Judaism encourages labeling food. After all, there’s kosher and non-kosher food; according to Jewish law, one is permissible to eat and the other isn’t. There’s the separation of meat and dairy, which dictates how many hours you must wait to eat a slice of pizza after a burger. There are certain foods that are tied to various holidays, such as apples and honey for the Jewish New Year, or a hardboiled egg for Tisha B’av.
And then there are all the classifications for brachot, the blessings we say before we eat. We make different blessings over fruits that grow high in trees than those that grow low to the ground. Matzah and saltine crackers, though similar in appearance (and, some might say, taste), require different blessings.
In other words, it is ingrained in us, as Jews, to label food.
But there’s one area in which Judaism doesn’t classify food, and that’s based upon health. We wash our hands and recite the same exact blessing over homemade, whole grain bread as we could over an icy loaf of Wonderbread that was discovered in the back of the freezer. A kosher establishment can serve salad and cookies, and both are equally permissible to eat, and we celebrate Rosh Hashanah by eating both apples and honey cake.
In spite of this, living a healthy life is inherently a Jewish idea. Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish commentator and physician, explains that keeping oneself healthy is walking in the ways of God. It’s logical, then, to assume that eating healthy foods is a positive commandment, as those are the foods that help us walk in the ways of G-d. In this context, it makes sense for us to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy foods; one is “G-d-like” and the other is, well, not.
As it happens, that’s exactly what we do! Here in the U.S., a popular method for classifying food by nutritional value is labeling them as “good” or “bad.” Walk into any Starbucks and you’re likely to encounter someone who orders a pumpkin spice latte without whipped cream because they are “being good.” At lunch, a friend orders fries and announces that it’s their “cheat day.” There are parents at kiddush who instruct their children to eat more fruit because all of those cookies are “bad for you.” At Shabbat dinner, there is a guest who accepts seconds of dessert even though they “really shouldn’t.”
But guess what? It’s problematic to assign moral value to foods. It’s not just our bodies that we need to care for, it’s also our spirits. The Torah commands us to “guard yourself and guard your soul very well.” Not only do we need to keep ourselves healthy, and teach our children to keep themselves healthy, but we must do so in a healthy way.
Maintaining and modeling a healthy relationship with food requires relinquishing moral judgment. If eating raw salad without dressing is “good,” then someone who does that must be a good person. If eating dessert is “cheating,” then a person who enjoys dessert must be immoral. When someone skips the whipped cream because they are “being good,” then accepting whipped cream must make you “bad.”
By assigning moral value to food choices, we are teaching our children to judge themselves, and others, based on what they eat. They aren’t learning to eat fruits and vegetables for health reasons; they’re learning to eat them for moral ones. The Torah provides a plethora of ways to live a moral life—but ordering salad instead of fries isn’t one of them.
As parents, modeling a healthy lifestyle is imperative, as parents are supposed to pass on Torah values to their children. And that’s not all: In order to feel and behave our best, it’s crucial to eat a healthy diet. For our children to grow and develop, they need proper nutrition. But to raise adults who have both a healthy diet and a healthy relationship with food, we need to choose our words more carefully. Labeling foods with moral values naturally extends to labeling people who eat those foods.
The Jewish method for teaching nutrition is by valuing everything that food offers. Food provides sustenance, comfort, and a physical component to a religious practice. It connects us to our shared past and encourages us to celebrate communally. There’s no shame in enjoying cake to commemorate a birthday, just as there’s no virtue in avoiding carbs. To indicate anything else only encourages judgment and an unhealthy relationship with food.
And if you really can’t resist that offer of a second slice of cake, then simply accept and say “thank you.”
Yael Friedman is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife magazine.