There’s been an uptick in the eating of comfort food in our house since the pandemic began. Cooking and eating are a big deal during stressful times.
Now, we were “into” food pre-pandemic. I cook a lot. However, everything went up a notch when our focus turned inwards, particularly for holidays like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Thanksgiving. When our neighbourhood bakery closed down in the spring, I went from making only challah to making all our bread. My kids, surprised, said, “Mommy, you made this? It’s really good!” – as they gobbled up the crusty spelt bread I turned out. Over these months, it’s gone from bread production to canning. Once the shelves filled up with jams, pickles and applesauce, autumn became baking and roasting season.
We’ve eaten too much: apple pie and crisp, sweet potato pie, cherry pies, and more. I tried for moderation – and then my husband bought Halloween candy. He started doling out two snack-sized chocolates a day. I couldn’t resist.
In the summer, I combated all this “extra” with dog walks and playing outside, but now it’s cold out again. It’s harder to take long walks. Fall virus numbers have soared, so swim lessons, gym visits and other kinds of exercise are off the table for now.
Imagine my surprise when Daf Yomi, the practice of reading a page of Talmud a day, came to the rescue! I found good advice while reading Eruvin 82b and 83b. After all, it’s not the first time in Jewish history that we’ve gone through periods of stress. When feeling out of control, it might only be natural to struggle with basics like “how much is enough to eat?”
In Eruvin 82b, a discussion emerges. To extend the eruv, the boundary of how far you can go on Shabbat, you can place food in a location, usually cooperatively, with your neighbours, so that you all “share” the space. When you establish this with your neighbours, it’s communal space, like in your house. You can carry things within a larger area. Imagine a block party potluck, and you’re understanding this.
How much food is enough? It’s supposed to be enough when each neighbour puts in enough for two meals. However, that amount must be defined. Is that food enough for two “work day” meals, when people might be doing hard labour? On Shabbat, we eat more, so do we put more out to designate the eruv? How much should it weigh? Does it need to be expensive or fancy food?
The rabbis then do math, which is always a bit dodgy, to be honest. Why? Measurements in the ancient world varied from one geographic location to another. Food staples varied, too – for instance, some places had better access to one kind of grain as compared to others. Rice bread is acceptable, for example, but millet bread can’t be used, because the rabbis say it’s hard to make edible millet bread.
Different communities couldn’t afford the same things and, even if they could afford them, in some cases, the bread they produced was simply not edible. In Eruvin 81a, there’s a discussion about a kind of mixed grain lentil bread, a concoction of wheat, barley, beans, lentil, millet and spelt as spelled out in Ezekiel 4:9. “Rav Hiyya bar Avin said that Rav said: One may establish an eruv with lentil bread.” The Gemara determines that there was a bread made like this in the days of Mar Shmuel, and even his dog wouldn’t eat it. So, the food put out for the eruv must be edible to humans (and dogs) and taste good!
The rabbis refer to the Torah and decide that the manna the Jewish people received while wandering in the desert was about an omer (two litres) each. There’s some dubious calculating to determine how much food is “enough.” The most helpful information I found was repeated by multiple sages over more than a thousand years.
In Sue Parker Gerson’s introduction of Eruvin 83 on myjewishlearning.com, she offers some context for understanding the talmudic text. The sages say, “One who eats roughly this amount [an omer] each day is healthy, as he is able to eat a proper meal; and he is also blessed, as he is not a glutton who requires more. One who eats more than this is a glutton, while one who eats less than this has damaged bowels and must see to his health.”
Maimonides, a physician and a Torah scholar more than 800 years ago, wrote a lot on healthful eating. In Gerson’s article, she includes eating tips from him, as well as from Rashi and Adin Steinsaltz. Regarding Maimonides, he said, “One should not eat until his stomach is full. Rather, he should stop eating when he has eaten close to three-quarters of his full satisfaction.… Overeating is like poison to anyone’s body.”
It’s only natural to use food to celebrate, to comfort and to cope during this crazy time of upheaval. How can we combat this temptation? The rabbis advise: remember not to overeat, eat only what is edible and healthy, and practise moderation.
This is hard. We live in a world of plenty, possibly even including leftover Halloween chocolates. But there are Jewish teachings, over generations, about avoiding overeating. Weight gain could make us more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, and so many other illnesses. It’s not good for us, but, knowing how much food is “enough” isn’t a new issue and, like everything else, it’s a Jewish one. The rabbis probably didn’t have leftover candy or sweet potato pie, but they knew the temptations we might feel to make, or eat, too much of them.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.