by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore
Many people mistakenly believe that keeping kosher is linked to healthy eating. Clearly, these people have never experienced highly processed, fat-filled delights like kosher chicken nuggets or Bamba. Yet, throughout history, scholars have tried to rationalize the totality of the laws of kashrut (kosher) by connecting them to health.
There have been theories from Philo of Alexandria (early 1st century C.E.) and Maimonides (late 12th century C.E.) who both spoke of kashrut as teaching us to master our appetites, for food and other things; to Rashbam (12th century) who also associated health with kashrut; to 18th century scholars who argued that kashrut keeps Jews safe from diseases like trichinosis. Of course, the most famous and influential connection between keeping kosher and protecting our health was more recently asserted by Hebrew National in their hot dog advertising campaign. They emphatically declared, “We answer to a higher authority!” therefore insinuating that their kosher hot dog was healthier.
Unfortunately, the real answer is that we really do not know why the Torah has these dietary laws. The Torah does not directly offer a singular explanation and, no matter what, health is not the root reason for these mitzvot. So what can kashrut teach Jews about healthy eating? Plenty. And you do not need to keep kosher to learn its lessons. (Although as a Reform Jew, know that you can keep kosher, at any level, if you choose to.)
- Kashrut teaches us to think before eating. Starting with the moment we buy food, prepare food, pick a restaurant, or look at a menu, kashrut keepers have to think about our dietary practices. Kashrut forces us to ask what do we want to eat and not eat. Healthy eating takes the same discipline. Think deeply before purchasing, preparing, or eating. You are more likely to adhere to your dietary practice when you do.
- Kashrut teaches us to think about our most recent meal. The laws of kashrut include the separation of milk and meat. The strictest interpretation of this law calls for waiting between eating meat and milk (the range is 72 minutes to six hours). Therefore, kashrut keepers have to think about what we ate last and what we want to eat next. Healthy eaters should do the same. By doing so, you can plan your meals and their contents.
- Kashrut teaches us to think about our next meal. When we leave our homes, kashrut keepers have to consider whether appropriate food will be available. Sometimes, we need to make special arrangements, bring food with us, or eat before going out. Keeping a healthy diet requires the same mindfulness. Thinking ahead ensures that your eating is not dictated by circumstance, but by design.
- Judaism teaches us to appreciate the food in its variety. There are six different blessings (for bread, wine and grape juice, fruit, vegetables, grains, and miscellaneous foods) to say before eating or drinking. When we use these blessings, matching the correct blessing with the correct food, we recognize the blessing of food and its many varieties. A healthy diet includes a rich variety of foods. You will be a fulfilled, yet healthy, eater when you enjoy a broad variety of foods, especially unprocessed food.
- Food is sacred. Leviticus 11, in which many of the Torah’s kosher laws are outlined, ends with a declaration of God’s holiness, saying “For I am Adonai who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:45) The laws of kashrut encompass many values, including health, kindness to animals, protecting worker’s rights, guarding the environment and strengthen Jewish identity, but at their core, these mitzvot are a religious practice. Keeping kosher draws us closer to God by linking eating to Judaism. When we keep kosher, we strive to elevate the mundane activity of eating by recognizing the sacred nature of food and its connection to God. Healthy eating should do the same. Rather than engaging in mindless eating, or worse, abusive eating, eating for wellness allows you to enjoy food and to appreciate its power to feed and sustain all of us. God is holy; we strive to be holy; we strive to experience food as holy.
Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ. She is the editor of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, (CCAR Press, 2011) which was designated a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards.