Our Bodies 101

Themes and Theology

For the sages of the talmudic era, the body was first and foremost the repository of the soul, but they did not view the living human body as a source of moral taint or ritual pollution. The concept of Imago Dei, the creation of humankind in the divine image, while rarely understood to include a physical resemblance, nonetheless imparted to the human form a certain degree of awe and respect. The complexity of the body’s systems, too, occasions a sense of wonder at the work of Creation that is reflected even in Jewish liturgy. Surprisingly, perhaps, medieval Jewish mystics‘ view of divinity is expressed as ten realms arranged diagrammatically in the form of a human body.



Among Jews as among all societies, garments have reflected religious outlook (consider the deliberate archaism of ultra-Orthodox dress), social status (the garb of the ancient High Priest, for example), emotional states (think of the symbolic ripping of a garment worn while mourning), and even the group’s relation with the outside world (such as the distinguishing Jewish badges and hats imposed by various medieval European regimes).

Jewish law also imposes mandates regarding clothing, the purpose of which is to engender proper behavior and the kind of sanctity associated with pious conduct. These include a curious prohibition on the mixing of linen and wool in a single garment (called sha’atnez) and the expectation of covering the head at certain times or on all occasions. The general category of modesty (tzni’ut), which imposes further restrictions, is subject to a variety of interpretations and shaped by social norms.

Adorning the Body

Jewelry is mentioned in many biblical and early rabbinic sources, with no hint that anything but exaggerated ostentation might lead one to view it negatively.  Cosmetics, too, are seen as value-neutral, as long as their use does not violate canons of modesty. Biblical law forbids tattooing, and contemporary interpreters of Jewish law appear not to have sought ways to relax that ban, although (as in most aspects of Jewish law) sanctions are rarely, if ever, imposed. As the result of Jewish interpretation of biblical law, Jewish men have traditionally sported full beards. Cosmetic surgery undertaken only to enhance one’s beauty runs afoul of Jewish law.

Health and Healing

Rescuing a person from mortal danger is a cardinal requirement of Jewish law and ethics, allowing for suspension of almost all other laws. Jewish sources require that one maintain one’s health, and Jewish literature features extensive guidance on how to do so. Substance abuse is forbidden, although in traditional circles where experts in Jewish law wield authority, rabbis have been reluctant to issue an outright ban on such widespread practices as smoking tobacco, for fear of setting norms which will inevitably be widely violated. Physicians have a right and a duty to promote the health of their patients. They are also forbidden to cause any injury, and those two principles come into conflict at times–as, for example, with some cosmetic surgery.

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