What’s Jewish about competitive eating?

There are many wonderful ways to celebrate the Fourth of July as a family – parades, cookouts, beach vacations, camping trips, and of course, fireworks. (Watching them, not setting off your own, if you have any brains at all.)  While not all of these activities are intrinsically related to the theme of independence, it’s easy to take time out while gathering with loved ones to acknowledge our many freedoms. (Check out Freedom’s Feast for a brief July 4th ceremony that’s great for all ages.)


Since 1916, millions of Americans have celebrated Independence Day a little bit differently. They’ve gathered on Coney Island, or hovered around their television sets, to watch competitive eaters shove as many hot dogs as possible into their mouths. Which celebrates, I guess, that in America we have the freedom to indulge in extreme gluttony. Apparently, competitive eating is considered by many to be a legitimate sport. I consider it disgusting, wasteful and immoral. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Judaism as a culture and a religion teaches us that eating is a sacred act. Like many ethnic groups, we consider the preparation and serving of our traditional foods to be an act of love. We spend days, and often weeks, planning and executing our Sabbath and Yom Tov menus. When the planning is done, we gather at tables for long, multi-course meals, when we sit around and talk about, well, mostly the food.
For those of us who observe the laws of kashrut, which prohibit eating whole categories of foods (including that oh-so-delicious-smelling bacon) self-restraint is an inherent part of eating. We are also obligated to recite a bracha – a blessing of thanks – before we eat anything. Because there are different blessings for different categories of food, we have to stop and think about what we are eating – yes, actually pause and reflect – in order to determine the correct bracha. Full meals require even more stopping and thinking and thanking – ritual hand-washing before eating and Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) after eating.
In our family, we currently only recite blessings together before our Sabbath and Holiday meals – one over the grape juice, and one over the challah. These meals happen to also be the only occasions when my daughters get to drink juice. Standing with a cup of sweet grape juice in hand, waiting for the completion of a fairly long blessing, is a challenge tantamount to extracting the sword Excalibur for my five year old. She complains, whines a little, asks several times if we can do the “short version” and then whines a little more, all before finally getting to drink her purple juice. But wait she does. I hope that this is one of many ways that she is learning that food is not something we wolf down – it’s something we savor and appreciate. Something we are lucky to have.
So, what’s Jewish about competitive eating? In my opinion, absolutely nothing. Even if the food is kosher, the act itself is treif. In a world where people are literally starving, it’s downright sinful for one person to eat 68 hot dogs, or ten days’ worth of calories, in ten minutes. Disagree? I welcome your comments. I’m always interested in other points of view.
May your Fourth of July be joyful, meaningful, sunny and, of course, delicious. Don’t forget to say thank you to the one who grills your hot dogs. (And the One who made the cows.)
Want to read more about Jews and food? Check out Hazon’s blog The Jew and the Carrot.
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Lee Hendler

posted July 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Thanks for the straight forward reminder of how to teach gratitude and restraint in a world where both seem to be in short supply. Who ever thought to limit purple grape juice for special occasions? A great idea!
Enjoy your 4th everyone and remember to be grateful to our founders. Without them we wouldn’t be celebrating!

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posted July 5, 2010 at 8:50 am

Thanks for the link to FreedomsFeast! Our own family has been lighting “Yom Tov/Holiday” candles for over 20 years on Thanksgiving. Somehow, it just seemed right to me. I look forward to exploring the rest of the ideas they provide.

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posted July 5, 2010 at 10:12 am

This post really spoke to me since I am currently reading the chapter on food in The Blessings of A Skinned Knee
There is so much craziness in American culture regarding food. I think being mindful of what we eat and saying the brachot help keep us separate from much of it.
Froggy is spending the summer practicing and learning the individual brachot for each food so she can start being in charge of saying them for herself after her birthday.

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posted July 5, 2010 at 10:23 am

I share your viewpoint equating “competitive eating” with gluttony, which Christians consider one of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony kills one’s right relationship with God, creation, and other human beings.

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Judy Meltzer

posted July 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

“CBS Sunday Morning” featured a champion eater who stuffed down hundreds of hotdogs to win the Nathan’s competition. Apparently, he does this kind of thing regularly, winning over $100,000 last year for his repulsive efforts. This is in addition to his “day job” where he apparently holds down quite a responsible position.
Watching him was sickening. Your blog, as usual, says it all on this subject.

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Joseph C Moore Cpo USN Ret

posted July 7, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Fully agree. These contests are extremely disgusting. Excess is the way of life for this generation, witness the shameful salaries paid to athletes for (entertaing) the public comsumption of an ephemeral act. Sports are just that – entertainment for the moment, producing nothing to enrich future generations, such as, great art, unless you consider rehashing a very well executed game play in the same league. I do not.

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posted July 12, 2010 at 10:31 am

I’m repulsed by how people gorge themselves at hotels, weddings etc. Judaism promotes eating, but there are strict limit as to what we eat. We’re not “animals.”
great post

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