Are Health and Fitness Jewish Values?

How your New Year's resolution fits into the Jewish tradition.

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 focuses only 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.

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?

Awaking Your Bones

Martin Buber recorded a story of Rav Simhah Bunim, of Przysucha, who took very literally the words of our prayer that relate to physical awareness. According to the story, Rav Simhah arrived late for synagogue one Shabbat morning. When asked why he was so late, he quoted from Pesukei  d’zimra, preliminary blessings and psalms (Psalms 35:10), which he had missed reciting because of his lateness: “All my bones shall say, who is like You, God?” How then, Rav Simhah asked, could he come to pray before his bones were all awake?

Most likely, we view the words of Psalms that Rav Simhah quoted in a metaphorical sense. However, anyone who has done yoga, or any type of intensive physical activity, knows that awakening our bones need not be simply a metaphorical act. It can be profoundly physical as well as mental, and these realms connect to the spiritual. Nowhere am I more mindful of how much yoga has awakened my bones, lengthened my spine, and grounded my stance than when I stand and prepare to say the Amidah.

Rav Kook Connects The Physical & The Spiritual

In the 20th century, Rav Kook went much further in connecting physical and spiritual health. He claimed that physical health is in itself a value in the process of repentance and that, in each human organism, there is a constant reciprocal relationship between body and spirit. Rav Kook promoted a Zionism that strove to restore health to the body of the Jewish people so that its spiritual life could flower to its fullest. He intended this restoration to occur not only on the metaphorical level in terms of the strength of the State of Israel but also with respect to the strength of every person:

“Great is our physical demand. We need a healthy body. We dealt much with soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected the physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh; no less than holy spirit…” He continues: “Our teshuva (repentance) will succeed only if it will be–with all its splendid spirituality–also a physical return, which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, mighty solid bodies, a fiery spirit radiating over powerful muscles…”

A proper emphasis on physical health is linked with how and what we eat. Jewish tradition has elaborate guidelines for how we are to approach food: what we are permitted to eat, when we may eat it, how it must be prepared, and what types of blessings we are to recite over each bite that enters our mouths. Given this religious framework, one might assume that Jews would have a healthy relationship with food.

“Traditional Foods”

However, we fall victim to the same food fads and eating-related health problems that plague society at large. When the words “Jews and food” are mentioned together, the reverence our tradition has historically had for food is not the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, we recognize, often with humor, how linked our holidays and celebrations are with food customs and with eating. No significant date in the Jewish calendar is properly observed without either an overwhelming abundance or complete absence of food. Our celebrations are famous for fare ranging from bagels, lox, and rugelach to full-blown, all-you-can-eat smorgasbords.

An examination of some of the disconnect that has developed between Jews and our ancient links with food, can help us regain a more positive and healthful attitude towards eating. While agriculture dictated the lives of our ancestors, contemporary Jews must often reference a list to learn which berakha (blessing) to say on a given piece of food. Many foods we consider “traditional” today result from the efforts of hungry people to ensure that no animal parts went to waste.

Ironically, we now scour specialty food markets for exotic ingredients to prepare the “traditional” foods that were once simply the local fare of our dispersed Diaspora ancestors, valuing the wisdom we find in a recipe over our own fresh and local ingredients. There are modern secular food movements called “slow food” (a counter to “fast” food) and “local food” which urge people to know and appreciate how food is grown and harvested, and if possible, to participate in these activities themselves.

Like fitness trends, Orthodox Jews are not at the forefront of these food movements. However, one can argue that the blessings that we recite over food in our tradition promote the same type of awareness and reverence these movements encourage.

Discovering The Origins of Our Food

The formulation of the food blessings not only allows us to thank the Creator for something with which to fill our bellies, but also demands that we have knowledge about the origins of our food. To choose the correct blessing, we must know how a given food grows (on trees or closer to the ground, for example), what key ingredients a dish contains, and what type of processing a food has undergone before it arrives on our table.

Our blessings also indicate in their wording a concern for the nutritional content of food. “Birkat hamazon literally means “blessing over sustenance.” The blessing ending with the words, “borei minei mezonot” gives thanks to “the One who creates sustenance.” We have a halachic (Jewish law) obligation to give thanks to God for all the food we choose to eat, even “junk food” that can be detrimental to our health.

Nevertheless, the words of our food blessing, if recited with intention, are a constant reminder to put into our bodies, God’s vessels, food that is nourishing. And a blessing said on a food eaten when truly hungry, is, in most cases, said with a level of intention far greater than a blessing mouthed over food eaten past the point of hunger. In short, Judaism has provided us with thoughtful food blessing, and these, if said with kavanah (intention), are likely to lead to more healthy eating.

The questions of how and what we eat and how we treat our bodies are both physical and spiritual, and they are definitely Jewish questions. Both our tefillot (prayers) and our berakhot  (blessings) would be more meaningful and our eating would be more healthful if we took the time to explore and consider these issues seriously. At the same time we should recognize that our religious traditions do give us a framework for relating properly to our physical selves.

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


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