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The Jewish Ethicist: Ethics of Being Overweight

The Jewish Ethicist: Ethics of Being Overweight

Being overweight in a world full of hunger.


Q. Is it ethical to be fat when there are so many hungry people in the world? I know that my weight loss doesn't translate directly into food for the hungry, but I do feel kind of guilty about the contrast.

A. It's saddening to me to encounter this question, because I view it partially as an extension of society's current obsession with health and body image. Obviously it is healthier to eat in moderation, but overeating is a relatively harmless indulgence and certainly not "unethical". Some of our greatest sages were fat, and the Talmud relates that Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon had such large stomachs that when they met, a team of oxen could pass between them without touching them. And our commentators point out that the Talmud mentions these and other anatomical extremes of our great Rabbis specifically so as not to shame other people who have these characteristics! (1)

It is true that we should be sensitive not to overindulge in the actual presence of those who are deprived. In earlier times, it was even customary to give the waiter a little bit of each delicacy he serves so as not to deprive him. (2) So great is the importance of this principle that Jewish law tells us that whenever possible we should not even eat in the presence of a dead person. (3) There are also other restrictions which our Sages placed on us, even in private, in actual times of famine and shortage. (4)

But that doesn't mean that anytime there are deprived individuals anywhere it is forbidden for us to enjoy the pleasures of life. We need to exercise appropriate concern for the needy, and in any case excessive indulgence is counterproductive, but there is nothing "unethical" about eating more than is needed for sustaining life! Judaism advocates moderation, not abstinence, and most overweight people are not living a life of conspicuous excess.

It is certainly praiseworthy to eat in moderation, and the Talmud tells us that ideally we should eat and drink only to two-thirds of fullness. (5) But I wonder about a society where people ask if it is unethical to engage in excess of eating, which is in itself a constructive activity, but no one asks if it is unethical to engage in excess of television watching or other activities that endanger our spiritual health much more than overeating endangers our physical health.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84a and Tosafot commentary (2) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 169:1. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 341:1 (4) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 240:12. (5) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 70a.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

January 14, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Ken, October 24, 2008 1:27 AM

Very underwhelming response, misses the point

From the fact that this guy feels bad about his overweight problem it is clear that he is overeating, which is very very bad in Jewish thought and teaching. It is called achila gassa in the Talmud, it is forbidden and Maimonides writes (Laws of Knowledge 4:15)"Overeating is like poison for anyone and it is the primary cause of illness." We know the Torah warns us to watch our bodies and keep them healthy, so I think the response should be a bit stronger!!

(16) Anonymous, June 25, 2008 3:27 PM

overeating is against being a spiritual person

With all due respect I completely disagree that "overeating is a relatively harmless indulgence and certainly not "unethical"'. Clearly, judging someone because they are overweight is wrong because people are overweight for many reasons: medical conditions, hormonoral imbalance, thyroid problems, etc. Just being overweight doesn't mean that you are a glutton gourmet living to eat --- WHICH IS definitely not the Jewish way. A yid(Jew) is a spiritual person, more spiritual than physical in fact. Focus on the materialistic aspects of life (food, money, clothing, etc.) signals a spiritual problem. However, someone who constantly talks and thinks about what new food/restaurant he or she wants to try IS going against Hashem's intention for the Jewish people, WHETHER or not this person is overweight or very thin. We ARE a holy nation, and of course... we are struggling in exile among the very materialistic nations, but we must persevere and set an example that people must live for their soul not just the BODY. May Hashem strengthen us and may we all merit to greet Moshiach soon!

(15) Margarita, January 22, 2006 12:00 AM

overyweight people and judgeging others favourbly

Overweight people and judgeging or others favourably, no wonder you have so many responces. I believe that many of the people forgot that we should not judge people. It is easy done, but by my own experience I can tell you that putting on extra weight is not a easy thing. When people are very poor it is very easy to do so (you don't even have enough money for the proper dress, and than what is the difference couple more kiloes if all you have are your truck pants?) But hey, lets blame world hunger on fat people and the problem of terrorism on Jews...

(14) Anonymous, January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

I would just like to reiterate another person's comment that overweight does not equal overindulgence. I am not a doctor, so I can't speak about overweight people in general, but I eat very healthily and in moderation - never, ever, junk food - and I do not sit in front of the tube, but am very active. And I am a bit overweight! I think it is extremely dangerous to carry and promote blanket opinions about the behaviors of others based on appearance. That is the REAL ethical debate that should be going on here.

(13) Anonymous, January 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Having been an overweight person all my life I think completely differently. I really think that one harms others by not taking responsibility for one’s own health.The foremost people that one harms is one’s own family,because of one’s own shortened lifespan,One’s Employees? And the list goes on and on. I realized this when joining overeaters anonymous, and following the twelve step program of recovery which is basically the same as alchoholics anonymous. According to the Talmud one’s body belongs to G-D and one should take more care of someone else’s property than one’s own. So I don’t agree that being overweight is harmless to others it may just appear that way. Should you wish to correspond with me feel free. Richard Rawicz

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