Food, Health & Judaism

Does the Torah require us to avoid unhealthy foods?

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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.

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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.