Passover and Disordered Eating: Resources for a Conversation

seder plate

Abby Diebold (Swarthmore College '20) came up with the idea for this discussion and brought together a group to share their experiences and wisdom on this subject.

Rabbi Michael Ramberg (Swarthmore College Jewish Student Advisor) helped to gather the supporting resources.

A 1-hour discussion of Passover and disordered eating

Outline

  • Introductions: name, year, pronouns, what you’re hoping to get from this space, if you want to share any personal connection to the topic
  • Agreements: confidentiality of this space, come and go freely
  • Overview: designed to be a very informal conversation
    • Create a safe space to talk about/collaborate around these issues
  • Potential topics:
    • Talking to family members
    • Generational/post-Holocaust trauma
    • Psychological concerns around food restriction
    • What does Passover mean to you? And/or, What do you want it to mean? How can you observe the holiday so it has that meaning?
  • If needed, have people read/discuss texts on handout (see below)

Some of the points that emerged in the course of the discussion:

1) Strategies for avoiding and/or dealing with difficult moments at seders

  • Remember that in Judaism, saving a life (which is interpreted broadly to mean anything that helps to fight a life-threatening condition) takes precedence over almost any other commandment, including food-related commandments

  • Make a joke about it (e.g., grandmother who squeezes your side with “the claw”) with a family member who can laugh about it

  • Have parents intervene with their parents when they are hurtful (grandparents listen to their kids)

  • Support from siblings, other family members

  • Make an excuse to get away—e.g., friend in crisis, school crisis, meeting with professor, etc.

  • When someone says, "You look great," reply, if you can, "I feel healthy"

  • Tell people, “Your body knows what it needs, wants—our bodies are smart that way”—when its signals haven’t been tampered with

  • Incorporate into seder some Jewish wisdom on a healthy relationship to food, making eating a sacred act

  • Have a seder with just a few, trusted people

  • Have a seder with someone else's family if they are more supportive and healthy with regard to food and body attitudes

2) Suggestions for observances other than food restrictions that could last the entire holiday

  • Learn more about Passover—ask Rabbi Google—or here are lots of social justice haggadot

  • Take actions for freedom—e.g., activism, advocacy, giving tzedakah

  • Abstain from something that isn’t food that is symbolic of or directly implicated in your enslavement or the enslavement of others

  • Liturgy: Hallel (Psalms 113–118), part of the morning service for all the days of Passover

  • Texts

    • Song of Songs—ancient love poem in the Hebrew Bible, read allegorically as the story of the Exodus from Egypt, can be read as sex- and body-positive

    • Passover Torah readings—a special Torah reading for each day of the holiday

  • Ritual: counting the omer—starts the 2nd night of Passover

3) Ideas for navigating eating restrictions

  • Eat special Passover foods but don’t cut out other foods

  • Eat kitniyot (legumes, beans, peas, rice, millet, corn, and seeds), prohibited by some Ashkenazim but accepted by Sephardim and increasingly widely accepted among Ashkenazim

  • Eat foods made with kitniyot derivatives (e.g., corn syrup)

  • If you’re prioritizing your health and eating something you’d prefer not to eat during Passover (like hametz) say one of these blessings or some version that feels appropriate to you:

    • Behold I am prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of eating hametz during Passover, as is written in Your Torah: “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them. I am the Source of Life” (Leviticus 18:5). In the merit of fulfilling this mitzvah, seal me, and all the ill of the people Israel, for a complete recovery. May I merit next Passover to once again observe the Passover food customs that hold meaning for me. May this be your will. Amen.

    • בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ 
      Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh haolam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al pikuakh nefesh.
      Blessed are you Eternal, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy through Your commandments, and Who commands us to preserve life.

Texts on handout

Traditional blessing for acts done for the preservation of life:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ

Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh haolam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al pikuakh nefesh.

Blessed are you Eternal, Sovereign of the universe,

Who makes us holy through Your commandments, and Who commands us to preserve life.

Blessed are You Eternal, who creates each of us whole, and none of us perfect.

 

From “Starving for Passover” by Caroline Rothstein:

“You’re allowed to break almost every commandment there is in order to save a life,” said Rabbi Shari. “If you don’t keep Passover because it possibly leads to relapse, you don’t keep Passover.” I know I’m not the only Jew to struggle with these blurry lines between health and holiness. A friend, who is currently in rabbinical school and working at a university Hillel, recently told me how a student struggling with an eating disorder approached her about fasting on Yom Kippur. My friend’s response made it clear that the student’s life took precedence above all else: “No one should fast if it will put one’s life in jeopardy as potential relapse to eating disorder can.” She said pikuach nefesh is central to Jewish practice, and that it protects a life above all else, surpassing every commandment other than murder, adultery and idol worship. Pikuach nefesh ushers those of us who have struggled or continue to struggle with eating disorders much more easily along our journeys, both to healing and in healing.

Passover celebrates our Exodus from Egypt, our redemption from slavery, our freedom. Having an eating disorder puts shackles around food- and body-related choices. It is a mental illness that often feels like it holds the sufferer hostage. Recovery is liberation. After the very trying year I experienced in recovery, I realized that not keeping Passover was redemption. However, it is not redemption from the restrictions of going eight days and nights without leavened bread and corn syrup. Rather, I feel redeemed from the eating disorder. I made a choice that trumped tradition in favor of my mental, emotional, and physical balance and prosperity. I made a choice to save my life. I made a choice that prioritized my health and soul above all else — that is liberation, an exodus from my pain.

From “All Who Are Hungry” by Ilana Kurshan:

It is with this newfound freedom that I call out the words of the ha lachma anya, the symbolic invitation recited near the beginning of the seder: “Let all who are hungry come enter and eat; Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach.” I am free to say that I, too, have been hungry and I, too, deserve to eat. After months of eating nothing but cottage cheese and fruit in the privacy of my bedroom, I can now gather around the table with my family and friends and rejoice communally. Eating is no longer an activity that sets me apart from other people, but a means of reconnecting with those I love most. And so when the tzimmis and stuffing and turkey and potatoes are handed to me, I do not pass them over from the sister at my left to the sister at my right. I realize that it is not just the first time that I am eating hot food again, but also the first time that I feel the warmth that comes from eating at the table together.

Judaism is not a religion of asceticism and self-denial; I am not holy because I can subsist on mustard and carrots alone. Although we sing dayenu, “it is enough,” today I affirm the opposite: It is not enough. It has not been enough to eat only what is absolutely necessary for survival; this is not the fast God wants of me, nor is it the sacrifice God desires.

From “This Passover I’m Liberating Myself From My Anorexia - By Eating Chametz” by Elyse Pitock

This year, the haggadah is the center of my observance. When I turn to the text itself, I find a fragment of validation: We read that when the Israelites approach the Red Sea with Pharaoh close behind, they fear the worst. God parts the seas, and the only way out is through. The Israelites safely make the crossing to freedom, their demons far behind them, but they have a long way to travel. They stop and survey what has just happened. A hurdle is cleared, and the next is ahead. They are free but not unbound.

Once we were slaves, now we are free. In my small way, I have been redeemed, offered a reprieve from a low weight and a low potassium count and low energy. I am reluctant to use the vocabulary of Exodus, because I was never a slave, and in the important ways, my life has been peaceful and good. But in the microcosm of my life, I have finally been offered a taste of freedom from a disease that grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. Now, even with hurdles ahead, I am running in the opposite direction.

Other resources:

From “Anorexia Recovery for Orthodox Jews: Kosher Dietary Strategies

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Pikuach Nefesh (Saving a Life) Takes Precedence

While a lot of Orthodox life is proscribed and law-bound, the good news is that Jewish law also prioritizes the principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of one’s life, over adhering to other demands of Jewish law. This essentially means that nearly all Jewish laws are secondary to risks that are life-threatening. If for example, an Orthodox mother has a heart attack on Shabbat (a day that Orthodox families do not drive or use the phone), because of the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, the woman’s family MUST break Shabbat by using the phone, dialing 911 and transporting the patient to the hospital for life saving help. Because eating disorders are medical threats to mortality, there is often room, even for strict Orthodox individuals, to override many principles of Jewish law due to the dictate of Pikuach Nefesh.

There is a prayer found in some Yom Kippur prayer books that some patients might find meaningful to recite before eating on a fast day: Behold I am prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, as You have written in Your Torah: “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L-rd.” In the merit of fulfilling this mitzvah, seal me, and all the ill of Your nation Israel, for a complete recovery. May I merit next Yom Kippur to once again fulfill [the mitzvah of] “you shall afflict yourselves [on Yom Kippur].” May this be your will. Amen.

Passover

Passover, an eight-day holiday that falls in the Spring, celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. This long holiday may also pose some challenges to the Orthodox patient in the renourishing process. During Passover, products that are made or derived from wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt and have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and rise, are prohibited. This translates to most breads, baked goods, and cereals. Many Jews also refrain from consuming rice and legumes during this period.

Before Passover, most families scour their kitchen to eliminate any traces of these foods and use a separate set of dishes and pots to cook for this holiday. The first two nights of Passover include a Seder, which is a relatively long ritual meal with specific food and drink requirements. The Seders can be a source of stress for a patient in recovery, and he or she may need to adjust the ritual requirements with a rabbi and/or therapist and attend Seders surrounded only by a few close supports so as not to risk recovery. There may be special dispensations that are necessary in order to ensure that Orthodox patients can continue eating appropriate amounts of calories on Passover. For example, patients may decide to eat rice and legumes on Passover (typically a food that only some Sefardic Jews eat on Passover; these are foods that most Ashkenazic Jews avoid on Passover). Patients may also decide to eat things made with derivatives of foods they typically avoid on Passover. For example, corn is a legume avoided by many Jews on Passover. Patients with AN may decide to eat products that contain corn syrup (such as some brands of ice cream) despite traditionally avoiding those foods on Passover. For those who uphold all stringencies, quinoa is considered kosher for Passover by most kosher consumers and can be used as a rice/pasta/starch substitute.

Accuracy of principles of Jewish law reviewed by Rabbi Jason Weiner, Senior Rabbi & Director of the Spiritual Care Department, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

From “Why This Passover Will be Different For My Eating Disorder Recovery

This year, I am taking my life back from my eating disorder. I will not be subject to its power to silence me and distance me from the people and things I care about most. For me and where I am in my recovery, Passover is not — and cannot be — about the food; I will be using this year’s holiday to reclaim my life, my body and my spirit. I will continue to distance myself from bulimia. This year’s seder plate will feature self-compassion, acceptance and patience — and those things are certainly kosher for Passover.

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