Am I my brother’s weight-management keeper?

Thank you so much for your teachings. It has really helped me understand how to connect with people, make the world a better place, and be rewarded with ‘certificates of appreciation’ in the process.

I’m a little conflicted right now, though, and so I’m reaching out to see if you can offer me some ancient Jewish wisdom to help me get through this situation:

I own a bakery; I specialize in sugary treats, and the reactions I get when people taste what I make sets my heart aglow. I love it when people enjoy my confections. I understand that these are ‘treats’ and that consuming these things consistently, like anything (including exercise) can be unhealthy – I really don’t know what people do with my wares once they leave my bakery, I just hope I am making the world a better place when the transaction is made.

The exception, though, is with one of my best friends’ husband. He just had weight-loss surgery (his second) and it doesn’t look like this second one will be successful either. He’s not listening to doctors, still sneaking food, etc. I pray it works out, but he will call me up and order some chocolate truffles ‘for his wife’ but I know that this isn’t the case. He may give her 1/4 of the order, and the rest are for him.

What do I do here? Is my obligation to my family/business and do I make the transaction and accept the certificate? Or, is my obligation to my genuine connection and concern for his health and the relationship with my friend?

Seeking wisdom, Rabbi, and Susan

Thank you kindly,

Ashley (alias)

Dear Ashley,

What a fascinating question! While in your case, the potentially harmful goods are your baked delicacies your concern could apply in so many other cases. What if you own a car dealership and a friend opts to buy a luxury car and meanwhile you know that he is already heavily in debt? Or you own a motel and a friend checks in with someone to whom she isn’t married? The possibilities are endless.

For the purpose of this Ask the Rabbi, we should stipulate that we are not approaching it from a legal angle. It is possible that refusing service could subject you to a lawsuit or cause other problems. We are only commenting on the ethical/moral issue at hand through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom. We don’t mind telling you that your excellent question took a bit of research!

Ancient Jewish wisdom does not advocate unbridled capitalism with a cavalier attitude of “caveat emptor–let the buyer beware. Swindling, cheating, or even subtly misleading your customer are clearly forbidden as is using insider information to take advantage of someone else’s lack of knowledge. Furthermore, trading in items whose only purpose is harming others, for instance, destructive drugs, is not permissible. We coined and use the words ‘ethical capitalism’ to describe the Torah’s approach to business.

However, your question doesn’t fall into any of these categories. In your case, there are two principles that could apply. The first would kick in if you were the only source of baked goods in your area. In that case, our answer might be different. However, we assume that sugary confections are readily available and in our day and age they can be gotten almost instantaneously online as well.

With that being so, the second Hebrew principle that comes into play is, “ein sof l’davar,” or, in English, “there is no end to the matter.” As you can see from our examples, if a storekeeper is responsible for how his or her wares are used, we very quickly would be in a “nanny community.” We would be constantly evaluating who needs what and whether we think they should have it. We would sit in constant judgment of each other rather than serving one another. This would not only have a crippling effect on business but, more importantly, it would destroy relationships as we infantilize one another.

You are not responsible for your friend’s husband’s health, though you can pray that he has the strength to do the right thing. Your bakery sounds delightful and we’re gratified that our teachings are helpful.

Gastronomically yours,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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13 thoughts on “Am I my brother’s weight-management keeper?”

  1. What, then, is the response when someone meddles in your business? When someone says: ‘you shouldn’t sell your items to that person who is overweight’ or, ‘I saw you rent a room to that man and woman who weren’t married’ or, more personal to my situation (a relative said this to my kid:) ‘your mom and dad aren’t good parents and didn’t raise you correctly.’?

  2. We are our brother’s keeper but people (adults) will make their own decisions. I remember talking with a woman who I know is of the Seven Day Adventist Faith. I had no idea that she would have said something like this “I keep condoms in my draw just in case…” I know she was not in a relationship with anyone. Later on I was considered calling her to say that is not what God wants you to do. Then I reconsidered, I do not have to tell a much older woman than me what to do with her body, she knows right from wrong.

  3. Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan, how this should be dealt between spouses? Is it OK/must for one to be the keeper for the benefit of the other?

    1. Weight loss concerns regarding a spouse are a whole different ball game. The question in marriage isn’t interjecting yourself into someone else’s life, because it is your own marriage. However, the first concern would be not harming the marriage and understanding what is productive vs. blowing off steam.

  4. Carl August Schleg

    Without detail, I too walked away from similar commodities , and rest better learning other ways to create wealth.

  5. My family are grocers so I can appreciate the conundrum that Ashley finds herself in. Here are my unsolicited thoughts on the matter. However they come some caveats:
    1. The usefulness of my thoughts depends on the nature of her relationship with her friend. How good is it? Is it close enough with enough mutual respect that concerns can be relayed without inferring or incurring negative judgment?
    2. It also depends on what is the relationship between her friend and her friend’s husband. This one is most certainly harder to discern. Is it one of such mutual respect and love that a presented concern isn’t immediately met with hostility and resentment?

    My thoughts are if the conditions listed above are met, then I would recommend having a discussion with her friend about her husband’s continued self-destructive eating habits. It would have to come from a place of genuine concern and empathy.

    There also may be hidden reasons why he eats like he does. It may not be pure gluttonous hedonism, even though that is certainly possible. There are people I know whose eating problems are/were a coping mechanism for other problems in their lives. These people can be like drug addicts and probably should be approached in a similar fashion.

    Just my thoughts. They’re probably a bit rambly, but I hope they might be helpful.

    1. Chad, like everyone else replying here, you sound like a nice person. However, we think you’re not on the right track. You are, in terms of that there may be underlying issues and that our baker should care about her friend, but you are encouraging her to be a busybody. If her friend’s husband has had failed surgery previously, you can be quite sure that unless his wife is deliberately sticking her head in the sand, she is aware of her husband’s problem. She can choose to speak to Ashley if she wishes to, but Ashley threatens her self-respect and the marital relationship by intruding.
      One of the hardest things for people to do is not to interfere, but it is important that we know when to step in and when to stay quiet.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Chad–
      Thanks for writing so thoughtfully. Susan Lapin has already responded well to the substance of your letter; I am responding to one specific point which I thank you for making because it provides me an opportunity for teaching an important point.
      You recommend that Ashley engage her friend in a discussion about the friend’s husband. Then you add this sentence: “… It would have to come from a place of genuine concern and empathy…”
      Chad, what do we say to the guy who does something good but with bad intentions? Say someone tried to harm you but he’s such an incompetent nincompoop that he mistakenly ended up doing you a tremendous favor. God’s answer? You thank him sincerely because his bad heart doesn’t detract from his good hands, as it were.
      The reverse is just as true. Someone did something tremendously harmful to you but had excellent intentions. Again, his good intentions in no way ameliorate the harm and they certainly do not excuse his unforgivable action.
      In other words, dear Chad, you are advising Ashley the storekeeper to interfere between husband and wife. Unforgiveable! You are advising her to gossip and make a woman think less of her husband. You are infantilizing the husband in his wife’s eyes. Unforgiveable. But wait, you say, in her heart was “genuine concern and empathy”. So what! Who cares? What is in the heart does not undo the action of the hands or mouth. Whether good action with bad heart or horrible action with good heart, the heart is always irrelevant to humans. Only God judges what is in the heart. Without intending to do so, you gave some really damaging advice.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      In this case, it is, dear Wayne,
      But logical doesn’t always correspond to moral, does it? It is certainly logical to deny expensive and rare medical treatment to the elderly because in the real world, everything is limited, even the availability of medical resources. So favor the young. But logical isn’t moral. In the apportionment of limited medical treatment the age, gender, skin color, political views, etc of the patient are all irrelevant. Logical doesn’t always correspond to moral.

  6. I was hoping that you would address the presumption in the subject line that we should all be our brother’s keeper. Please tell me what you think. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”. Cain knew where his brother’s dead body was because he killed him, but he did not want to admit to that, so he attempted to deflect the question by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. The answer, of course, is “no”, but God was not asking him if he had been watching over and guarding his brother; he was addressing the murder. I don’t know why everyone assumes that the answer to Cain’s question would have been “yes” if God had chosen to answer it. So who is right, me or … everyone else?

  7. I just got an idea when reading the question and the answer. What if the owner of the bakery shop would offer their friend some healthier versions of the commonly sold sugary treats? This could also widen their product range, but more importantly would help many people stay and eat healthier. Today it’s quite easy to do. We have lots of alternative – and delicious – ingredients for almost anything. And by offering such a service to their friend and other customers they could also feel the owners’ true concern for their wellbeing.

    1. Ildiko, my guess is that the bakery owner does have more healthy treats because so many people desire them. If they make economic sense, she probably offers them. If it doesn’t make economic sense, then that would be a bad business move. Her friend’s husband is choosing what he wants to eat. The point we are making in our answer is that she is not his mother or his nanny. He is responsible for his own choices.

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