When choosing between two food types, one of which is healthier than the other, does Judaism have anything to say about which to choose?
For example, I recently read a study (www.sciencemag.org) that wild salmon is much healthier and contains far less toxic organic contaminants than farmed salmon. As such, would it be a mitzvah to buy the wild salmon and not the farmed salmon? Further, how would it be treated (prohibited permitted, discouraged, or not addressed) in Jewish law to buy the farmed one?
When choosing between two food types, one of which is healthier than the other, does Judaism have anything to say about which to choose? For example, I recently read a study (www.sciencemag.org) that wild salmon is much healthier and contains far less toxic organic contaminants than farmed salmon. As such, would it be a Mitzvah to buy the wild salmon and not the farmed salmon? Further, how would it be treated (prohibited permitted, discouraged, or not addressed) in Jewish law to buy the farmed one? Thank you!
What a timely question! There’s been some literature recently about the unhealthiness of traditional American church cookouts and potlucks, and heaven knows the oneg table isn’t much better!
Mary Zamore’s book The Sacred Table is a great resource on how Judaism looks at food, beyond the idea of traditional kashrut. Written specifically for a Reform (that is, Jewishly religious and spiritual, but not necessarily halakhic) audience, she and her fellow authors (it’s a series of essays) challenge and expand what kashrut should look like in our modern world of fruit-out-of-season, meat anytime you want it, horn-of-plenty with food deserts, as well as the myriad food choices we make, from fad diets to various forms of ethical eating (e.g. vegetarianism, locally grown produce, etc).That said, it is a very worthwhile resource to have for any Jew (or anyone looking at the spiritual side of eating rather than mere ‘consumption’.
To say food is an essential component to Jewish life is like saying that teeth are essential to eating; it’s self-evident. And the number of rituals and practices surrounding food—not only kashrut but the removal of challah, fasting on certain set days, blessings before the meal, grace after the meal, etc.—all are geared toward creating a sense of holy eating. As Neal Gold writes in The Sacred Table:
Beneath the surface of Jewish food laws is a meta-ethic of Jewish life that maintains that all people are interconnected and responsible for one another. Make no mistake, Jews are certainly entitled to a s’udat mitzvah at joyous milestones in their lives. But tradition calls upon us to make those moments of celebration times in which the character of the entire community is elevated, when the highest values of our tradition are revealed. They are opportunities for tzedakah and for bal tashchit. All too often, they are displays of precisely the opposite: conspicuous waste and grotesque overconsumption. (2011-01-01 The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic CCAR Press)
While it’s not more or less kosher to eat wild salmon (to use your example) we are commanded to ‘choose life’ (Deut. 30), and Maimonides (among others) reminds us to maintain healthy bodies. Furthermore, the value of bal taschit (not being wasteful or destructive) would ask us whether wild salmon or farm-based salmon are better for the environment. Thus these wouldn’t fall under the category of kashrut they’d fall under other mitzvot, or could be seen as a form of hiddur mitzvah (making the mitzvah more meaningful or beautiful). Likewise, we should ask ourselves whether our consumption is fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests); that is, did we inquire about food allergies, about whether those gathered are vegetarians and made appropriate choices for them? Do we fulfill the need for tzedakah when we eat: so when we have a seudah of any kind, whether a lavish bar mitzvah celebration or a more humble synagogue pot-luck, are we donating the leftovers to local food pantries?
So, to finally answer your question: while it isn’t related to kashrut, at least in its narrowest sense, it is a mitzvah to take personal health, communal well-being, environmental and economic factors, and the question of tzedakah into consideration when choosing your meals.
Thank you for this great question, which is actually a bit more complicated than one might have initially thought. Halacha provides clear guidelines for many areas of life regarding what is permitted, what is prohibited, and what is obligated/required. The laws of food and kashrut are some of the most common and popular when it comes to understanding and explaining these guidelines. Thus, we are permitted to eat the meat of a kosher animal which was properly slaughtered and prepared. We are forbidden to eat meat and milk together or the meat of a non-kosher animal. We are obligated and required to eat Matzah on the first night of Passover and to enjoy three meals on Shabbat. As is true in all areas of Jewish law, there is much debate over the details of the laws of kashrut and over their application in our contemporary society, but on the whole these laws are very straight forward.
Beyond the strict technicalities of whether a given food is kosher, there is a wide corpus of writings from our tradition addressing the ethics of kashrut. Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270), a towering figure in our tradition offers a wonderful explanation of the Torah’s directive “Ye shall be holy; for I HaShem your G-d am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). He explains that one could follow all the technical aspects of Halacha and still be a “disgusting person with the Torah’s permission.” We are therefore commanded to be holy in emulation of God so that we internalize the Torah’s deeper message and aspirations. In other words, just because something is permitted, it is not necessarily desired or conductive to positive religious growth.
There are many areas in life where we can point to sources in the Torah and our tradition in order to develop a greater ethic or internalization of the Torah’s values. One strong example is the need to care for ourselves and our bodies. Twice in Deuteronomy chapter 4 we are warned “watch yourself/ves very carefully.” Though clearly taken out of its original context, the Talmud (Bracot 32) reads this phrase to mean more literally “protect your body.” Later authorities debate whether this Talmudic reading creates only a negative prohibition against actively endangering oneself or if it also creates a positive commandment to proactively guard one’s life. One could quote a myriad of sources which indicate, or could be interpreted to say that one must proactively guard their body and their health, so that eating healthy, nutritional food is one of the key aspirations of an individual seeking to internalize the Torah’s message and ethos. Regarding your example of farmed vs. wild salmon, a strong case can be made that based on the need to protect and care for our bodies, it is a mitzvah or positive religious act to purchase the wild salmon. However, an equally cogent case could be made to say that the Torah and Halacha do not address your question and that the Talmudic passage should be read much more narrowly as only prohibiting deliberately putting oneself in harm’s way.
It is also important to note that often the Torah’s values conflict with each other. While proper nutrition may very well be an authentic Jewish value, it must be balanced with concerns of the economic strains of buying the more expensive wild fish (especially when one considers the expenses of living a committed Jewish life which may include synagogue membership, day school tuition for several children, kosher food, etc.), ecological concerns of the rapidly depleting supply of wild fish due to unsustainable fishing practices, and the ethical concerns of the welfare of the workers at every step of the supply chain.
I believe that there is great religious value in caring for ourselves which includes making nutrition a priority, and there is great value in consciously purchasing salmon and other food that is nutritious and healthful. However, given the strong debate among authorities, Halacha’s relative silence on the topic, and competing religious values I would not say that it is a Mitzvah in the technical sense of the term, and it is certainly not obligatory to make such a choice. To be sure it is a wonderful step in developing and internalizing the Torah’s values and in inculcating a sense of kedushah (holiness).
As a rule, the Jewish tradition expects us to care for our bodies and take all reasonable measures to promote good health. As Maimonides wrote, “Whenever there is an impediment that threatens life, it is a mitzvah to remove or avoid that thing and to be very, very careful, as it says, Take care, and protect your life (Deut. 4:9). But if a person does not remove [the danger], and leaves in place impediments that threaten life – that person has both failed to fulfill the first mitzvah, and also violated the mitzvah of do not bring blood-guilt [upon yourself] (Deut. 22:8)” (Maimonides, Laws of Murder and Life-Saving 11.5).
Your question, however, suggests a less-obvious situation. If studies were to conclude that farmed fish directly or indirectly harms a person’s health, then the Jewish tradition might be inclined to prohibit eating such fish. In such matters, as in the case of smoking, rabbinic opinion will often defer to medical and scientific consensus.
But if studies merely showed that wild fish is the healthier of two reasonably healthy options, a prohibition on farmed fish would probably go too far; the Jewish tradition would encourage us to choose the more healthy option in all cases, but we are only required to avoid harm. In many cases, foods are fine in moderation but harmful when consumed in excess – alcohol is one example where Judaism permits a person to drink alcoholic beverages, and even encourages the consumption of wine for Kiddush and other rituals, while prohibiting drunkenness and abuse. Farmed fish might well fall into this category, where a moderate amount is fine but excess would be prohibited.
Financial considerations also play a significant role here. Our tradition has always been sensitive to the fact that one’s means often dictate one’s choices. Wild fish is generally healthier than farmed fish; but it is also significantly more expensive (the last time I checked at the store, wild salmon was more than twice the price of farmed salmon). If a particular person or family’s financial situation precluded the purchase of wild fish, we could not say that the Jewish tradition would require them to sacrifice other necessities or ask for charity funds rather than purchase farmed fish – particularly if farmed fish, while less healthy than wild fish, was still healthier than the other available options.
Judaism expects us take all reasonable measures to promote good health. We are prohibited from eating or drinking things that will harm our bodies, and we are encouraged to choose the healthiest options available. But the answer to your question will always rely on science and medicine as much as halakhah (Jewish law), because in matters of health rabbis always defer to medical opinion (see, e.g., Maimonides, Laws of Character 4.21). The case you describe, of farmed vs. wild salmon, falls into the category of personal practices about which the Jewish tradition offers guidelines – eat healthy, avoid harm, practice moderation – but no clear directives.
Jewish values are always expressed as a balancing of the things which are important to us. There are few things in life which are black and white, and nothing is ever truly perfect. As the great sages of the band Poison taught us – "every rose has its thorn."
There are lots of things to consider when determining the kinds of food to put in to our bodies. Are they healthy? Are they sustainable? Can you afford the product that might be better without causing undo stress on the rest of your budget? What is the environmental impact to produce the food? Is it kosher? If the product is meat, how is the animal treated and slaughtered? All of this and more…each time we eat we are not only making a judgment call on taste but also a value statement on which one of these concerns outweighs the others. To be more difficult, the overriding value will often change based on the circumstance.
My sense is that, correctly, you identify wild salmon as being healthier than farm-raised salmon. However, I don’t think that Jewish law would concern itself with mandating which value takes precedence for you. I would argue that, if you can reasonably afford it and feel like it is a good investment in your health, then perhaps the wild salmon might be better for you. Certainly there is nothing in Jewish law which would prohibit either decision.
Only you can decide how to order and prioritize the values which come in to play. It likely depends on your individual circumstance. Wherever possible, I find that Jewish law tries to be more expansive rather than restrictive. If I might offer a different path forward:
Perhaps the correct approach in this situation is to really identify the various values that you are trying to fulfill with the many options in front of you. If you can do that, then you can look at what is really important for you and make a decision from that place of knowledge. If you do that, I believe that Jewish tradition will support whatever decision you come to.
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