Rebbe Nachman of Breslov identifies the desire for food and drink as the
central desire of the human being, and the one from which other desires
emanate. Jewish teachings can help us appreciate the food we eat and
eat it in a spirit of holiness. Doing so can also help the environment,
as we will explore.
What does it mean to eat in a Jewish way?
First of all, we should eat when we are hungry. Rabbi Shlomo Volbe
teaches that a person needs to distinguish between eating because of a
healthy desire of the body (i.e., eating in order to be healthy), versus
eating out of base physical desire. (Of course many people today also
eat out of emotional desire.) It is therefore important to clarify,
before eating, that what I am eating is for the right reason, rather
than out of physical or emotional cravings.
Not only what we
eat, and but also how we eat is important. A Jewish way of eating
includes eating food slowly and consciously. While it is possible to eat
a meal in a few minutes, Jewish teaching cautions against doing so.
Rabbi Natan of Breslov states: “Be careful not to swallow your food in a
hurry. Eat at a moderate pace, calmly and with the same table manners
that you would show if an important guest were present. You should
always eat in this manner, even when you are alone.”
eat also matters. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish teach
that a person's table has taken the place of the Temple of ancient times
in atoning for that person. One understanding of their statement is
that when a person eats in holiness at their own table, they have made
proper use of their table in a way parallel to the altar of the Temple
(Chagigah p. 27a). This underscores the significance in Jewish thought
of eating at a table, and not while standing or walking. Today some of
our eating takes place at a desk or even in a car! We will eat more
healthfully and with more holiness if we take wholesome meals at a
Finally, the act of eating with others - and
sharing not only food, but also Jewish wisdom - bestows upon the meal an
aura of sanctity, and elevates eating to a holy act. In Pirkei Avot
(Ethics of the Fathers 3:4) we learn that Rabbi Shimon would say: “Three
who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have
eaten at G-d's table...” A shared opportunity for blessing before and
after one eats also serves to connect the act of eating to a higher
purpose. These practices elevate our bodily needs and can help
transform our eating to become an act of holiness and devotion.
we eat, and consequently, how much we eat, has a bearing on our
‘environmental footprint,’ as several studies make clear. Adults in the
United States on average eat 500 calories more per day (about one large
hamburger) than they did in the 1970s. Between 1983 and 2000, US food
availability (food consumption including waste) increased by 18%,
requiring an additional 3.1% of total US energy consumption as well as
more land and water to produce the food. By 2006, agriculture
contributed about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, making it a
major factor in addressing global climate change. Modern food
production and consumption also contributes to rainforest deforestation
(to clear land for cattle and crops) and water pollution (from pesticide
and fertilizer use).
Expanding agriculture to meet growing
demand based on overeating only exacerbates these impacts. When we eat
with greater intention and awareness, we will likely consume less
because we will be more attuned to what our bodies actually need. This
will also reduce the impact our food consumption has on the environment.
Bringing awareness and holiness to our consumption of food can
generate profound healing to ourselves, our communities, and our
planet. At the individual level, one who eats in a proper way will feel
healthier and more connected to the Infinite. At the communal level,
conscious eating can bring members of the community together and inspire
others to join the community. At the global level, the changes we make
in our food consumption will affect people, animals and plants in
faraway places. May we eat with intention, and in so doing, help bring
the world closer to its perfected state.
These materials are posted as part of
Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment,” in partnership
with Canfei Nesharim. Learn more at
Rabbi Yonatan Neril
founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the
Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. Since 2006, he has
worked with Canfei Nesharim in developing educational resources relating
to Judaism and the environment.
This was produced as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology.com is a new web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.