Deuteronomy 4:15) are the source for a negative Torah commandment regarding the protection of one's life from life-threatening circumstances, things and people. According to one such early authority, the [medieval] Sefer Hahinukh, this commandment extends not only to the obligation to protect oneself from things that can end one's life but as well to things that can damage one's life and body.

We will now examine two different Talmudic precedents as further expressions of the Torah law to protect oneself from damage to one's life and body:

foray of healthy fruits and vegetables"Our Rabbis taught: there was an incident with a pious Jew, that he was praying on the road. A ruler came and greeted him and he did not respond to his greeting. The ruler waited till he finished praying, and after he finished praying, he said to him, "Empty one! Is it not written in your Torah, 'Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully?' Is it not further written, 'Watch yourselves very carefully?' When I greeted you why did you not respond to my greeting? If I would have chopped off your head with a sword, who would demand an accounting of your life from me?'" (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 32B)

In [the Talmud] Shavout 36A we have a source that confirms that we can rely on this ruler's quotations and understanding of Torah verses. "Rabbi Yannai says, all agree [that if a person curses himself he transgresses a negative Torah commandment] as it is written, 'Only take heed and watch yourselves very carefully.'"  The sages thus had a tradition that these verses quoted by the ruler applied to the law of protecting one's life.

When one examines carefully the matters that the sages forbade, one finds that an inordinate amount of these prohibitions are concerned with our ingestion of poison from a snake or other harmful creatures. In the Rambam [Maimonides] one will find no less than fifteen halakhot that touch on the subject of what one may or may not drink or eat in regards to the concern that poison may be found therein.

Likewise, in the [medieval law code] Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 427:9-10, we read, "Many things the sages forbade because they posed a danger to human life…Whoever is not mindful of them and those like them and says, 'I will endanger myself and what is this to others, or I am not stringent regarding this' [the rabbinical court would] lash him with lashes of rebelliousness."

In a more contemporary vein, the Polish 19th-20th century Lomzha Rav in his Halakhic work of responsas entitled Divrie Malchiel 2:53 states, "That certainly it is forbidden to eat anything that leads to any disease because of 'Watch yourselves very carefully.'"

With these precedents in mind, we now need to inquire regarding issues that pertain to our own generation, such as pesticides, hormones, and genetically-engineered foods. It certainly seems to this author, given all the above, to be within the spirit of Torah to be utterly wary of such foods. However, the possibility within halakha to forbid them outright is far from simple or realistic for the time being. The reasons this is the case are:

1. The damage done is neither severe nor immediate.

2. There are other factors in the disease process.

3. There are many establishment medical authorities who deny or de-emphasize the damaging capacity of these foods.

Given that what is under consideration of prohibition does not fit the classical rabbinical precedent of poison, it would be difficult to forbid these foods. In essence, we cannot forbid a person something of such relatively minute or unproven negative impact. This would be the halakhic reasoning against any general halakhic rulings in support of an eco-kosher diet mandatory on the Torah observant Jewish people.

However, I believe it could be said that if one reasonably believes based on scientific evidence and medical opinion, as I do, that many of these foods are dangerous or potentially so (certainly they may be dangerous if these foods become part of one's lifestyle and regular eating patterns), then it seems quite clear from all the precedents cited above that one would be under the divine calling (if not obligation) to stay away from them.

In the words of a prominent Rishon [early medieval commentator] the Ravad, "It is not necessary to say that a man should guard himself from foods that he recognizes damage him. For the man who eats things that damage him and he is able to be without them, behold he rebelliously sins with his body and with his soul. For he goes after his desire and he does not concern himself with the loss of his body and this is the pathway of the Evil Inclination and the advice of fools, to turn him away from the path of life to the path of death."

In halakha, there is a term that is employed when a sage does not find it appropriate to forbid something to the public although he senses that there is cause for concern. That term is ba'al nefesh yahmir--in translation: "A master of the spirit will be stringent." In a more contemporary translation this term would read, "A sensitive and disciplined soul will be mindful." I believe that for now this is the most fitting halakhic response to the dangerous times we live in.

For those that choose to be stringent, may blessing come upon them and may they be blessed to educate and enlighten our people regarding the dangers around them.

This article is an edited halakhic responsa from Judaism and the New Age: Halakhic Perspectives. It is printed as part of the Tu Bishvat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment. For more information, visit www.canfeinesharim.org.

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Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman is rabbi of the Vermont Street Shul, an orthodox synagogue in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and rabbinic administrator of EarthKosher, a kosher certification agency that exclusively certifies health food and alternative medicine companies.