A Beracha on Unhealthy Foods?

Are there any grounds to suggest that if someone eats a food that is unhealthy for them that they should not recite a beracha, or should recite a different one than one typically would?

There are many medical issues today that restrict the recommended diet of their sufferers; for example, numerous individuals suffer from lactose intolerance, celiac, diabetes and even obesity. People afflicted with one of the conditions are advised to avoid consuming dairy products, gluten and high calorie foods due to the adverse effects these foods can have on their health.

While we be no means encourage one to deviate from one’s dietary restrictions, the fact of the matter is that it is not uncommon for people to “cheat” on their diets. Does this behavior impact hilchos berachos? Unfortunately, I found almost no mention of this topic in the works of the recent Poskim.

 

The Source

The Gemara (Berachos 35b) states that while theoretically olive oil should be borei pri ha’eitz, one would not recite a beracha on drinking it since it is mazik—damages—the body. The precise nature of this “damage” is unclear, and depending upon how we interpret it could have significant ramifications in halacha l’ma’aseh.

One could potentially suggest 2 possible interpretations of how olive oil is mazik:

  1. Its flavor is sharp or revulsive to the point where one derives no enjoyment from consuming it. No beracha is recited since the food is inedible.
  2. While it tastes appealing, it has some negative effect on the body—perhaps causing indigestion or affecting the heart—and its overall impact is more negative than positive. A food which is overall unhealthy is unsuitable as a vehicle for praising Hashem.

If we understand that the Gemara is referring to olive oil which is repulsive and that the intent of the Gemara is in accordance with the first possibility we mentioned, the implication would be that any enjoyable food retains its original beracha despite any negative health effects it may have. However, if we understand that the Gemara is referring to olive oil whose flavor is palatable and the intent of the Gemara follows the second possibility we mentioned, the implication would appear to exempt any unhealthy food from a beracha.

 

Shehakol on Olive Oil?

While the straightforward reading of the Gemara implies that if one drinks straight olive oil no beracha should be recited at all—and the majority of Rishonim as well as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch rule this way—the Rambam understands the Gemara slightly differently. According to the Rambam, if one drinks undiluted olive oil its beracha is reduced from borei pri ha’eitz to shehakol due to being mazik, but it is not exempt from a berecha completely.

Presumably, the Rambam’s source for reciting shehakol on oil despite its negative effects is the Gemara (36a) which rules that one recites shehakol when consuming barley flour even though it can cause or exacerbate parasites in the digestive system. Since we see from barley flour that a negative impact on one’s health is grounds to reduce a food’s beracha to shehakol but not to eliminate the beracha altogether, the Rambam interprets the Gemara regarding olive oil as also only denying the oil its rightful beracha of borei pri ha’eitz but not exempting it completely.

The Bach elaborates that according to the Rambam both olive oil and barley flour taste good but subsequently cause adverse effects on one’s health, accordingly some beracha must be recited since one derives pleasure from consuming them but they drop to shehakol due to their negative side effects. Clearly, the Bach follows the latter interpretation we suggested above, and the Pri Chadash, Even HaAzel and Sdei Chemed explain the Rambam similarly.

The Sedei Chemed adds that according to the normative halacha which does not follow the Rambam, one should not recite any beracha at all on any food which has negative implications for one’s health, even if the food is delicious and one enjoys eating it and the harm will only occur at some later point in time.

In fact, according to the majority of Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam, this apparent contradiction between the two rulings of the Gemara must be addressed and resolved.

The Mishna Berura, Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Nachlas Dovid disagree with the Bach and apparently follow the first interpretation of the Gemara. They understand that olive oil’s taste is repulsive and accordingly it is exempt from any beracha altogether, while barley flour is palatable but has undesirable aftereffects.

According to their position the practical halacha is fully understandable, however the Rambam’s opinion is very difficult to justify, as if olive oil is truly unpalatable why would he hold that it requires any beracha at all?

 

Olive Oil Today

A practical example of this dispute appears in the recent Poskim regarding the olive oil currently available. While the olive oil in the times of the Gemara may have been entirely unpalatable, many individuals have testified from personal experience that our olive oil is delicious.

Accordingly, HaRav Refael Baruch Toledano zatzal ruled that one who drinks olive oil straight should recite borei pri ha’eitz, even though this seemingly contradicts the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch.

The implication of the Ben Ish Chai is that he would concur with this ruling, as he simply states that olive oil is ha’eitz and ignores the qualification of the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch that this would only apply if one mixed it with other liquids. It is reasonable to suggest that he understood that they were addressing a type of olive oil which has different properties than ours.

However, Yabia Omer and Ohr l’Tzion challenge this ruling and write that we cannot diverge from the ruling of the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch. In response to the observation that our olive oil is not mazik, they respond that it is likely that even our olive oil is mazik in some subtle manner.

From their response it is apparent that they follow the Bach and the second approach to the Gemara, as they do not dispute the fact that our olive oil is palatable and nevertheless they insist that no beracha should be recited.

 

A Halachic Conundrum

According to what we have explained above, there are two significant areas of dispute between the different interpretations of the Gemara:

  1. According to the first interpretation, there are no grounds to absolve any food from a beracha if one derives enjoyment from eating it. Consequently, it should be forbidden to drink our olive oil without a beracha, and if we accept this interpretation we are compelled into the uncomfortable position of ruling against an explicit Gemara and Shulchan Aruch. We could escape this dilemma by accepting the second interpretation and assuming that olive oil has some subtle negative effect which is sufficient to absolve it from a beracha.
  2. According to the second interpretation, any food which is likely to cause some subtle negative effects even a while after its consumption is classified as a mazik and according to Shulchan Aruch is exempt from a beracha. Consequently, a diabetic should not recite a beracha on sweets and one who is lactose intolerant would not say a beracha on milchig ice cream etc., and even one who is overweight potentially should not recite a beracha on any fattening foods. Obviously, anyone who would actually pasken this way would be subject to ridicule and this is certainly not the accepted halacha. We could escape this dilemma by accepting the first interpretation and ruling that any food that one enjoys consuming requires a beracha, though the question would remain why are they any different than barley flour which is reduced to shehakol?

In any event, one appears to be stuck in the unenviable position of being trapped into choosing between two untenable positions with no clear escape.

The consensus of the Poskim who address this issue seems to follow the Mishna Berura to recite the standard beracha on any food one enjoys eating regardless of any future ramifications it may induce and they interpret the Gemara’s olive oil as being totally unpalatable, but none of them address the distinction between tasty but unhealthy foods and barley flour which is shehakol, nor do they resolve the Rambam’s opinion to recite shehakol on olive oil. See Chut Shani, Chashukei Chemed quoting HaRav Elyashiv zatzal and Tzohar Ohel Baruch citing HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zatzal.

 

A Third Interpretation

It seems to me that one could suggest an alternative interpretation of the Gemara as to why olive oil is exempt from a beracha that would resolve all of our difficulties.

The Nachlas Dovid and Even HaAzel both describe a food which is mazik as not being consumed in the typical manner. It appears that their intent is that the reason an unhealthy food does not require a beracha is not because it is inedible or because its harm renders it unworthy of being a vehicle to praise Hashem, but rather because one is consuming it in an atypical fashion. It is the action of eating the food which is deficient, not the food itself.

In fact, the original source for this concept may be traced back to Rashi (35b) who explains that a mazik does not require a beracha because it is lacking in “ואכלת”, and in fact the Ritva there also attributes the lack of a beracha to atypical consumption. The Rif’s ruling regarding barley flour also lends itself to this interpretation of the Gemara, ואין כאן מקום להאריך.

Accordingly, the definition of which foods are considered to be mazik or not would not require an absolute lack of enjoyment from their consumption, nor would anything with a subtle ill effect necessarily be a mazik either. Rather, any food which is not commonly eaten in this manner due to its negative impact would be exempt from a beracha, and any food which is commonly consumed in a specific manner would require a beracha despite its negative repercussions.

With this explanation, all of our issues are resolved:

  • It is irrelevant whether olive oil in the times of the Gemara was unpalatable or merely induced later subtle side-effects, as long as people refrained from drinking it straight due to some perceived issue its beracha cannot be borei pri ha’eitz.
  • Furthermore the Rambam’s opinion is understandable, he clearly interprets olive oil as not being revolting, but it does not retain its original beracha if most people refrain from consuming it undiluted.
  • Additionally, even if olive oil today has an enjoyable flavor, as long as most people continue to refrain from drinking it due to even a subtle issue, it remains atypical to consume it in this manner and according to the accepted halacha no beracha is required.
  • Finally, since it is common for most people to eat dairy, gluten, sugar and fattening foods; they will retain their typical beracha despite their adverse impact on one’s health.

8 thoughts on “A Beracha on Unhealthy Foods?

  1. May I please ask a few questions on this shiur?

    1) Does this issue have any bearing upon whether one who eats salad with oil and vinegar salad dressing, if he uses olive oil, whether he should consider a separate bracha on the olive oil? One reason for this could be that as a fruit of Israel, and it being possibly eligible for a haetz bracha rishona, it might be similar to someone who wants to drink grape juice simply as a beverage?

    2) Suppose there is someone lactose intolerant and they live in a place where a majority of the people are lactose intolerant. If they discover lactaid pills that they can take and prevent all ill effect what affect would that have on their bracha requirement? I’m thinking that if they were of the opinion that milk for them would get no bracha because of its harmfulness, then taking lactaid pills ahead of time would either turn a non-food item into food or it would reveal that the previously avoided food is actually food eligible for a bracha. Would that permit us to see a clear way out of the dilemma?

    3) I don’t understand the barley flour matter. Even if parasites like it, he ate it for its taste and food source. Would someone with a tape worm be exempt from all food brachos since the food benefits the tape worm? Should all children be exempt from any bracha rishona on candy and fruit juice because their dentists determine that the harm to their teeth (plaque development) outweighs any food benefit, despite its pleasant taste?

    Chag kasher v’sameach.

    –Chaim

    • 1) No, first of all if one eats/drinks olive oil mixed with other items it is no longer mazik. Secondly, a salad dressing is certainly tafel/secondary to the salad and does not require its own beracha.

      2) The bottom line is that even if one is lactose intolerant and the majority are also lactose intolerant, even without a lactaid pill he would need to say the regular beracha on dairy products, provided it was common to consume them despite the intolerance. According to my theory, if the majority refrained from consuming dairy due to their lactose intolerance it may lose its beracha in which case you would raise a good point, and I think that lactaid would reinstate the beracha.

      3) Apparently, it was believed that barley flour exacerbated the issue of parasites and would make a person (more) sick. According to the Bach the question could be asked regarding all candy and juice as you point out, but according to my theory it would not be an issue since most people to not refain from consuming them despite the plaque they cause.

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