The Jewish holidays are a time for prayer, reflection, and many holiday meals. Food is not supposed to be the focus of Jewish observance, but who can deny that festive meals can enhance spiritual experience?
Several weeks ago, in preparation for the Jewish holiday season, Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring, Maryland, hosted a program called “Our Relationship to Food: Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” The room was packed with people eager to hear personal stories from community members who successfully reshaped their relationship with food.
During his opening remarks, Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum said that “possibly the most frustrating aspect of my life is my failure to manage my weight in an appropriate way.”
Rabbi Rosenbaum framed the discussion on weight control as both a health issue and a mitzvah. The Bible commands people to watch over their souls and preserve their health. Furthermore, part of observing mitzvot is building character. Through its laws, the Torah actually frees people from desires and cravings by giving them the opportunity to govern themselves. “If we see religion in a totally holistic manner, observing kashrus (kosher dietary laws) and making wise food choices at a kiddush work together to keep us free, independent beings living according to the highest standards,” Rabbi Rosenbaum said.
Lisa Landy a mother of four and one of the panelists, echoed this sentiment. She recounted her ups and downs dealing with food and her weight. Landy loved and embraced her Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, but said Shabbat and holidays were the most challenging times food-wise.
Real change became possible for her once she viewed her journey in a spiritual sense, she said.
In the summer of 2014, Landy was at her heaviest and felt like she had hit rock bottom. It was then that she turned to G-d and asked for guidance. The next day, she bumped into a friend while shopping and noticed how much weight her friend had lost. Her friend invited Landy to attend a Food Addicts program branch meeting. Landy saw this as the answer she had been waiting for and agreed to join her friend at the next meeting.
Landy has stayed with the program for the last three years and found it life-altering. The program has taught her how to improve her outlook on life, enhanced her faith, and revised her views on the world. It has helped her see a surprising connection between her relationship with G-d and with food. Her faith reinforces her choices, and at the same time, frees her from taking responsibility for what she cannot control, leaving her the mental and emotional energy to focus on what she can. The work she does in the program puts the focus on changing oneself and not others.
Landy's weight is now normal and her health has improved significantly. She stays away from white flour and sugar and takes the time to plan her meals in advance. She eats and feels satiated.
Yale Ginsburg, another panelist, said he was married to a wonderful cook for 32 years. He worked as an attorney and lived a fairly sedentary life. Over the years, he found it harder and harder to keep weight off, but he began to seriously question his relationship with food three years ago when his endocrinologist told him that if he did not change his eating habits, he would have to start taking insulin injections.
While he has lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off, he still admits, “It’s easy to overeat. Even when I try to eat healthily, I will still find myself taking more on my plate than I need to feel satiated.”
While it may be tempting to completely let dieting go on Shabbat, Rabbi Rosenbaum quickly dismissed the myth that calories on Shabbat do not count. However, he did provide several guidelines for limiting food intake while still fulfilling the mitzvot of Shabbat: a thin slice of challah satisfies the hamotzi requirement for Shabbat meals, for example, and fruit can replace challah to satisfy the third meal requirement.
The main point, he said, is to have meaningful, moderate meals that enhance the Shabbat and Yom Tov experience.
By Audrey Siegel
Audrey Siegel is the executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington. She is a former New Yorker who has enjoyed living in Silver Spring with her family for the past 27 years. Audrey hopes to hike or bike every nature trail in Montgomery County, so wave if you see her along the way.