Two weeks ago at the Emet Outreach Learning Center in Jamaica Estates, Campus Director Rabbi Reuven Kigel gave a lecture about a topic he’s very passionate about: healthful eating.
Rabbi Kigel stressed that, from the Torah’s perspective, eating is not an end unto itself but a tool to serve Hashem. “Many rabbis discuss the importance of eating properly,” Rabbi Kigel explained, “because the healthier we are, the stronger our avodas Hashem will be. When we’re healthy, we can perform at our best, and thus our avodas Hashem is at its peak. Our ultimate goal should be to think about food as little as possible.”
Rabbi Kigel pointed out that we follow the Torah’s guidance and wisdom in many areas, to discover the best practices that lead to a productive and happy life. For example, secular society has a 60 percent divorce rate, while the Orthodox Jewish community’s divorce rate is a staggering 90 percent lower.
The US is riddled with health problems. A shocking 70 percent of Americans are obese, and 86 million are prediabetic. Some 44 percent of people between the ages of 75 and 85 suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, yet according to some recent studies, physically fit people in this age group are as much as 90 percent less likely to have these conditions. The food we eat has a big impact on these and other illnesses. For example, 70-90 percent of cancer is linked to poor nutrition.
Rabbi Kigel said that, as a veteran m’kareiv, he’s discovered that it’s easier to help someone become shomer Shabbos than become fit. If you invite individuals to experience Shabbos with your family for just 25 hours, they often get a taste of the beauty it can offer, and want to become more observant to enjoy it week after week. However, it’s not feasible to show someone the joy and benefits of being fit without putting in a lot of time and effort.
Rabbi Kigel quoted multiple Torah sources that demonstrate the importance of healthful eating. The Rambam in Sh’monah P’rakim says that someone who eats whatever he wants whenever he wants is an animal. One of the Lubavitcher Rebbes said, “A hole in your health is equivalent to a hole in your soul.” Another gadol went even further, saying that anything we ingest that’s detrimental to our health is “bal tashchis,” the transgression of wasting something valuable.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch says, “Since being healthy is necessary for serving Hashem, a person should stay away from eating things that are bad for him, and rather eat things that are good for him.”
Rabbi Kigel quoted the Shulchan Aruch and then he quoted the Mishnah B’rurah in Orach Chayim 157, where he discusses the proper time to eat daily meals, from which he derived five rules:
Rule 1: Your first meal should be at the beginning of the fourth hour after you wake up. A worker should eat at the beginning of the fifth hour, and a talmid chacham at the sixth hour.
Rule 2: If one cannot wait until noon, or cannot eat a meal until after noon, he may eat a small snack in the morning known as “pas Shacharis.” It need not be bread, and should not be a meal that one would bentch on.
Rule 3: You should have two meals a day (except on Shabbos).
Rule 4: The day meal should be lighter than the evening meal, because a heavier meal diminishes one’s energy.
Rule 5: The first meal should be bread or a different carbohydrate, and the night meal should contain meat.
Rabbi Kigel also emphasized the importance of avoiding processed foods, sugars, vegetable oils, and refined grains, along with other common foods that are bad for us. He quoted research that shows that contrary to what the western world has believed for decades, low-fat/high-carb diets have minimal health benefits, if any. It turns out that eating the right fats and oils are healthful, while processed carbs and sugars are not.
Because many people may not have the willpower to avoid these foods all week long, Rabbi Kigel’s recommended diet is a six-day regimen. “On Shabbos, you get to party and eat doughnuts, potato chips, cholent and kugel, all of which are extremely tempting,” he says. “Having Shabbos off helps virtually anyone stick with this regimen psychologically. It’s not about willpower, but setting a standard for yourself. Everyone has the willpower if they commit themselves to values they want to live by.”
Rabbi Kigel’s passion for health goes back a long way. He discovered Judaism in his 20s, and says his health-conscious mindset helped make it easier to become frum, because the lifestyle he led already had dietary restrictions, similar to keeping Halachah. He adds, “When I first read through the Torah before I became frum, I saw all of its restrictions and thought ‘Wow, this will be amazing.’”
Throughout his years doing outreach, while he has focused on teaching Torah, halachah, and hashkafah, he has not discussed health and nutrition. Then he saw an article about the link between cancer and nutrition, and decided it was time to incorporate health into his kiruv and teachings about Judaism. Rather than viewing health from a secular lens, he shifted his perspective and started to look at healthful eating from a Torah perspective. He did extensive research and discovered many sources in Chazal and poskim that discuss healthful eating.
Recently, one of Rabbi Kigel’s Emet students asked him to give a class about his Torah-based approach to healthful eating, and he decided the time had come. After spending years developing his regimen, he’s extremely excited to finally share it with the public. He hopes that this will be the beginning of a larger movement, and that he can spread his message to help Jews everywhere become healthier and focus on serving Hashem in the best possible way.
Rabbi Kigel’s entire lecture can be found at TorahAnytime.com. It’s entitled: “Beyond Kosher: A Torah-Based Approach to Healthy Eating.”