Healthy living, the Torah way

Having undergone open heart surgery not too long ago, the subject of how to improve the quality of life by getting healthy and staying that way is never far from my mind. Here are some suggestions my physicians gave me for achieving this:

• Eat healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

• Eat less red meat and avoid abusive substances.

• Shy away from fats and other unhealthy foods, including fried foods.

• Keep yourself clean, and maintain sanitary conditions all around you, especially in the kitchen.

• Get regular check-ups, listen to your physicians, and consult them as the need arises.

• Get plenty of rest and exercise.

• Do not overdo anything — everything in moderation, from eating to exercising.

This is the most up-to-the-minute advice there is, based on tens of thousands of people-years of scientific research, most of which was done in the last century.

And it is precisely the advice we have been getting since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai.

Regarding consulting physicians, we are told, “Whoever is in pain goes to the physician’s house” (Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 46b). The Talmud considers the physician to be God’s agent, based on Exodus 21:19: “[It says there,] ‘He shall cause him to be completely healed.’ From this, we learn that permission has been given [by God] to the physician to heal.” (BT Berachot 60a)

Thus, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Kiddushin 4:12, 66d, “It is forbidden to live in a city where there is no physician.” (See also BT Bava Kamma 85b.)

Let us, then, explore some biblical texts, keeping our eyes and our minds open to what the Torah is really saying — and keep in mind that this column will barely touch the surface of this subject.

We will begin at the beginning, with Genesis 1:29.

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, on which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.”

That is all it says. There is nothing here about eating meat of any kind, but humans insisted on it. In fact, there was so much killing of animals that it was one of the causes of the Great Flood. While God grudgingly gives humans permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:1-6), there is a high price to pay. Before the Flood, the human lifespan was many hundreds of years. After the Flood, it was no more than 120 years (Genesis 6:3).

Permission to eat meat notwithstanding, the emphasis just as clearly remained on eating fresh fruits and vegetables (i.e., BT Shabbat 68a), which is why it “is forbidden to live in a city that does not have a vegetable garden” (JT Kiddushin 4:12, 66d). In other words, we need to live close to the source of fresh produce. There is no suggestion, however, that we should live close to cattle farms.

Aside from limiting meat-eating, the Torah tells us to avoid fat (Leviticus 11:23-25). It also warns against overeating and overdrinking (Deuteronomy 21:20), and from ingesting anything impure, meaning anything that is harmful to us. Taken together, these two commandments prohibit all kinds of substance abuse. Thus, the Talmud tells us (BT Pesachim 113a), “Do not take drugs.” This includes so-called “hard drugs.” Our Sages knew all about opium (see JT Avodah Zarah 2:2, 40d).

Leviticus 15:2-13 requires us to wash ourselves, wash our clothing, wash our cooking utensils, and keep our houses clean. This emphasis led the Talmud to say (BT Shabbat 108b), “The washing of hands and feet in the morning is more effective than any remedy in the world.”

The great sage Hillel, we are told (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3), compared bathing to caring for a vessel containing the divine spirit. This attitude led the rabbis to require us to wash ours faces, hands, and feet every day (BT Shabbat 50b). Hand-washing was also required upon getting up in the morning; each time after going to the bathroom; after removing the shoes which, after all, had the filth of the ancient street all over them; and both before and after eating food. Given the condition of the times, they also decreed that a person had to change into clean clothes before eating. The food itself had to be washed before being eaten or cooked, all utensils used had to be clean, and the food preparation area had to be clean.

Reliance on medical science, a healthy diet, avoidance of harmful substances, clean living — to this list, let us add this: The body needs regular and adequate rest. The Torah prescribes just that: one day of perfect rest every seven days, Shabbat. This idea of everybody and everything getting one day of rest out of every seven was unheard-of 3,500 years ago.

It is not just Shabbat, though. Especially in an agricultural economy, the three most labor-intensive times of the year are the beginning of the planting season, the first harvest, and the final harvest. The Torah insists we get extra rest during those periods — on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In fact, at the end of the harvest period, when things are liable to be the most intense, the Torah adds even more rest: On “the first day of the seventh month” (Rosh Hashanah), and on the 10th (Yom Kippur).

Because the Torah emphasizes rest, the Talmud also emphasized the need for sleep.

Thus, “Sleep…is as important for the body as a steel edge is for iron” (BT Berachot 62b). So seriously did the Sages consider the need for sleep, that if someone takes an oath “not to sleep for three nights, he should be flogged,” after which he should be made to go to sleep for a while (BT Shevuot 25a).

Our Sages also insisted on the need for exercise. For example, the Talmud says (BT Shabbat 41a): “If one eats without [afterward] walking four cubits, his food rots,” because the food will not digest properly, the person will deteriorate physically, and eventually will become ill.

On the other hand, the Sages warned against overdoing exercise (see BT Pesachim 113a).

The Talmud also warned against eating fried foods and anything that was hard to digest, and it suggested drinking bran diluted in water (BT Gittin 56b). It also suggested that we should drink plenty of water during meals (BT Berachot 41a).

I could go on, but I am already way over my word limit. Here, then, is the takeaway: The Torah commands us to live healthy lives, and it prescribes just how to do that. It is great to know medical science is catching up.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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