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Shabbat Parashat Eikev 5774

Ask the Rabbi: Eating Contests

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Please state your opinion on whether eating contests violate any prohibitions such as bal tashchit? (I am a reporter writing an article.) Is there a difference between contests of volume (e.g., tens of hot dogs in ten minutes) and of speed (e.g., eating three hot dogs fastest)?

 

Answer: Presumably, one with a Torah-based mindset will react negatively to such contests (with good reason). However, we do not believe in using words like “forbidden” without honestly weighing halachic issues.

We start with the issue you raised – bal tashchit (not destroying). This prohibition, beyond the Torah context of destroying trees, is hard to pin down. The Rambam (Melachim 6:10) describes it as applying not to wasting but to destroying things, including “me’abed ma’achalot derech hashchata” (destroying food in a destructive way). The stress of a destructive manner opens the door for allowing arguably wasteful usage of objects of value for such purposes as recreation (see Etz Hasadeh (Shtesman) 11:2). The fact that, after all, we are discussing eating makes it harder to claim the ingestion of the food is destructive. Rav Zilberstein (in Tzohar, 5758) claims that Rashi would consider stuffing oneself bal tashchit. In discussing one who is bloated eating more, the gemara (Yoma 80b) describes the action as “not eating” but “damaging,” and Rashi (ad loc.) says he damages the food and himself. If it is called damaging the food, it is likely bal tashchit. However, it would seem that since the context there is the parameters of forbidden eating (e.g., Yom Kippur, non-kosher food) and not bal tashchit, it is hard to know what Rashi would say in our context.

Another, related (see Rashi, Ta’anit 20b) issue is bizuy ochlin (disgrace of food). Halacha distinguishes between foods (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 171:1). Most foods are disgraced only when they are soiled and made unappetizing prior to eating. It is hard to apply that to eating, even if in a not natural way. Bread, though, may not be handled disrespectfully (e.g., throwing it) even when it is unaffected. Thus, while it is hard to consider over-eating an objective bizuy ochlin for most foods, it is reasonable to consider stuffing bread (including hot dog buns) down one’s throat in the context of extreme over-eating forbidden situational bizuy.

Safety concerns are also questionable. A small number of people have died (mainly from choking) at eating contests, and it is not wonderful for one’s digestive system. We find in Chazal particular concern for not eating in a dangerous or even not healthy manner (speaking while eating – Ta’anit 5b; eating standing – Gittin 70a). On the other hand, in addition to our reluctance to taking stands on medical matters, we do not want to be hypocritical by outright forbidding eating contests on health grounds when so many people eat very unhealthily.

There are a few semi-halachic, semi-philosophical areas about which people can argue, but we will skip to an issue that we believe at least eating contests of volume clearly violate – bal teshaktzu. A secondary application of Vayikra 11:43 is that one should not put his body in a situation in which he feels disgusted. Classic examples include holding in a strong need to eliminate and eating in a manner that disgusts him (Makkot 16b). It is true that poskim allow such situations for certain needs (e.g., one is in public without access to a bathroom – Mishna Berura 3:17; a sick person who needs to ingest a medicine that disgusts him – see Pri Megadim, Siftei Da’at 81:3). However, the anyway dubious practice of an eating contest is not adequate justification.

Regarding an eating “sprint” of three hot dogs, we lack the expertise to determine whether contestants necessarily disgust themselves or whether fast swallowing is just a technical skill of swallowing a normal amount of food unusually fast. The food can certainly be used by the body in a normal manner. Therefore, objections to such a contest would be based more on philosophical/ethical grounds than halachic ones.

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