Parashat Va'et'hanan

Guard Yourselves Very Well

The Torah requires us to eat and live healthfully and responsibly.

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Guard Yourself

To answer this question, we go to two verses in this week's parashah, Va'et'hanan, that state, "Guard yourself and guard your soul very much (Deut. 4:9)" and "You shall guard yourselves very well (Deut. 4:15)."

The Sages explain that these verses refer to the mitzvah of protecting one's physical health. As Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz explains: "'Guard yourself' means taking care of the body." According to the Sefer Hachinuch, this mitzvah extends beyond the obligation of protecting oneself from things that can end one's life to include also those things that can damage one's body.

The body was given to us as a vessel whose primary function is to house the soul so that the soul can dwell in this world and fulfill its purpose. Maimonides comments: "Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God--for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill--therefore he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger (Hilkhot Deot 4:1)."

We also learn from the Shulhan Arukh, the primary compilation of Jewish law, that we should avoid all things that are a potential risk to our lives. So holy and valuable is our being alive in the eyes of God that we are directed to stay away from something that is even just potentially harmful. 

Research on Pesticides

How much more so in the case of food grown with pesticides, whose harmful effects on human health are supported by a vast amount of documented research. The very purpose of pesticides in the world is to kill living things--weeds, insects, rodents, worms, aphids, termites, or moths--which harm our food. It is not only acknowledged, it is proudly boasted by the pesticide industry, that the pesticides being used are powerful poisons. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists over 100 of the 300 standard chemicals in pesticides as carcinogenic.

Certain chemicals found in some pesticides, even if present only in very small concentrations on foods and in runoff and groundwater, reach ever higher concentrations as one moves up the food chain. The effects of these chemicals are cumulative, and as they accumulate in our bodies, risks grow with time, particularly for children.

Other chemicals used do not have this cumulative affect, yet any small amount of toxic chemicals in the environment can have very profound effects on the lives of unintended victims--both human and non-human.

The agricultural industry now pumps over 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides into American farms, soils, and waters every year. Proven links from certain pesticides to thousands of illnesses, increased incidence of cancer, and other human health risks have been well documented.

An increasing body of research shows that pesticides and other contaminants are more present in the foods we eat, in our bodies, and in the environment than we thought. By eating organic foods, you can reduce your exposure to the potential health risks associated with those chemicals.

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Akiva Gersh

Akiva Gersh has been working in the field of Jewish education since 1998, including teaching Jewish environmental studies and directing Jewish summer programs. He currently works at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program where he teaches Jewish history to visiting high school students from the United States.