Jews Diet and Disease

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T he Bible (Old Testament, Tanach) contains a long series of prohibitions concerning food. Prohibited are certain foods from any animal that does not have both cloven hooves and chew its cud (pigs) (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6) or fish/seafood that does not have fins and scales (sturgeon or shrimp) (Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9) as well as rules concerning the combinations of foods that may be eaten. Added to these rules are specific laws concerning slaughter and the preparation of meat (Deut. 12:21). In total, these laws are called "kashrut," and food that is acceptable under these laws is called "kosher," meaning "fit" or "proper." Whatever the initial intent of such laws, and there is a long historical debate about them, they were seen as part of rituals parallel to the sacrifices of animals and food stuffs at the Temple.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a compelling reading of the meaning of these dietary codes. For her, they are intended to keep order; that which is forbidden creates an awareness of where danger lies. Her reading of the "abominations" listed in Leviticus stresses the arbitrary nature of inclusion and exclusion. "The precepts and ceremonies alike are focused on the idea of the holiness of God which men must create in their own lives. So this is a universe in which men prosper by conforming to holiness and perish when they deviate from it" (Douglas 2002: 50). For Douglas, the prohibitions reflect a general rule that defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas [ ... ] the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose key-stone boundaries, margins, and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.

(Douglas 2002: 41)

With the destruction of the Second Temple and the development of Rabbinic Judaism these laws became fixed as a central aspect of Jewish ritual practice.

With the reforms of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a long discussion about where such dietary restriction should be abandoned as a residue of earlier practices, which centered on the practice of animal slaughter. While Reform Judaism did abandon this to an extent, neo-Orthodox Jews of the nineteenth century rethought the dietary laws in term of the new understanding of hygiene. The dietary code became a means of assuring health, and Moses became "the first hygienist." As Henry Behrend observes in 1889,

The idea of parasitic and infectious maladies, which has conquered so great a position in modern pathology, appears to have greatly occupied the mind of Moses, and to have dominated all his hygienic rules. He excludes from the Hebrew diet animals particularly liable to parasites; and as it is in the blood that the germs or spores of infectious disease circulate, he orders that they must be drained of their blood before serving for food . . . What an extraordinary prescience!

(Behrend 1889: 409) And the great Anglo-Canadian physician and essayist

William Osler stated in 1914, "we may go to Moses for instruction in some of the best methods in hygiene" (Osler 1959: 56).

The counterargument was made by animal-rights groups, which labeled Jewish ritual slaughtering procedures as signs of the innate cruelty of the Jews. In the 1883 meeting of Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna, the argument was made that the protection of ritual slaughter, or at least its lack of condemnation, was a sign that the Jews controlled the political process in Europe. By 1892, a law against ritual slaughter was passed in Saxony. And by 1897, there was a clear link between such attacks and the antivivisection movement, as the cruelest physicians were reputed to be Jews.

Ironically, the boom in the sale of kosher food (which only means ritually supervised) in the U.S.A. today has much the same "hygienic" rationale. Some 40 percent of foods sold in mainstream retail outlets in the U.S.A. are "kosher" (Blech 2004: xvii). Out of a market of 500 billion dollars spent on food, American food manufacturers sell more than 170 billion dollars worth of kosher-certified products each year. As one hot-dog maker's advertisement has it, kosher food answers to a higher authority, but it also carries with it the promise of better eating. Whenever a company makes a product kosher, it sees a jump in its market share. In contemporary America, kosher has become interchangeable with "organic" and is therefore deemed healthy. Ritual slaughter as a sign of Jewish cruelty disappears as a problem in this context.

Given the focus of the Jews on diet, it is surprising how little emphasis Jews placed on the representation of the overweight body. Such a body is evoked by the biblical figure of Eglon, King of Moab, who oppressed the children of Israel for eighteen years (Preuss 1978: 215). His fat (ish bari me'od) body was destroyed by the left-handed hero Ehud (Judges 3:17, 22). Indeed, it is even described how Eglon's fat closed about the blade when he was pierced. Ehud smuggles his sword into the presence of the King by wearing it on the "wrong-side," at least the wrong side for right-handers. He is "treacherous and sneaky; perhaps the culture of ancient Israel thought those descriptions to be synonymous, at least stereotypical" (Berquist 2002: 34-5). As for the fat king, his guards do not even notice that he has been disemboweled until they smell his feces. Is this the case of one deviant body destroying another?

The Talmudic fat body was a deviant one, but not particularly a dangerous one. Rather, there is a sort of fascination with it. The Talmud even asks whether very fat men, such as Rabbis Ishamel ben Yose and Eleazar ben Simeon (end of the second century) could ever reproduce because of their huge bellies. But Jewish attitudes toward such obesity were clearly defined by the model of the lack of self-control. Not yet a "sin," it was a sign of the lack of self-discipline appropriate for a real man, a real scholar and could be punished (Kottek 1997).

In the classic work of the twelfth-century Iberian physician-philosopher Maimonides on dietetics, The Regimen of Health, there is no sense that obesity was a moral or even a medical problem (at least for the rulers for whom he wrote), while he notes sexual overexertion as one (Rosner 1998: 58). However, it was still viewed as an important health issue, with repercussions upon the body of the individual; he treated the condition of "obese old men" with medication, exercise, massage, and baths (Maimonides 1992: 175-6). His work provides a synthesis of Galenic medicine and the work of the Arabic physician Ibn Sina, whose Kitah al-Quanun or The Canon includes a detailed discussion of obesity in its fourth book.

It is only in modernity that the Jew's body comes to represent all of the potential for disease and decay associated with the modern body of the fat boy. In modern medicine, there has been a preoccupation with a claimed Jewish predisposition to diabetes. The nineteenth-century practice of labeling Jews as a "diabetic" race was a means of labeling them as inferior. In the fall of 1888, the Parisian neurologist Jean Martin Charcot described to Sigmund Freud the predisposition of Jews for specific forms of illness, such as diabetes, and how "the exploration is easy" because the illness was caused by the intermarriage of the Jews. Jewish "incest" left its mark on the Jewish body in the form of diabetes as well as on the Jewish soul (indicative of his depreciatory attitude in regard to the Jews, Charcot's letter to Freud used the vulgar "juif" rather than the more polite "Israëlite" or more scientific "sémite" [Gelfand 1988: 574]). However, there are further views on why the Jews are predisposed to this illness. The British eugenicist George Pitt-Rivers attributed the increased rate of diabetes among the Jews to "the passionate nature of their temperaments." He noted that by the 1920s diabetes was commonly called a "Jewish disease" (Pitt-Rivers 1927: 82).

But over and over again it was the obesity inherent in the Jew's body (and soul) that was seen as the cause of the illness. Often the power of the racial model overwhelms any specificity of gender, even though the seemingly ungendered term "Jew" in this context is always understood to be the male Jew. The "Oriental races, enervated by climate, customs, and a superalimentation abounding in fats, sugar and pastry will inevitably progress towards the realization of fat generations, creating an extremely favourable soil for obesity" (Frumusan 1930: 9). Even in the Diaspora, the assumption is that the Jew is diabetic because of his predisposition for fat:

All observers are agreed that Jews are specially liable to become diabetic A person belonging to the richer classes in towns usually eats to much, spends a great part of his life indoors; takes too little bodily exercise, and overtakes his nervous system in the pursuit of knowledge, business, or pleasure . . . Such a description is a perfectly accurate account of the well-to-do Jew, who raises himself easily by his superior mental ability to a comfortable social position, and notoriously avoids all kinds of bodily exercise.

(Saundby 1897:197-9)

In addition, it was claimed that Jews inherited their tendency toward fat because of their lifestyle: "Can a surfeit of food continued through many generations create a large appetite in the offspring; alternatively, can it cause a functional weakness of their weight-regulating mechanism?" asks W.F. Christie. And he answers:

Take, for instance, the Hebrews, scattered over the ends of the earth. Probably no race in the world has so apparent a tendency to become stout after puberty, or is more frequently cited as an example of racial adiposity. It is also probable that no nation is so linked in common serfdom to their racial habits and customs. [Elliot P.] Joslin says of the present generation of Jews: "Overeating begins in childhood, and lasts till old age." The inheritance of large appetites and depressed weight-regulating mechanism may exist in them, although they show no other signs of the latter; whereas the inheritance of fat-forming habits is certain.

(Christie 1937: 31)

Thus, Jews inherit the compulsive eating patterns of their ancestors and are therefore fat already as children. Their obesity and their diabetes are a reflection of their poor hygienic traditions, precisely the opposite of the claims of nineteenth-century Jewish reformers who saw Judaism as the rational religion of hygiene. Indeed, it is the "Oriental" Jew who presents the worst-case scenario for this line of argument. Max Oertel, perhaps the most quoted authority on obesity at the beginning of the twentieth century, states that "The Jewesses of Tunis, when barely ten years, old are systematically fattened by being confined in dark rooms and fed with farinaceous articles and the flesh of dogs, until in the course of a few months they resemble shapeless lumps of fat" (Oertel 1895: 647-8). Here the fantasy about the "Oriental" body in the West is heightened by the Jews feeding their daughters nonko-sher food.

From the nineteenth century, diabetes had been seen as a disease of the obese and, in an odd set of associations, the Jew was implicated as obese due to an apparent increased presence of diabetes among Jews. According to a turn-of-the-century specialist, mainly rich Jewish men are fat (von Noorden 1910: 63). But rather than arguing for any inborn metabolic inheritance, he stated that it is the fault of poor diet among the rich—too much rich food and alcohol, this being yet another stereotype of the Jew. And yet, the other side of the coin is amply present. At the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists began to explore the relationship between the predisposition of the Jews for diabetes and the assumed relationship between diabetes and obesity. One physician noted that since one in twelve obese Gentiles develops diabetes, no less than one in eight obese Jews develop it. This, it is suggested, is to be explained by the fact that a fat Hebrew is always fatter than a fat Gentile, and that it is the higher grade of obesity which determines the Semitic preponderance in diabetes.

(Williams 1926: 53)

The assumption about fat and the "Oriental" race is one that comes to haunt discussions of the meaning of fat (Leray 1931: 11-12). When W.H. Sheldon develops his "somatotypes" in the 1940s, he observes that Jews shows an exaggeration in each of his body types. Thus, fat Jews are somehow fatter than fat non-Jews (Sheldon et al. 1940: 221). More recent studies of obese Jews look at the complex behavior patterns that occur when religious demands for fasting and the psychological predisposition of the obese come in conflict.

Today, the general consensus is that diabetes is not particularly a Jewish illness. Research now follows the so-called "thrifty genotype" hypothesis that had been suggested in 1964. Simply stated, it has been observed that when mice are transferred from a harsh to a benign environment, they gain weight and are hyperglycemic. When one thus measured first generation groups of immigrants to the U.S.A. in the late nineteenth century or in Israel today, there is a substantially higher rate of diabetes. The initial groups, such as the example of the Yemenites who immigrated to Israel from a harsh environment, showed an extremely low index of diabetes when they arrived in Israel. This index, however, skyrocketed after just a short time of living in their new environment. Thus, diabetes and obesity seem to be an index of a failure to adapt rapidly to changed surroundings (Goodman 1979: 334-41).

And yet fat still is imagined as a Jewish issue. The columnist David Margolis, writing in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2001, observes that:

A lot of people also consider fat a Jewish issue. According to a recent survey in the New York City area, Jewish families consume "almost double" the amount of cake and donuts that non-Jewish families do and more than twice as much diet soda and cottage cheese. A professional in the eating-disorder industry claims that Jews tend to choose food over addictions to other substances. Food is just another drug, after all, the cheapest, most easily available, most socially acceptable mood-altering substance. Is it merely a coincidence that Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by two Christian men, while Overeaters Anonymous was founded by two Jewish women?

(Margolis 2001)

The image of the overfed Jew, central to the culture that needed to see the Oriental disease of diabetes as an essential aspect of the corrupt Jewish soul, now has a place in American popular culture about the Jewish body. Yet, here it is transformed into the body of the Jewish woman, as "fat" in the U.S.A. "is a feminist issue."

See also Ibn Sina; Religion and Dieting; Roman Medicine and Dieting

References and Further Reading

Anon. (1994) "Talmudic Aphorisms on Diet: III. What Should We Drink?" Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 30 (1994): 732-3.

Behrend, Henry (1889) "Diseases Caught from Butcher's Meat," The Nineteenth Century 26: 409-22.

Berquist, Jon L. (2002) Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Blech, Zushe Yosef (2004) Kosher Food Production, Oxford: Blackwell.

Christie, W.F. (1937) Obesity: A Practical Handbook for Physicians, London: William Heinemann.

Douglas, Mary (2002) Purity and Danger, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Frumusan, Jean (1930) The Cure of Obesity, trans. Elaine A. Wood, London: John Bale.

Gelfand, Toby (1988) " 'Mon Cher Docteur Freud': Charcot's Unpublished Correspondence to Freud, 1888-93," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 62 (4): 563-88.

Goodman Richard M. (1979) Genetic Disorders Among the Jewish People, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins.

Kottek, Samuel S. (1997) "On Health and Obesity in Talmudic and Midrashic Lore," Obesity Surgery 7 (2): 161-2.

Lepicard, Etienne (1994) "Talmudic Aphorisms on Diet," Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 30 (7): 314-15.

Leray, Jean (1931) Embonpoint et obésité, Paris: Masson et cie.

Maimonides (1992) Medical Writings: The Art of Cure— Extracts from Galen, ed. and trans. Uriel S. Barzel, Haifa: Maimonides Research Institute.

Margolis, David (2001) "Fat: Remember 'Stressed' Spelled Backwards Is 'Desserts'," David Margolis Journalism, available online at <http://> (accessed March 4, 2007).

Oertel, M.J. (1895) "Obesity," in Thomas J. Stedman (ed.), Nutritive Disorders, Vol. III of Twentieth Century Practice, twenty vols, London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., pp. 626-725.

Osler, William (1959) "Israel and Medicine," in Earl F. Nation (ed.), Men and Books, Pasadena, Calif.: Castle Press, p. 56. Originally published in 1914 Canadian Medical Association Journal 4(8): 729-33.

Pitt-Rivers, George Henry Lane-Fox (1927) The Clash of Culture and the Contact of Races, London: Routledge.

Preuss, Julius (1978) Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, trans. Fred Rosner, New York: Sanhedrin Press.

Rosner, Fred (1998) The Medical Legacy of Moses Maimonides, Hoboken, NJ: KTAV.

Saundby, Robert (1897) "Diabetes mellitus," in Thomas Clifford Allbutt (ed.) (1990) A System of Medicine, London: Macmillan, Vol. III, pp. 197-9.

Schwarz, D. (1990) "Jüdische Speisegeetze und

Gesundheitserziehung," Zeitschrift für die gesamte Hygiene und ihre Grenzgebiete 36 (12): 641-4. Sheldon, W.H., Stevens, S.S. and Tucker, W.B. (1940) The

Varieties of Human Physique, New York: Harper. von Noorden, Carl (1910) Die Fettsucht, Vienna: Alfred Hölder.

Williams, Leonard (1926) Obesity, London: Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press.

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