Reeh: Cautions on eating too much meat still ring true


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I learned that we would have the privilege of sharing our home with a young family from Southeast Asia. We did not have much time for planning. The message that said to expect them also said to expect them the following evening.

We went to the nearest Asian market to ask the proprietor what our guests would want to eat. "Rice," he said.

"And what else? What other kinds of food should we have around?"

"More rice."

This, in fact, amounted to very good advice. The young father, as soon as he recovered from jet lag, offered to prepare meals for both of our families. Our visiting translator explained that we had to accept this offer, for the dignity of our guests. Not that we minded: For the next couple of months, whatever else happened, we enjoyed delicious, authentic Chinese cuisine.

While each meal might include a vegetable salad, stir-fried vegetables, more vegetables stir-fried with slivers of meat, and a soup made in the stir-fry pan, these all accompanied the main item, rice.

Or, once in a while, noodles.

You could think of these meals as rice with what accompanies the rice: the staple starch and something else. The rabbis of the Mishnah, similarly, describe a typical meal as consisting of bread and what accompanies the bread (Pesahim 10:3).

Old-time speakers of English, like Mishnaic rabbis and modern Chinese, built their meals around carbohydrates.

Now in the United States, however, we seem more likely to describe a meal as the protein, even though I think meat has come to comprise a smaller proportion of our diet.

To answer the question, "What did you have for dinner last night?" we still typically say, "Beef," "Chicken" or "Fish."

The Bible refers to "a powerful desire to eat meat" (Deut. 12:20). No such phrase appears in discussions of other kinds of food. The talmudic rabbis, who assume that every biblical phrase must have a purpose, understand this to imply that "the Torah teaches us proper behavior [derekh erets], that a person should not eat meat unless he or she feels a powerful desire to do so" (Hulin 84a). Proper, modest or ordinary behavior, then, includes not making meat a routine item in one's diet

Why should the Torah, as interpreted by the rabbis, limit this food?

Commenting on the talmudic passage, Rashi (1040-1105) suggests "that you not come to eat it regularly, and become poor."

Do not get into the habit of eating meat, he writes, because such an expensive habit can ruin your financial health. In a related story, the Talmud tells of a man who lost his wealth. No longer able to afford his customary red meat and old wine, he had to apply to Rabbi Nehemiah for any food at all. But the rabbi, himself a poor man, could give him only lentils, on which the formerly wealthy man sickened and died.

In reviewing the sad story, Rabbi Nehemiah's colleagues faulted the wealthy man for developing such expensive tastes in the first place (Ketubot 67b).

The great rabbi, philosopher and physician Maimonides (1138-1204) discourages casual consumption of meat in another context. In the Mishneh Torah, his great compendium of Jewish law, he allows himself one chapter of medical advice, "since keeping a healthy body is one of the ways of God." He advises that a person keep a regular exercise schedule and eat moderate amounts of healthful foods, defined as a diet high in carbohydrates, low in sugar and fat and especially low in animal fats. He lists the different kinds of meat as "food which a person should eat only once in a long while" (Deut. 4:9-10).

Perhaps the recommendation limiting the consumption of meat, on the other hand, suggests moral qualms.