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You Are What You Eat

by Yaakov Levinson

Our eating style reflects and affects who and what we are. It identifies our approach to life. If we examine various societies and cultures, we see that each has its traditional foods and food ceremonies. "I am Italian. I often eat spaghetti, lasagna, or pizza," or "I am a real American. I eat hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, coke, and french fries." The French eat crepes, Belgians eat waffles, Chinese eat rice, Ethiopians eat teff, the Swiss eat chocolate, Israelis eat felafel, and Eskimos eat whale blubber. In short, the "way we eat" reveals how we identify ourselves. It reflects and often determines our world-view, our values, and our entire approach to life.

"You are the way you eat." Foods are much more than just a collection of nutrients; they are a wealth of influences and connotations. Rare foods and spices are treasured as special culinary delights. Some foods are worshiped in various cultures as having an unusual holiness or are avoided altogether. The type of food we choose can affect our moods. Hot, spicy, or stimulating foods may influence many of us toward hot-temperedness or nervousness. Cooling foods can relax us and give us peace of mind. Foods can help us celebrate and can comfort us when we mourn. They are a sign of love and are a means of uniting people on many occasions...

The "way we eat" as Jews is an important part of our heritage and spans from simple rules of common eating etiquette to complex kabbalistic combinations of God's Divine Name concentrated upon while eating. We make a blessing over our food before and after eating and thank God for His wonderful kindness which enables us to eat and to continue our lives for His service.


Traditional Jewish dishes have developed which have many important cultural and religious connotations. Nevertheless, those of us choosing to follow a healthier, lighter style of eating can find a firm foundation for natural nutrition in the 800-year-old writings of Maimonides, the great Torah scholar and physician. One of the foremost preventive-health advocates of all time, he prescribes a synthesis of good health and a nutritional lifestyle reflecting and deepening our connection to our own Jewish roots...

Maimonides' medical writings contain the Jewish roots of today's system of natural nutrition. Our modern approach is basically an extension of his main principles and teachings. He emphasized the importance of preventive medicine and disease prevention. He foreshadowed today's "discovery" of the effect of proper lifestyle, discussing the role of diet and exercise. Mind-body interaction was primary in his approach to illness and wellness...

To preserve health, Maimonides taught that we should eat only when genuinely hungry and drink when truly thirsty. Drinking during meals should be minimized to avoid diluting the digestive juices. The preservation of good health rests on the avoidance of overeating, which he refers to as "the poison of death" and the cause of most illness. He taught us that eating a little of bad foods is actually less harmful than eating a lot of good and healthy food.

He advocated some exercise before eating to warm the body for improved digestion, and in general taught that exercise removes the harm caused by most bad habits which most people have. Meals should be eaten while sitting or reclining, and we should rest after meals for good digestion. Avoidance of constipation is essential for good health. Eating according to the seasons was also promoted, with cool foods and lesser quantities in the summer and warm, spicier foods in greater quantities in the winter.

Whole-grain bread was cited by Maimonides as "the best of food." The bread must not be made of refined flour and should consist of the rough grain, unchaffed and unpolished. He taught that white bread or bread made of refined flour was not a good food...


Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God -- for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill -- therefore, one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge 4:1)...

Why do we eat?

When asked why they eat, people usually respond, "I eat because I'm hungry," "I eat when something looks or smells good," or "I eat because it's meal time." For many, the routine of eating is an agony to minimize or avoid by skipping breakfast or using instant powders or fast foods. Others snack through the day without ever sitting down to a meal!

To achieve historical perspective, we must go back in time to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge.

God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. God commanded the man, saying, "You may freely eat from every tree of the garden. But from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil do not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you will surely die." (Genesis 2:15-17)

If only the first man, Adam, had kept on occupying himself with Torah and with guarding the way to the Tree of Life, he would have continued to stroll through the Garden of Eden like one of the guardian angels. Shortly after God created Eve, in the afternoon of the first Friday of Creation, the first couple in the world committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. If they had only waited a few hours for Shabbos, they could have eaten the fruit with God's blessings! (Shaar ha-Kavanos, Rosh Hashanah, Discourse A).

Likewise, we read in the Torah: "The woman saw that the tree was good for food and desirable to the eyes, and the tree was attractive as a means to gain intelligence. She took some of its fruit and ate, and also gave some to her husband, and he ate." (Genesis 3:6)

The trees were real trees, the fruits were real fruits, and the eating was actual eating; but the fruits were fine and the eating was delicate. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains, the eating from the Tree of Knowledge introduced desire for all material, bodily pleasures and for all sins.

In the beginning, good and evil had been separate, both in the fruit and in the entire world. But when the sin of the Tree of Knowledge corrupted the world, good became mixed with evil. Sparks of holiness fell into their husks, and the pure combined with the impure. Man was sentenced to work hard for his food and to die. The world became more coarse...

It is clear that the soul is not nourished by physical bread, as the body is. The food we eat is actually a combination of both a physical and a spiritual entity. The body is nourished by the physical aspects, or nutrients, contained in the foods we eat; the soul is nourished by the spiritual power -- or sparks of holiness -- which enlivens the physical substance of all matter, including food. Therefore, body and soul are united in the act of eating. (Ruach Chaim on Pirkei Avot 3:3; Code of Jewish Law OC 6:1, with Magen Avraham)

We have seen that all of Creation is composed of a mixture of good and evil. Likewise, in every food that a person eats there is a combination of good and evil. Food physically consists of good counterparts, i.e., nutrients, and bad aspects, i.e., waste or indigestible matter. Likewise, spiritually, food contains sparks of holiness, or good components, and husks, or kelipos, which are the gross, bad components that encompass the sparks.

Excerpted with permission from "JEWISH GUIDE TO NATURAL NUTRITION"

Published by Feldheim Publishers

Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit



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