What’s Jewish about competitive eating? (an encore presentation)

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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Joanna Brichetto

posted July 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Went to the grocery store this morning for July 4th supplies. My boy (4) found the Hebrew National hot dogs, grabbed a pack, kissed it and started singing “kosher hot dogs, I LOVE you.”
I think they’re yicky (as are all hot dogs), but am pleased that he thinks they are song-worthy (all the more so because they are hardly ever on the menu). Definitely something to “savor and appreciate,” as per your post.
And I hear you about the waiting for kiddush. Huge lesson, many tears, but so worth it. That first sip tastes all the better for happening after the Amein.
Thanks for the foodie fodder.

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Ron Kaplan

posted July 5, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Totally agree with you, Amy. Without sounding unpatriotic, to glorify this gluttony is ridiculous. What are we trying to prove, especially holding the event on the Fourth of July? That America is great because we have such abundance that we can make a game of eating? Forget the Third World nations (well, not really), what about the undernourished on our own shores? If they really want to make a sport of it, let’s go ancient Roman: make those who are hungry watch the event then have them fight it out to see who can get any crumbs.

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Tuvia Helfen

posted July 7, 2011 at 9:56 pm

We have book in our house the kids, mommy and tate love called “The Wheat Kernel.”
The description is as follows:

Ages 4-7. Watch the little wheat kernel as it sprouts and grows into a beautiful wheat stalk, hoping for the day when its flour will be used for a mitzvah. Will the wheat’s prayers be answered, or will the baker use it for something else first? Join the wheat kernel on this exciting and colorful adventure.(18 Pages)

by Yussie Fingerer and Esther Fingerer
Illustrated by: Shepsil Scheinberg

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