Ever since I was a kid, something about the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers bothered me. At one of the main points of the service, we declare that these are the days where it is determined “who will live and who will die”. Since the theme of the days is repentance, it would seem logical that the righteous will live, and the wicked will die. But statistically, old people die much more frequently than young people do. So in my young mind, I couldn’t help but wonder – are the elderly really so wicked that they deserve to die based on their sins in the previous year? What exactly did they do?

I recently came across a responsa by the 15th century Algerian sage, Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, commonly known as the Rashbash, who helped explain the issue.

In responsa number 195 (viewable here in Hebrew) he was asked the following question: If a city has been struck by plague, is there any reason for a person to flee the city? For if on Rosh Hashana it was determined that he would die, then how will it help to flee? And on the other hand, if he was inscribed in the book of life, then even if he stays in the city he will not be harmed.

He answers by saying that this popular understanding of the judgement on Rosh Hashana is incorrect. He writes that all of us have a set, natural lifespan, which is determined on what we would call today biological makeup. And indeed, as I noticed as a kid, there is a certain average life expectancy for groups in the population.

So what is meant by “life or death” on Rosh Hashana? According to the Rashbash, it refers to people who are being judged by God for capital crimes. Since most of us do not fall in that category (I once heard a rabbi quip that today you need to be a real scholar to violate a biblically mandated prohibition), Rosh Hashana will not determine whether we will live or die in the year to come.

And yet some people do die before their set life span – by plague or other diseases, by war or accidents. The Rashbash writes that these events are in the “realm of the possible”. And what can one do to prevent them from happening? Precisely because this is not determined in advance by God on Rosh Hashana, we all have the individual responsibility to avoid war and danger (for example by fleeing a city afflicted by plague), and to know the benefit of “good behavior and maintaining health”.

This approach fits well with our modern approach to health and safety. In fact, we’re often overwhelmed with tips, warnings and advisories – sometimes contradictory – designed to help us live as long as we can.

I’ve studied nutrition for many years, and have always tried to follow experts with a lot of scientific backing and a logical and moderate approach, such as New York Times columnist Jane Brody, and writer Michael Pollan, whose famous mantra is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” and argues against “nutritionism” – focusing on the benefits or dangers of a particular nutrient over eating healthy foods in general. Sometimes people will praise a particular vitamin, other times they will rail against a particular kind of fat. Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the dangers of sugar.

In her 1985 Jane Brody’s Good Food Book, she claimed that the main problem with sugar is that it provides empty calories. She wrote:

Sugar, which provides none of the 44 nutrients needed to sustain human life, accounts for far too large of a share of our daily calories. Currently, one-fifth to one-quarter of our daily caloric intake comes from sugars that are added to foods… Sugar has been dubbed a killer and accused of everything from heart disease and diabetes to hyperactivity and hypoglycemia. The fact is that none of these accusations can be supported by sound scientific research. The one disease that is incontrovertibly linked to sugar consumption is tooth decay…

However, in the time that has passed since Brody wrote that passage, new research has been published on the issue. Today, the main proponent of the claim of the danger of sugar is Dr. Robert Lustig. He claims that “sugar is sugar” (no matter what kind) and that sugar is toxic. I read one article about him and was intrigued, but after reading more and more, I have become more convinced. I won’t go into the scientific detail here, but basically, he claims that sugar is linked to heart disease, diabetes – and even cancer.

If you are not familiar with Lustig’s theories, I recommend you read this New York Times article, watch this convincing segment on 60 Minutes with Sanjay Gupta, or listen to Alec Baldwin’s entertaining interview with Lustig.

Lustig’s scientific arguments are very persuasive. Even perhaps Lustig’s biggest public critic, Dr. David Katz, while arguing strongly against Lustig’s claim that sugar is a toxin, concedes that sugar is linked to the diseases that are included in Lustig’s warnings. Katz seems primarily concerned about the “nutritionism” issue – that if too much attention is focused on sugar, then manufacturers and consumers will simply look for substitutes, which will bring their own dangers.

That concern is real. And as my wife and I have made an effort to remove sugar wherever possible from our diets over the past few months (our kids are not quite on board with this mission, to say the least), we haven’t been looking for a quick fix. We realized we needed to change what we eat – not only what’s in what we eat. For example, we have not been using artificial sweeteners as well. What we have done, is realize that food and drinks simply don’t have to be as sweet as we once thought they did. And over time, our palates have adjusted, and (real) food tastes better than ever before.

So while the traditional Jewish wish on Rosh Hashana is for a “sweet new year”, I think it’s very possible to say that in today’s overly processed, sugary/corn syrupy environment, we don’t need to be concerned about having enough sweetness. But as the Rashbash told us, on Rosh Hashana, we should be thinking about how to preserve our own health. And so in addition to thinking about our sins and our merits, we should also be concerned about just how much sugar we consume.

And if we do that, hopefully we will all merit a long life. And then the question of “what exactly did those old people do?” will have a different answer entirely…

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