You are (in control of) what you eat (Shabbos 9)
King Eglon of Moab was in power for eighteen long years. The Moabites had taken control of the Land of Israel, and life for the Israelite nation had become insufferable. New taxes and decrees were appearing on a daily basis, and yet the people knew that they had no choice but to put their heads down and get on with it. As long as they could keep King Eglon happy, at least they would be able to live without fear for their physical security. And an essential part of keeping him satisfied was the regular gifts they would send. That era of tyranny would end with the cunning idea of a judge called Ehud.
Life is arduous and there seems to be no way forward for the oppressed nation. Time after time, they must deplete their resources by sending the very best of their goods to the king. On one occasion, the Israelites choose Ehud ben Gera to deliver the tribute. Ehud is a strong and determined leader, despite the personal challenges he experienced in life, having been born with one arm shorter than the other. The day arrives, and Ehud is sent off to the king, treasure in hand. Concealed in his irregular arm, however, is a dagger.
Ehud reaches the palace of King Eglon of Moab and greets the monarch with respect and honour. He then makes an unusual request, “I have come here with a material gift and a spiritual tribute. God has asked me to deliver a message to His Majesty. But to do so, I must ask for a private audience.” Curiosity gets the better of the king and he beckons to everyone to leave the room.
Ehud then bends down, pulls the dagger out, and thrusts it into the folds of King Eglon’s belly. Eglon was so self-indulgent that he would never stop eating. The Book of Judges tells us that Eglon was so obese that the dagger remained concealed in the multiple layers of flesh. Ehud then turns around, leaves the chamber, bolts the door behind him, and returns home. Given the king’s love of food and consequent appearance, it takes so long for his ministers to realize what has happened. Chaos ensues in the Moabite kingdom and the People of Israel are able to cast off the yoke of Moab and live in peace for the next eighty years.
מַתְנִי׳ לֹא יֵשֵׁב אָדָם לִפְנֵי הַסַּפָּר סָמוּךְ לַמִּנְחָה עַד שֶׁיִּתְפַּלֵּל. לֹא יִכָּנֵס אָדָם לַמֶּרְחָץ, וְלֹא לַבּוּרְסְקִי, וְלֹא לֶאֱכוֹל, וְלֹא לָדִין
A person may not sit before the barber adjacent to the time of mincḥa until he davens. And a person may not enter the bathhouse and may not enter to work in a tannery. And he may neither begin to eat a meal nor to sit in judgment.
והא דאמר בערבי פסחים (דף צפ: ושם) ערבי שבתות וערבי ימים טובים לא יאכל עד שתחשך היינו אפילו התפלל לא יאכל כדמפרש התם כדי שיכנס לשבת כשהוא בתאוה אבל לא התפלל אפילו בשאר ימים נמי אסור כדאמר הכא
Tosfos: And that which it says in Arvei Pesachim that Erev Shabbos and Erev Yom Tov one may not eat until it gets dark, such that even if one has davened, one may not eat. As explained there, it is in order that he enter Shabbos with an appetite. However, if he did not daven, even on other days of the week, it is also forbidden, as it says here.
An important aspect of the mitzvah of ‘Oneg (pleasure of) Shabbos’ is that we partake of good food. The only way we can appreciate the good food of Shabbos is to ensure that we are not indulging in delicacies all week long. Or, at the very least, that we minimize our consumption in the late afternoon just prior to Shabbos and Yom Tov.
Unlike many other religions, Judaism does not preach asceticism. Our mission is to elevate everything in this physical world by using them for holy purposes. Every time we take a piece of food, make a bracha over it, and focus on the energy it will provide us in our Divine mission, we have sanctified that food. Food eaten on Shabbos, simply in order to promote the joy of Shabbos requires no special intent. Shabbos pleasure is a sufficient mitzvah for itself.
Throughout week, in Talmudic times, the pious practice was to delay one’s morning meal an hour beyond the average time for breakfast. The delay signified that one was not eating in order to satisfy one’s hunger, but to serve Hashem. Eating as soon as one gets hungry is the behaviour of the animal kingdom.
Human beings have the ability to exercise self-control. Your bodily urges have no dominion over you – you decide when you want to eat. And it’s only with that consciousness that you are able to stay focused upon why you are eating.
The Tanach has very few examples of obesity. The story of King Eglon of Moab demonstrates that overindulgence in food is not a Jewish value. Like most activities in our tradition, eating may be either a positive or a negative act. When we eat for mitzvah purposes, we embark on an act of holiness and positivity. When we indulge in food to satisfy our mortal desires, eating becomes a negative, improper activity. Every morsel of food that enters our mouths must be considered and controlled.
Hashem created a four-tier hierarchy of creation. On the lowest rung of the ladder are the inanimate objects, called domem. This category includes earth, stones, and other lifeless objects. Next level up is tzomeach, plant-life and vegetation. The following category is chai, the animal kingdom. And finally, we are called medaber, human beings with the capacity to speak and think. The Almighty has given us dominion over all the other levels of creation.
But with privilege comes responsibility. Our job is not to ‘lord it over’ Hashem’s other creatures, but to assist them in achieving their Divine mission. When we consume the other levels and utilize the energy we derive from their sustenance to serve Heaven, we elevate them. If, God forbid, we simply consume them to fulfil our personal physical desires, we are doing them a serious disservice. What gives us the right to consume them in the pursuit of our personal desires? Doing so is to deny them their spiritual purpose, and thereby to sin against them.
In fact, when you eat merely to satisfy your hunger pangs, you are no longer in control of the other levels of creation. The food is controlling you. The piece of meat on your plate – the cow – has become your master. You have become subservient to that luscious apple you are about to bite into!
It should not be that way around. It’s time to take back the reins and assert your place in the hierarchy of creation. When you do so, the apple and the cow will thank you for it. They want nothing more than your blessing and sanctification. All it takes is a moment of contemplation about the activity you are about to engage in and everything becomes transformed into Divine energy.
Enjoying our food on Shabbos is a mitzvah. But if, coming into Shabbos, you’re already full, then you won’t enjoy the delights of Shabbos. Consequently, when you eat, you will be eating without joy, and your food consumption that could have been a mitzvah becomes a mere animalistic behaviour of eating for the sake of avoiding hunger later.
You are a Divine being. Your mission on Earth is to sanctify and elevate Hashem’s creations. May every spoonful of food that enters your mouth be a spiritually fulfilling and uplifting act!