March 27, 2013

"The prophet Isaiah... inveighed against the Israelites for vainly fasting when so much injustice surrounded them."

"Such fasting, and particularly fasting only for self-affliction, was sinful, rabbis of the Talmud said. But the Talmud also counseled 'removing your hand from a meal that pleases you.'"
The Talmud teaches that people should eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty...

Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, interpreted the Talmud to mean that the final empty third is necessary so that the body can metabolize emotions. If one ate until one’s belly was completely full, there’d be no room left to manage one’s emotions and one would burst asunder.

However absurd this may seem to us today, it made physiological sense in the premodern world as the emotions were considered physical things that, like food and drink, were metabolized by the body. A body stuffed with food and drink is full only of biology; it leaves no room for biography, for what makes us human.
It may seem absurd, but it's less absurd than a lot of diet advice, and lofty metaphorical visualizations like this may be better physically and psychologically than fussing over calories and carbohydrates and latching onto the latest report of a scientific study somewhere. This is a realization that extends beyond diet advice. It's a more general idea about the role religion plays for people who are not able or willing to put the time into long, brooding studies of moral philosophy.

ADDED: Maybe Rashi's "burst asunder" referred to vomiting. Presumably, that drink that filled a third of the stomach was alcoholic (in the old days, before water was a reliably healthy drink). With a third food and a third wine in your stomach, piling on more risks losing it all — a waste. You don't need the scientific method to arrive through observation and experience at the idea that one third of the stomach should be left free.

Quite aside from the problem of vomiting — which would be much worse when food was not abundant — there is the sluggishness of mind that we all experience when we've eaten too much. You don't need to know any physiology about blood going to the stomach or whatever to come up with advice about eating less so you can manage your mental processes.

31 comments:

James Pawlak said...

Someday you might wish to comment on the Talmud's instructions as to night time burglars.

Sternhammer said...

Absurd? No. Emotions ARE physical things metabolized by the body.

Anger is cortisol and adrenaline, affectionate love is oxytocin, passionate love is dopamine. I don't know all the chemical combinations for the other emotions, but they exist. And we have a lot of research on the refractory periods about how long their effect lasts before they are metabolized.

Does being hungry aid in managing emotions? I don't know, but I wouldn't discount the idea.

edutcher said...

My little Irish mother, good Catholic that she was, always held that the Jewish dietary laws were extremely healthful.

Richard Dolan said...

"it made physiological sense in the premodern world as the emotions were considered physical things that, like food and drink, were metabolized by the body."

Not just the premodern world, as it happens. Contemporary neuroscience sees emotions (and all other mental phenomena) as a function of mechanisms in the brain, generated by electro-chemical reactions between the neurons and other brain cells. What you eat, how much you eat, impacts those reactions. And it is a common experience that eating too much makes people sluggish, and often influences mood (an amalgam of emotions and other mental states) -- to say nothing of drinking too much.

There are lots of problems with such mechanistic models of the human person, but that is clearly the scientific model in play today.

The good rabbi should not be so quick to dismiss the Talmud or prior rabbinical commentaries on it.

Ann Althouse said...

At the link there's also material about Christianity and Islam.

Amexpat said...

Elvis would have been well served by following this advice.

traditionalguy said...

Listing what you must eat and drink is the easiest way to a create a religion of pride. Cleaning cups and bowls so meat and milk never touch is absurd. But if that makes you feel proud of keeping a simple meaningless law, then go for it. Ban sale of big cups of soda too.

Freedom is right around the corner. Easter morning is what sets you free.

Lem said...

You are all witnesses… this is incontrovertible evidence... devastating.

We have caught the professor philosophizing.

Cruzify her.

cubanbob said...

trad guy all religions have rituals and ceremonies. They do so because they lead to faith and faith leads to morality. Just because you think it's meaningless doesn't make it so.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Back then there was no Al Gore around to sell them food offsets.

traditionalguy said...

Justifying fasting rules based on health concerns changes Isiah's subject about misusing it as a ritual purity list that can be derived from eating foods. That misuse gives vague approval of the Mosaic Law. Does anyone really want that LAW back in force? It has a strong sexual morality section,you know.

Isiah was telling his listeners that proper fasting could be done as a self humbling act, but was being done instead as a self exalting act.

Isiah seemed to be as displeased with the ritual external law keepers as the Galilean Carpenter that Isiah prophesied about did 500 years later.

campy said...

Now we follow the Prophet Bloomberg.

rhhardin said...

Hunger is an emotion, the French guy in Hogan's Heroes said.

William said...

Post bbq torpor is the peace that surpasses understanding.

Astro said...

Last time I saw Al Gore on TV it looked to me like his belly has been so full lately there isn't any room for his chakra.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

But what of my spleen? I think it needs a-venting.

cassandra lite said...

First thing I thought of:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLre-ZYMIEg

Tom said...

The first data point I have on this subject is: There is current science that ties overall diet to mental health. I have a good friend who was until recently as a psychologist. But she saw so many mental health issues associated with diet and exercise that she began to question the correlation. At first she became a personal trainer. And then she studied various diets, ultimately arriving at the Paleo or Primitive movement. When I was dealing with heartburn issues, she coached me on a transition to a Paleo style diet and, not only did the heartburn issues end, but so did a significant amount of anxiety. Is it connected? I don't know -- I don't understand the science enough to know for sure.

The second data point I have on this subject is: I'm an occupational safety professional and my second graduate degree is in public/environmental health science. One of the students in my cohort presented the Leviticus health codes and how much of our current public health rules have roots in those codes. She made the point that Moses was a water sanitation engineer for the Pharaoh and that he ancient Egyptians had some of the most sophisticated water purification systems in the world -- even by todays standards. Her argument, which I tend to now agree, is that Moses was the first public health professional and, with the weighted power of "God Said So!", was able to positively affect the health of his people.

Methadras said...

The worse kind of glutton is a drunken glutton. One who is so drunk that they get hungry and eat until they vomit it all back up. You might have just as well just flushed a pair of $20 bills down the toilet from that wasted food alone.

garrison said...

Please remember that in days of yore people knew the size of a stomach. They saw them ripped fresh from various sized animals all the time. Measuring food in one third stomach increments would have been simple and make sense on a visceral level. I'm not sure today we have any idea of how much we should be shoveling down our gullets.

garrison said...

Please remember that in days of yore people knew the size of a stomach. They saw them ripped fresh from various sized animals all the time. Measuring food in one third stomach increments would have been simple and make sense on a visceral level. I'm not sure today we have any idea of how much we should be shoveling down our gullets.

Bill Harshaw said...

Been a long time since I read the Bible, but seems as if there were some mentions of wells, as in Joseph being thrown into one and Bathsheba by the well. Might argue for the 1/3 drink being water, not alcohol.

ed said...

This is where cognac or a similar digestive comes into play.

autothreads said...

traditionalguy,

"But if that makes you feel proud of keeping a simple meaningless law,"

How does one call one of God's commandments "meaningless"? Why are the Torah's dietary laws (for Jews) any less meaningful that any of the 10 Commandments?

"Isiah was telling his listeners that proper fasting could be done as a self humbling act, but was being done instead as a self exalting act."

You mean like calling others "proud" and their acts of devotion to the God of Abraham "meaningless"? Seems rather self-exalting to put others' beliefs down.

"Easter morning is what sets you free."

How does the death of the bastard child of a Roman centurion and a Jewish woman create freedom?

Alternatively, where did Jesus get his Y chromosome?

Did Mary have an orgasm during the conception of Jesus?

Did Jesus ever have a nocturnal emission? If he was "fully man" as well as divine, he must have.

What did Jesus do when he woke up with an erection?

Were the feces of Jesus holy shit?

Did Paul's companions on the road to Damascus hear the voice of Jesus or not? Paul gives absolutely conflicting accounts.

How come Jesus never revealed all that Pauline stuff to the guys who actually knew him, you know, his disciples? Why would he keep such important ideas from them?

Tari said...

As an Orthodox Christian not far into Great Lent (and not fasting myself, btw), the comment about fasting while injustice surrounds us is interesting to me. In my last Protestant church (an "missional" and "relevant" kind of place), I saw way too much howling about injustice and not enough personal piety. Now as an Orthodox I see too much rule-following and not enough "wake up and smell the lousy world around you, people!" Perhaps a bit of balance is needed?

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Deb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb said...

But if that makes you feel proud of keeping a simple meaningless law,"

How does one call one of God's commandments "meaningless"? Why are the Torah's dietary laws (for Jews) any less meaningful that any of the 10 Commandments?"


Actually there are 613 commandments or mitzvot, including the laws of kashrut. All within what you (TG that is) call the "old testament", which you often quote and interpret - dare I say proudly? - and you imply are absurd and meaningless.

Does anyone really want that LAW back in force?
Nobody is forced, TG. Failure to comply strictly to Jewish law may not meet with approval in some quarters, but nobody is forced.

I'm really surprised at your take on this. It's inconsistent.

autothreads said...

Deb,

Of course there are taryag mitzvot (613 commandments) but people like TG feel free to mock 'ritual' commandments, yet think that the Decalogue in particular is different, worthy of respect, maybe even believe that they are actual commandments.

See, I've never understood how Christians could on one hand say that "the law is a curse" and on the other say 'well some of those laws, yeah, we'll follow those'.

The fact the TG is reinterpretng Jewish sources to attack Judaism is silly. Does anyone think that the Hebrew prophets wanted the Jews to ignore the commandments?

Deb said...

Autothreads,
Of course, you are correct, absolutely, and you said it better than I did.

The fact the TG is reinterpretng Jewish sources to attack Judaism is silly
Also absurd and meaningless.

traditionalguy said...

Shalom. I expressed the Christ-ian point of view on law keeping which since Paul wrote his epistles has welcomed as "good news" that impossible Law keeping is not any longer a requirement of God.

For Christians that is the whole point of the Death, burial and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah to reconcile justified sinners by imputed righteousness of the Son of God.

But if you want to prove me wrong, you should try out keeping the Nazerite Laws in Numbers 6 and report back on your experience.