The Talmud and Other Diet Books

By Crane, Jonathan K | International Herald Tribune, March 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Talmud and Other Diet Books


Crane, Jonathan K, International Herald Tribune


When fad diets and government anti-obesity programs fail, look to God and the ancient Greeks.

Hardly a week goes by without yet another study documenting the increasing prevalence of obesity in America. Most of us take seriously the fact that close to 70 percent of American adults are now either overweight or obese, and most are willing to consider various ways to mitigate the problem.

Yet the solutions frequently trumpeted, like taxing sugary beverages, invariably meet with strong resistance. Most Americans don't want to be told what to consume. They want their fill.

Perhaps a different approach can be considered, one that begins from within. Instead of fixating on indulgence and excess, we should focus on what it means for each individual to be sated.

Satiety, the feeling of being satisfied, is inherently idiosyncratic: what sates my hunger will be different from what sates yours. Nevertheless, what sates our hunger will be less than what you might imagine.

Many ancient civilizations understood this balance. The Greeks, for example, worried that excessive consumption would disrupt the four humors constituting the human body. They, like the ancient Buddhist and Confucian traditions, encouraged moderation as the golden mean. Judaism, Christianity and Islam added to those arguments theological overtones: eating too little could be as spiritually damning as eating too much.

The prophet Isaiah, for example, inveighed against the Israelites for vainly fasting when so much injustice surrounded them. Such fasting, and particularly fasting only for self-affliction, was sinful, rabbis of the Talmud said. But the Talmud also counseled "removing your hand from a meal that pleases you."

Christianity identifies gluttony as a sin. And the Koran insists that improper and wasteful eating incurs God's wrath. Eat well and live well, Islam teaches.

Of course, every civilization and religious tradition has its exceptions. Many Jewish households are celebrating lavish Passover Seders this week, and many Christian ones will have Easter feasts on Sunday. Celebrations like these are highly regulated, however. Not every day or every meal is meant to be a feast or a fast, and the one who feasts or fasts too much sins. It is far better, these traditions hold, for people to eat only the amount that satisfies them. …

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