Happy Meals, Jewish-Style
Unless you’re reading this in a third-world country, you have more choices about what to eat – and likely eat considerably more every day – than 99.9% of the human beings who ever walked the face of the earth.
Even a time-traveler from only a mere century ago, taken for a tour of a typical supermarket today, and then to a simple restaurant for a meal, would be dumbfounded at the sight of what’s available on the shelves and on the menu.
And those of us living now? Meh. We’re not so impressed. We’re busy plodding on our hedonic treadmills, taking our bounty of food for granted and casually overindulging in it even as we stay on the lookout for new food adventures to try to keep things exciting.
Ironically, though, despite – or, perhaps, because of – all our available gastronomic pleasures (and expanding waistlines), we rarely, if ever, experience the delight that our time-traveler experienced in the early 1900s when he suddenly found himself in possession of, say, a can of tuna. A hamburger was probably something closer to heaven.
Which brings us to the fact that there’s something – and something Jewish, too, as it happens – to be said for willfully denying ourselves foods, at least at times.
Recent research, in fact, has provided evidence that temporarily giving up something pleasurable may provide a route to greater delight in the deferred treat when it’s finally enjoyed.
Participants in a study published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science were asked to eat a piece of chocolate on two occasions, a week apart. During the week, one group was assigned to eat as much chocolate as possible; a second group, to eat none at all; and a third group, the control, was given no particular instructions. Those in the second group, perhaps unsurprisingly but significantly, reported enjoying the end-of-week chocolate more, and experiencing a more positive mood when consuming it, than either of the other groups.
The great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides counseled something most modern nutritionists would agree with, and most of us today would do well to adopt: eating only when hungry and, even then, not eating to full satiation. Now there’s a diet that, whatever you decide to eat, is pretty much guaranteed to keep you fit.
What you eat, of course, is important too. Whole grains, vegetables and fruits are what experts say should make up the bulk of our daily food. Meat, sweets and fats, not so much.
As it happens, it is clear from a number of passages in the Talmud that, while eating meat is permitted by Judaism, it was eaten back then – and, presumably, meant to be eaten – as a sort of relish to accompany bread, any meal’s mainstay. It is unlikely that a steak would have been regarded by the rabbis of old as a meal unto itself (even with vegetables on the side). Meat, in fact, was considered a special food, one with which to honor the Sabbath and holidays.
The author of the classical Jewish moral treatise the “Peleh Yo’etz,” first published in Constantinople in 1824, advises against eating meat (unless one’s health requires it – a rare situation these days) other than on such special occasions.
Now there’s a thought. Reserving meat and sweets and other less-than-healthy delectable indulgences for the Sabbath will not only benefit our health but, simply because they are abstained from the rest of the week, make us, when we do indulge in them, happier eaters.
Sabbath, in fact, is a day that Judaism teaches us to honor, in particular by reserving the nicest things we have – whether clothing or dishes or foods – for it. Even physical pleasures are rendered holy when indulged in on the Sabbath. In olden days, Jews would scrimp the entire week to be able to afford a piece of fish or meat for the Sabbath.
The Talmud tells how the great sage Shammai, when he found some special delicacy in the marketplace, would purchase it and put it aside for the Sabbath.
Imagine – no, consider – taking meat and baked sweets off your menu for weekdays, and making them part of your honoring of the Sabbath. Your enjoyment of the foods will be intensified, and it will yield benefits to your health, physical and spiritual alike.
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