SAN DIEGO — Ahh, Shavuot is soon upon us. With its extended synagogue services, special readings including the story of Ruth and the 10 Commandments among others, Tikkun Leil Shavuot –the practice of staying up all night studying Torah — and of course all of those traditional delectable dairy dishes throughout the holiday.

This year, I’ve been invited to speak on Shavuot evening at Young Israel of San Diego in the San Carlos area of town – right next to the awe inspiring and majestic Cowles Mountain. My topic? “The Bible and Biceps: The Torah’s Perspective on Exercise, Nutrition, Fitness and Health.” Between no sleep and all of those dairy dishes, there may be a good reason why it’ll be important to remind ourselves what the Torah teaches us about exercise and nutrition to stay physically healthy.

Why the tradition to eat dairy? One reason given is that in the Song of Songs, 4:11, we are told , “Like honey and milk (the Torah) lies under your tongue.” Milk and Torah both provide us necessary nourishment, one physical and the other spiritual.

Another interesting reason has to do with the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word chalav (milk), which is 40. Perhaps we eat dairy on Shavuot to commemorate the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing to bring to us the Torah.

Perhaps this story may help. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael were strolling in Jerusalem when they were approached by a sick person. The sick person asked the Rabbis for advice on how he could be cured from his ills.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael asked the man his occupation.

The sick man replied that he was a farmer, a tiller of the soil, and here in his hand was his sickle, the tool he used for farming.
The rabbis asked the man, “why do you need to till the soil when all the bounty comes from the Lord?”

The tiller of the soil replied that unless he plowed, weeded, and fertilized the soil, nothing would be able to sprout.

“Ahh,” replied the Rabbis, “if you do not weed and plow and fertilize, the Earth will not yield you its fruit. And if fruit is produced but not watered it will not ripen, it will die and not live. One must therefore be a tiller of the soil for one’s own body, too.

The Lord provides one with life, but one must fertilize, water, and nourish the body to be complete.”

Thus we have an obligation to eat properly and exercise.

One thing is certain. Exercise alone won’t insure that we can resist that delicious Shavuot cheesecake, strawberry rhubarb blintzes, chocolate challah or nutty coleslaw and feta cheese salad. With one-third of us overweight and another one-third obese, with more than 55 million people every year resolving to lose weight, we need to be armed with more than just exercise to control our weight.

“Obesity,” which comes from the Latin word “obesus,” appeared for the first time in 1620 in Thomas Venner’s Via Recta. However the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a preeminent rabbi, medieval Sephardic Jewish philospher, astronomer and physician, wrote about this disease centuries earlier.

The Sages of the Talmud gave much advice on types of food conducive to good health. These teachings, scattered throughout the Talmud, discuss how the type of food eaten, as well as the time and manner in which it is consumed, plays a part in health maintenance (see Chulin 84a; Berachot 40a, 54b; Shabbat 10a, 33a, 41a, 188b, 140b, and 152a; Pesachim 108b and 112a, to list just a few.)

Rambam teaches us that how we eat is at least as important as what we eat.

Rambam in Hilchot Deot 4:1 – Listen to your body for what it needs. A person should never eat unless he is hungry, nor drink unless thirsty.

Ibid., 4:2 – Do not overeat. One should not eat until his stomach is full. Rather, [he should stop when] he has eaten to approximately three-quarters of full satisfaction.

Ibid., 4:15 – Overeating is dangerous for one’s general health. Overeating is like poison to anyone’s body. It is the major cause of all illness. Most illnesses which afflict a person are caused by harmful foods or by his filling his stomach and overeating, even of healthy foods.

I saw a humorous analysis of our Ashkenazic foods. Why do so many of our choice dishes begin with the letter kuf: knish, kugel, kishke, kreplach, kasha, kneidelach, kichel? The gematria (numerical value) of kuf is 100. If we want to live until 120 years of age, we should add at least two vegetable side dishes, yirakot, to our meals. Yirakot starts with the letter yud, which has the numerical value of ten. And two yuds, which spell “Godliness,” add up to twenty.

The key to successful weight reduction and maintenance is to “THINk THIN.” Irrational dieters think differently from healthy weight maintainers. They may believe:

–It’s okay to eat [this food I hadn’t planned] because I’m upset, I’m happy, I’m tired/I’m celebrating/everyone else is eating it/it’s free/no one is watching/I’ll make up for it later.

–I cheated! Oh, well, I may as well eat whatever I want for the rest of the day and start again tomorrow.

–Hunger is bad, abnormal, intolerable and it’s to be avoided.

–If I’m upset, I deserve to eat. (Or, the only way I can calm down is through eating.)

–If I have a craving, there’s nothing I can do except give in.

If these sound like you or someone you know, you need to learn to “THINk THIN.”

Here’s how:

1. Write down all of the reasons you have for maintaining your weight goals at Shavuot or any time of the year, one reason on each 3×5 card. Be sure to rate each reason with a level of importance, 1-4, with 1 being most important and 4 being least important.

2. Read each card twice every day.

3. Select a healthy eating plan that is reasonable for you to stick with. Then choose another as a back up. Notice I didn’t say DIEt? See why? Look at what that spells.

4. Never eat standing up and when you do eat, be sure you are mindful of what you are eating to increase the satisfaction you derive from the taste, smell, texture sight and feeling of the food. It will take your brain 20 minutes to figure out your stomach is full, so slow down, chew, savor, and give yourself a chance to know if you are full.

5. Learn to THINk THIN through hunger. You may THINk that you will feel horrible if you don’t eat and can’t stand feeling the “awful” feeling of being hungry. Or you may THINk that it is unfair that you can’t eat what you want and foolishly THINk that life is unfair and it shouldn’t be. Or you call yourself names for wanting to eat.

6. Counter these erroneous and irrational thoughts with something more accurate. Ask yourself if this is the worst situation on the planet? It is worse than 100% bad? Can no good possibly come from this at all? Realistically remind yourself that you can, after all, stand feeling hungry, that it’s not really awful but rather “too bad,” or “no big deal,” and hunger tolerance is a good lesson to learn. Also remind yourself that life certainly is not fair, that you really can’t dictate how life SHOULD be, and finally that you are only human for wanting to eat something that looks tasty, not weak, bad or some other negative label.

7. Understand that the more you wait out your cravings, the less intense they become and once you decide you are going to ride it out, you are already diminishing them.

8. Avoid unplanned eating by reminding yourself, “I can eat this surprising dessert that I had not expected, or maintain my weight.”

9. Use a “response card” for when you do, inevitably, slip. After all, you are only human. Judy Beck, famed author of the wonderful Beck Diet Solution, suggests that this card say, “It’s not the end of the world. I can start following my plan again right now. Just because I made a mistake doesn’t mean I should keep eating. That makes no sense. It’s a million times better to stop now than to allow myself to eat more.

Now you have some idea of how to start to “THINk THIN.” Along with increased physical activity and healthy nutrition choices, these steps will have you looking and feeling terrific. Just remember, “Nothing tastes as good as feeling thin feels.”

Republished from San Diego Jewish World