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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Va-ethannan 5763
Shabbat Nachamu

Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
August 9, 2003     11 Av 5763

We are living in a culture captivated by diet and exercise. On the one hand, we could dismiss this American obsession as one manifestation of our materialistic, beauty-conscious society. On the other hand, we could embrace this current cultural focus as one area in which American and Jewish values resonate surely and strongly. This week's Torah portion suggests a powerful link between Jewish law and the pursuit of health and fitness.

Deuteronomy 4:9 teaches "Take utmost care and watch your nefesh scrupulously." The Hebrew word nefesh is most often translated as "soul." However, the rabbis understood this term as a reference to the "life force" of an individual. Therefore, the Talmud quotes this verse as a proof text for the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, or "saving a life"(Berachot 32b). There are many sources in our tradition which encourage the active preservation of human life in the face of danger.

One ardent advocate for this Jewish ethic was the physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides compiled earlier Talmudic teachings about careful attention to health and safety. He wrote:

"It is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as the Torah teaches, 'Take utmost care for yourself; and guard yourself scrupulously' (Deut. 4:9). Our Sages forbade many matters because they involve a threat to life. Whenever a person transgresses [these guidelines], saying, 'I will risk my life, what does this matter to others?' or 'I am not careful about these things,' he should be whipped for rebelliousness. They include: A person should not place his mouth over a conduit through which water flows and drink. Nor should he drink at night from rivers and lakes, lest he swallow a leech without seeing. Similarly, a person should not drink water that was left uncovered, lest a snake or other [poisonous] animal might have drunk from them, and as a result, the person would die ... It is forbidden for a person to place coins in his mouth, lest there be remnants of dried spittle from a sick person ... It is forbidden for a person to pass under a wall that is leaning, or over a shaky bridge, or to enter a ruin. Similarly, it is forbidden to enter all other places that are dangerous.

This excerpt from Maimonides' Hilchot Rotzeach (Chapters 11-12) demonstrates practical rabbinic wisdom on caring for one's health. Today, we apply these principles to modern medical wisdom. For example, Rabbi David Golinkin, the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the head of the Va'ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, has ruled that smoking cigarettes constitutes a violation of the commandment to "guard yourself scrupulously."

As we all struggle to live healthy and active lives, may we find Jewish inspiration to bolster our efforts. Maimonides provides us with a beautiful and spiritual rationale for maintaining a healthy lifestyle:

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God - for it is impossible to understand or know anything about the Creator if one is sick - therefore a person must distance oneself from things which harm the body and accustom oneself to things which are healthful and help the body become stronger. They are as follows: a person should never eat unless he is hungry, nor drink unless thirsty ... (Hilchot De'ot 4:1).

In other words, eating in moderation and taking care of our bodies is one of "God's ways." Unless we keep our bodies sound, we can not pursue the life of the soul. Torah study, prayer, and active participation in the mitzvot of the Jewish community are all enhanced when we can stand before God in health and vigor. Therefore, it is our Jewish responsibility to embrace a fitness regimen for wellbeing throughout our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.