Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden

Charedic, scientific or reporter’s shortsightedness?

New reports suggest that Israeli “ultra-Orthodox” teenagers are more likely to need glasses for distance due to shortsightedness than Israel’s secular and modern-Orthodox teens, because of their lifestyles.

This is just what everyone says: If you’d read too much you end up needing glasses. (And if you’d get out improperly dressed in cold weather you’d get a bladder infection or pneumonia. There’s no end to medical myths.) And the Charedic lifestyle would be unhealthy.

Let’s see if there are really reasonable assumptions here with some value to this report or if this is just another example of idle gossip.

Nonsense by the Press

Since the report doesn’t seem in English on the Internet, let’s concentrate on what reporters write about it. If you like humor, you’re in for a few treats!

The ArutzSheva7 report starts off well with as illustration a pair of convex glasses, therefore for reading for people who are … farsighted.

It reports that “Eighty-two percent of nearsighted participants were haredi, while 50.3% were religious and 29.7% were secular.” That makes for exactly 162% of the nearsighted test subjects, but not a word about teens with proper refraction or farsighted ones…. Most reporters at school were good at languages and poor at math so as soon as a number greater or more complicated than 3 appears in the news, don’t believe it until you checked it.

Reading the JPost article reveals that actually 82% of the Charedic recruits, 50.3% of the non-Charedic religious and 29.7% of the secular enlisted were myopic.

Also that report has its fair share of nonsense. For starters, it features a supposedly Charedic youth reading with glasses – he’s farsighted!

Then we read “Haredi boys read small fonts in Talmud tomes, and both girls and boys read a lot of Rashi and other commentaries that appear in small letters below the regular text.” Well, girls read far less and the “Rashi letters” are harder to read for the secular, not because they are smaller but they are different – and they appear in the Aramaic Talmud around, not under, the text.

Asked whether the religious practice of shokling (swaying forward and backward while praying from the prayerbook or reading from study text) – thereby forcing the eyes to constantly change focus – could also be a cause of myopia, Levine said this too was worth studying further. In truth, the question is so nonsensical that it’s hard to understand that the doc didn’t say so. She probably doesn’t know what shokling does.

Shokling makes you not change your focus because you don’t change the distance or angle between the book you hold and the eye. Rather, it puts (visual and audio) input from the surroundings out of focus and so helps concentration! But when the book is on a stander, the eyes’ strain should diminish and the likelihood of myopia should decrease.

Nonsense by the Scientist

The researcher declares “It is almost certain that the requirements involved in haredi education, which obligate the student to put a lot of effort into reading up close from a young age, contribute to the development of nearsightedness in childhood.” Exactly that is unclear. Her claim is not “almost certain” but rather a total guess. Maybe an educated guess but nevertheless grossly speculative and surely exaggerated.

There is great dispute among eye researchers what causes nearsightedness. The number of theories is enormous! A good indication that things are not as simple as portrayed here.

The idea that “eye strain” causes nearsightedness is particularly a funny one because it’s supposedly also implemented in developing farsightedness!

The researchers missed for open goal by ignoring a perfect control group: females who are called up for army service. (All Charedic males and females are called up at least once.) In statistical population studies, a proper control group is the fine line that distinguishes between science and nonsense.

To compare Charedic with non-Charedic youths is so improper. Charedics don’t watch TV, have a different diet, are a closer-nit genetic group, are predominantly Ashkenazic and are far less outside, which might affect eyesight but also vitamin D levels   .

Charedic females, just like their male counterparts, don’t watch TV and eat the same diet, also are the same genetic group, and are predominantly Ashkenazi too. Yet, they read and pray much less than the males and are far more outside, which might affect eyesight but not vitamin D levels from sun exposure because both these sexes don’t have any to speak of because of their dress codes.

Missing this control group makes this research an embarrassment.

In  any case, a much more reasonable assumption would be that the body adjusts to our activities. We use our muscles, we’ll have more of them, we use our memory, we have more of it, we read a lot, we don’t need glasses for that, we are out and about, we don’t need glasses for that. It’s so simple that the specialists haven’t thought of this yet.

This news is as so often in medical reporting: much ado about nothing. It’s unclear if anything useful will come from this research in the near future. Medical scientists don’t know what they’re talking about – or are just trying to get publicity for greater fame or budgets, and  reporters – who should filter out and question propaganda – know even less. Sad.

About the Author
DES survivor born in 1953, to two Holocaust survivors in The Netherlands, and holds a BA in medicine. He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three kids. Wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. For decades known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. Always trying to bring something original, and to avoid boring you or wasting your time with the obvious.
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