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Is It Immoral to Be Overweight?

Is It Immoral to Be Overweight?

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Question:

As a fitness trainer, I wonder: do health and fitness have a place in Judaism? It seems that the secular world encourages a healthy life far more than the Jewish world does. I hear rabbis talk about spiritual matters, but find it hard to listen to them if they themselves are overweight. Is physical wellbeing not important?

Answer:

The scales of merit are not found in heaven anymore, but are right there on the bathroom floorIn our modern world, we are seeing health as the new morality. Good and bad are now measured in calories. My cereal box invites me to “taste the goodness”—not a moral value, but rather a nutritional one. The scales of merit are not found in heaven anymore, but are right there on the bathroom floor, and the daily judgment is pronounced in kilos and pounds.

This all makes sense if you see the human being as just a body without a soul. If the flesh is all there is, health becomes the highest ideal. But from the Jewish perspective, the soul is our true self, and the body its vehicle. The body and its health are important only because through them we express our higher self. More so, while our body houses our soul, it is a gift from our Creator to use while we are in this world. As it is on loan to us and therefore does not truly belong to us, we must always treat it with respect.

The great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, wrote in the 12th century:

“Caring for the health and wellbeing of the body is one of the ways of serving G‑d.”

And he immediately explains why:

“One is unable to think clearly and comprehend truth if he is unwell.”

If your mind is cloudy, you may lack moral clarity to know what’s right. While battling with illness, we may not find the stamina to battle the ills of the world. That’s why we need to look after our bodies. A healthy body is not in itself our life’s purpose; it helps us fulfill our purpose. It is a vehicle that transports us towards goodness, but it is not the destination.

Jewish tradition provides no excuse for being unhealthyJewish tradition provides no excuse for being unhealthy. On the contrary, it gives the best reason possible to live healthy: life has meaning and purpose, and each day is precious. Only if life has meaning is it worth taking care of. The risks of high cholesterol, heavy smoking and drug use are a concern only to one who values life. The threat of a shorter lifespan means nothing to someone who sees life as pointless.

We are the healthiest generation in recent history, and our life expectancy is reaching biblical proportions. This means we have more time and energy to fulfill our purpose—to elevate our corner of the world, and tip the scales towards true goodness.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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Lisa Providence, RI April 3, 2017

Physical well being is important, and people are not just overweight because of overeating. People gain weight from an underactive thyroid and/or some medications. As a fitness trainer, you need to ask your clients about their specific situations. You also need to tell them: "no temporary changes, only permanent changes." Reply

Aaron Buffalo July 26, 2016

More Americans are obese today than ever before.

It is at least partly because, in the 1980s, food producers began adding more and more sugar and salt to all the canned and packaged foods on the grocery shelves. The effect was to make the public addicted to sugar and salt, to the point that today, none of them dares to make anything with the old normal amounts of sugar and salt, because people will not buy them. They will buy another brand that contains the sugar and salt everyone has become used to.

I read the ingredients and avoid sugar, salt, and starches. I mostly buy raw foods and cook from scratch, because the "convenience" foods are oversweetened and oversalted. Read the labels. An item will contain sugar, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrup, and honey. That way, there seems to be only a small amount of each. But each one of them is sugar, and, if combined, would be the number one ingredient of many foods, especially breakfast cereals. Reply

robert July 26, 2016

I see many people that are beyond overweight. they are obese. I do not understand why they ruin their bodies. it's not just Jewish people. every one should aim for health. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL April 29, 2015

Yes both the body and the soul walk thru life together. Ignoring one, handicaps the other.
But I would not say that today Jewish people are health ignorant! They are much more aware of the consequences but don’t have the will power to resist geschmakt food. They are more informed than their ancestors and just want to keep the traditions as they always were, ignoring that it could hurt them physically. I know the way my own mother used to eat, although she was far from being obese, all the schmaltz and lots of carbs in her cooking, thinking it was healthy. I still follow her recipes but leave all the fat and carbs out—and I am Jewish! You can see lots of heavy people who are not Jewish, so no point labeling. Why are there so many Jewish doctors? do they also ignore their health? Reply

DonnG NJ April 21, 2015

This response, in my view is slanted every so slightly as to not offend those who are not healthy and possibly rationalize our sad and woeful physical shape. Saying that the body is "Just" the vehicle is like saying the two front tires off my car are JUST the front. You need both the front and the back to go anywhere! The Talmud in the wonderful story about the blind and lame watchmen bring out this message beautifully. In this plane, the soul and body are one. Neglecting one is neglecting the other. The body is on loan and a borrower has the highest obligation of all shomrim\watchmen.
This oft quoted statement about our generation living longer requires qualification
as does the retort from those who eat unhealthfully towards those who do.
It is not a question of length of years rather it is a consideration of the quality of those years.

Put simply: Jews are generally ignorant about health and the impact of diet upon their health.
We need to do far better! Reply

Martin Breckenridge February 23, 2015

For the past 30 years, our packaged groceries have been loaded with added white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, as well as with fats which enhance flavors, so that today it is almost impossible to find tomato sauce without loads of sugar. How much sugar? As much as in the syrup we pour over ice cream.

If we don't know this and don't read ingredients, we can, all unknowing, eat what we think are healthy veggies, when what we eat has more sugar than fiber or nutrients.

By now, most people have grown up on foods loaded with added sugars and fats and have become addicted to these added sugars and fats. Straight fruits and veggies taste bad to people.

Even with great effort, it is difficult to impossible to avoid such additives. For five years I have eaten no sugars of any kind, and added sugars no longer taste good to me. Instead, I can now taste the sweetness in plain fruit.

But exercise is even more important to mental function. It gets nutrients to the brain. . Reply

Chaim Cinncinnati February 23, 2015

When we say the laws of kashrus are for health, we also say that refrigeration and modern medicine renders those concerns obsolete. That cuases us not to bother to keep kosher.

But kashrus is an opportunity to serve Gd without any payback--just because Gd said to do it; just out of pure love.

For anyone who keeps kosher, the practice of kashrus is one of the main signposts of Jewishness as a routine in daily life--like saying brachos. Would you like to claim that brachos are good for health, and that we have other techniques, such as TM, to achieve this benefit, and therefore we would stop giving thanks via brachos?

We have the Torah, whose practice reminds us of Gd's love for us, and of our love for Gd. These practices keep us in touch with Jews all over the world, including our own remotest ancestors. These are functions which are unique and invaluable and unavailable via modern techniques.

When we neglect Torah practices, our Jewish treasure, our link to Gd, suffers. Keep it! Reply

S February 22, 2015

We aren't allowed to have tattoos - because it's G-d's body - so shouldn't we also be obligated to stay healthy and in shape? Reply

Tanya Toronto via jrcc.org November 7, 2013

If we only focus on our individual eating and exercise habits, aren't we forgetting about the health of others? And, I believe it is a Jew's purpose to help others fulfill their purposes so therefore we have to also help others be healthy. Having established that, it becomes imperative to become environmental activists and take a stand against those who promote poor health through the their policies and practices.

For example, How can I support Stephen Harper when I know that he is pushing the KeyStone pipeline? The method of "natural gas" extraction he endorses not only causes environmental destruction but has very very serious implications for human health. The same goes for GMO foods and foods grown with toxic pesticides. And other harmful chemicals that find their way into our food (artificial colours and flavours, shellac to make candy shiny - this is all certified Kosher, by the way). Given the Jewish obligations to look after our health and help others achieve their life's pu Reply

Anonymous Beijing August 1, 2013

I think its important to note that there are those with eating disorders/addictions that are rooted in food addictions for which will power is not enough.
It is important to raise awareness of Overeater anonymous and their groups and programs that have helped many of those suffering tremendously from guilt and shame.
On Chabad.org there is a section about 12 step groups you can look there for more information.
With love,

Reply

Mrs Gillian Wardle Sth Australia June 16, 2013

I like this article....Many of the rules in Scripture, given to Moses, were of a health preserving nature. A people traveling in the desert had no refrigeration of course, which makes common sense regarding the eating of some things a highly risky business! Long before bacteria were discovered, they were nevertheless very prevalent and active, making it necessary for the Creator to make a few health rules such as covering up excrement with a suitable wooden stick, and keeping your hands off dead bodies, and so on. Jews were into washing themselves long before the benefits were understood. The conclusion is then clearly, that our physical care is important to the one who made us.. Even the animal world has a very sophisticated intrinsic sense of what to eat and what to abstain from!
Hooray for Aussies..... Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA USA April 8, 2013

It saved my life. I lost 100 pounds within 6 months before the honeymoon phase kicked in. Now, I have a tool to HELP me lose the next 100. Thank Hashem! Reply

Gabe Denver April 5, 2013

Everything we think, say, & do, must relate to loving Gd.
We're told to love Gd when we sit in our house, when we walk by the way, when we lie down & when we rise up. I.e., ALWAYS.
This means, among other things, to say a blessing to acknowledge all good Gd gives us. A blessing for hearing thunder or for seeing the moon. Blessings for various foods--the fruit of the ground, the fruit of the tree, the bread, the other items made from the five species of the Holy Land, the fruit of the vine (i.e., wine or grape juice), &, finally, for anything else.

Before we make the blessing, we focus on the reason for eating, with one or more instant meditations:

May the nourishment in this food strengthen me to serve GD.
May the soul of this animal be lifted up.
May the holy sparks in this food be lifted up.

When distracted by comfort from food, we must stop, repent, & focus on the reason to eat: for strength to serve Gd. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL April 4, 2013

I would say that the Rambam, who was a wise and rational man, was absolutely correct in distributing proportions for eating habits.
Anything else is all excuses for one's weakness and lack of will power
Eating is a survival necessity for men like for animals - but it should also be for pleasure to a certain degree, enjoy a little this, enjoy a little that, but know the limits Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 4, 2013

Also the name of an NPR talk show except titled Wait Wait Don't Tell. I think of both in tandem when I consider the need to diet. It's a problem, particularly in America where we have so much plenty. It's hard to limit intake with such bounty. So weight has always been a topic in the news, and sells many glossy magaizines and Diet Programs, and how many, many books!

It's not immoral to be overweight, and there are cases of people born with a genetic problem studied by my husband, who cannot limit intake, because there is no inbuilt system that registers, FULL. Weight is a matter of "matter" and we say, "mind over matter", but it's not easy for those who like the nourishment of food, which also has taken on deepening metaphoric meaning, as it's about comfort, about how a baby gets initially satisfied, and it is paired, so deeply in our subconscious with LOVE. And so the emotional concomitants exist, and every good therapist explores this. Some even need weight as a buffer from assault. Reply

Anonymous Toronto March 31, 2013

It strikes me as quite ignorant to dismiss what one says because of their physical appearance. Food can also be a source of great joy and as the answer points out, physical health is a means to increasing spiritual health but is not determinive of it. Reply

Anonymous January 10, 2013

The Rambam outlined everything with regards to eating and health long before modern science came around.
"Exercise daily, until you break a sweat, cool down, rest (and shower if possible), and then eat.
Eat only when hungry and drink only when thirsty.
Never eat until you are full. In the winter, eat until you are 3/4 full. In the summer, eat 2/3rds of what you eat in winter.
Eat a diet based on whole grains, vegetables, nuts (he was big on almonds), soft cheeses, fruits and lean meats.
A person who exercises, even if he occasionally eats unhealthy foods, will always be healthy.
"Overeating is a poison for the body and the primary cause of all sickness. Most illnesses are brought on by harmful foods or by gorging oneself, even with healthful food."
Taken from "Fundamentals of the Rambam: Ethical and Inspirational Laws and Writings of Maimonides", Vol I, (c) 2005, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel, Yeshivath Beith Moshe, Scranton, PA (this book is based on the Rambam's "Mishneh Torah") Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA November 20, 2011

From overweight, you become obese. From obese, you become morbidly obese. Then comes super-morbidly obese. At this point, it is like committing suicide. Is suicide immoral in Judaism? When the obesity has an emotional cause, such as abuse, then the eating itself becomes much like alcoholism or drug addiction. It's a way to escape life. Unlike drugs and alcohol, where you can go "cold turkey", people NEED fuel to live. It is the point where we separate food as fuel from food as a crutch or comfort that the lines of morality become confused. I would also add using any food as a way to show obedience or love of G-d is also immoral. This is done RAMPANTLY by MANY religions, not just Judaism. To me, it is immoral to pair eating with spirituality or goodness. All eating should be is FUEL for the body and NOTHING else. Not for pleasure, not for rituals, not for proof of loving G-d. Yes, food can hold together a family like at mealtime. But what kind of food? High sugar stuff is bad. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida November 20, 2011

Suggesting a better way to live is a compassionate way for trying to help – Telling a person that they are beautiful the way they are or encouraging them in their way knowing that its killing them slowly, that is Immoral. Is a doctor warning you of the consequences of your acts a Preacher? Or is he actually trying to help you and save you from a unavoidable outcome? Reply

Anonymous Melbourne, Florida via jewishbrevard.com November 19, 2011

Everyone has a different body type.
does that mean that the 5" lady who wears a size12 is less healthy than the thin bulmic. No! then why is she viewed as being heathier.
Self-righteous preachings are immoral bigotry is immoral.
The reasons for obesity often are the result of abuse during childhood. During the years I was obese I was even made fun of when I was working out at the gym! I finally lost the weight and guess what my bio family said I had become narcissic and selfish. Some really sick people out there! The reason I'm even talking about myself is that there are many reasons why a person is overweight and maybe love and understanding and not preaching! Reply