A Jewish Approach to Wellness

Traditional sources can help define a Jewish health ethic.

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Reprinted with permission from JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Because our bodies are receptacles of our souls, and vessels of God’s light, we must keep them healthy and consider carefully what we put into them. Traditional Jewish thought suggests that we must keep our bodies well for the sake of spiritual pursuits and  in order to fulfill mitzvot, commandments. Today however, a focus on fitness is often seen as vain or improperly secular.

Balancing Torah & Physical Activity

It is interesting to see how far back in our tradition concerns with our physical selves and the balancing of Torah and physical activity can be found. Already in the Talmud (Shabbat 82a), Rav Huna urges his son Rabbah to study with Rav Hisda. Rabbah resists, saying that Rav Hisda only focuses on secular matters: anatomy and hygiene. Rav Huna admonishes his son, saying, “He speaks of health matters, and you call that secular!” Though some individuals in the Orthodox world may value exercise, to say that as a community we do so, either philosophically, or in an organized fashion, would be a stretch.health

Maimonides’ Health Tips

Indeed, one finds a reluctance to focus on exercise, in part because time is so limited and time spent on sport is time not spent on Torah study or hesed (good deeds) activity. Although many of us are familiar with Maimonides‘ long discussions in the Mishneh Torah about the importance of exercise and healthy, measured eating, we rarely take the details of his many recommendations to heart. For example, Maimonides states that a person “should engage one’s body and exert oneself in a sweat-producing task each morning.” Despite Maimonides’ words, this centrality of exercise is simply not part of normative Orthodox Judaism.

Many of us are also aware of the daily morning tefillah (prayer)that focuses on our health and posture: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who straightens the bent.” Is this just a metaphor, or would participation in exercise that straightens our bodies so they are not hunched, stooped, bent, or subject to skeletal pain, not help us be true to the profound words of our prayer?

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Abbie Greenberg is a former JOFA board member, a mother of five young children and a potter. She is a board member at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.

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