Keep Well It's a Mitzvah
I give this D’var Torah in loving memory of my dear father, Ellis Levine (zl), who passed away on 12 June 1997 (the second day of Shavuot, 7 Sivan 5757) and my dear mother, Cissy Levine (zl), who passed away almost exactly two years later, on 18 May 1999 (3 Sivan 5759). My dear late mother’s 16th yahrzeit was on Thursday and my dear late father’s 18th yahrzeit is today.
I also give this D’var Torah in loving memory of my very special brother Ian, who sadly passed away very suddenly on Tisha b’Av, 9 Av 5769 (30 July 2009).
The word, “mitzvah” literally means a “commandment by G-d”. It’s not simply a “good deed”, as some would believe. So I’m going to talk about how actively keeping well, or looking after our health, is a mitzvah which has been given to us by G-d.
When we look at the typical Shabbat and Yom Tov culinary fare – all lokshen, kneidlach, kugel, latkes and schnitzel – and the relatively poor record of Jews in sports, it’s difficult to believe that Judaism in fact places a major emphasis on the health of body, mind and soul. In Jewish tradition, there’s no separation between body, mind and soul – they are all inter-connected. In today’s terminology, this is known as a holistic approach, emphasising the connection of body, mind and soul.
The source of this mitzvah is stated in Deuteronomy 4:15, where it says venishemartem MEOD l'nafshotechem which means this: You shall take care exceedingly of your lives. This commandment is understood to mean guarding one’s health in the same way that one would obey other commandments in the Torah.
This is what Maimonides, a great Rabbi and medical doctor known also as the Rambam, said as long ago as the 12th century: "Bodily health and wellbeing are part of the path to G-d. One must therefore avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits" – Maimonides (Rambam) Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1).
Only with a fit, healthy body and mind is it possible to perform the mitzvot in the proper manner. If the body is out of condition, it is impossible to pray to G-d with proper devotion, study the Torah with full concentration and perform many other mitzvot. Amongst the Rambam’s better known writings is the Regimen of Health which he wrote in 1198. Here he explores the connection between psychological well-being and physical health, especially in relation to stress and anxiety. He also suggests that music, poetry, paintings, and walks in pleasant surroundings all have a part to play towards a happy person and the maintenance of good health.
While the relationship between mind and body has only been acknowledged by the established medical world in the last hundred years, the Rambam was well ahead of his time, writing about it 800 years ago. Stop and think about it!
The Jewish view is that G-d decrees the time, place and circumstances into which each soul is born. These circumstances include the person's unique body and constitution. The body grows older every day and must eventually wither away. BUT the health of your body and the length and quality of our lives is to a significant extent (not fully) in our own hands.
In the words of the Shulchan Aruch: "It is a positive duty to take all due precautions and avoid anything that may be a danger to life, as it is written, 'Take care of yourself, and guard your soul diligently.' The sages prohibited many pursuits that involve a risk to life. Anyone who violates such prohibitions, saying 'I'm only putting myself at risk - what business is that of anybody else?' or 'I'm not bothered by such things' deserves a lashing." (Choshen Mishpat 427:8-10).
It is said in Proverbs 13:25 that the tzaddik eats to satisfy his soul. The body can only survive and function properly when adequately nourished by the right types of food and drink. Good food choices reduce the risk for many diseases, while regular excess consumption of unhealthy foods may impair physical and mental functioning and cause serious illness.
As for exercise, the Rambam pontificates: "As long as you exercise, take care not to eat to the point of satiation and keep your bowels smooth, you will not fall ill and your strength will increase. The opposite is true of someone who leads a sedentary life and takes no exercise. Even if such a person eats good food and takes care of himself according to proper medical principles, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will wane." – Rambam, Hilchot Deot 4:15.
So there we have it. Lots of Jewish sources, including some from a doctor/rabbi. Now go and eat wisely; go and exercise to gain all the health benefits that have been described.