It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that, for most of us, our daily routines center around sedentary activities. We sit around a lot during the day, whether at our desk, or waiting in traffic, or unwinding at home with friends and family. It’s easy to see why these facets of inactivity invade our lives. We are stressed, we are busy, and we are frustrated with the weight of our obligations, so it is much easier to retreat from the world and do nothing. Of course, this inactivity leads to sloth, and sloth leads to many ailments: obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders, among other diseases
What can we do, generally, to stave off unhealthy habits and realign ourselves with a life that balances healthy routines of proper nutrition and plenty of exercise?
Exercise is indeed crucial to ensuring that we lead productive and fulfilling lives. Judaism teaches that the holy and the mundane are never perfectly separated from one another. Rather, the mundane has the potential to be holy when it becomes elevated. This spiritual observation is certainly true for our mortal bodies. One can use one’s body merely to fulfill every desire and pleasure and serve oneself or one can use one’s body to serve God and others. There is a cruel stereotype of a typical un-athletic Jewish individual as only concerned with the study hall or the home, but this is far from the truth. It is a mitzvah — a vital commandment — to keep our bodies healthy and preserve our life and to ensure our body is strong and capable of fulfilling the mission of our soul.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook teaches that exercise can be a holy mitzvah:
[W]hen young people engage in sport to strengthen the power and spirit for the sake of the might of the entire nation, that holy service raises God’s Presence higher and higher, as it is raised by the songs and praises that David, King of Israel, expressed in the book of Psalms.
By means of supernal intentions, the inner soul rises. By means of actions that strengthen individuals’ bodies for the sake of the all, outer spirituality rises. These two together bring to perfection the arrangements of all holiness, emphasizing the character of the nation in that small phrase upon which all the limbs of the Torah depend: “In all your ways, know Him” (Orot, Orot Hatechiyah 34).
So, then, if it is a mitzvah to guard our lives and strengthen our bodies in service of our holy mission, then there should be a bracha (blessing) before we start a session of vigorous activity; any excuse to add blessings to our day is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth! With regard to the substance of the blessing, I would propose the following language:
,אֲשֶׁר יָצַרְתָּ אֶת נִשְׁמָתִי וְאֶת גּוּפִי
;וְצִוִּיתָנִי לִשְׁמֹר אוֹתָם מְאֹד
.חׇנֵּנִי בְּעֹז לְהַמְרִיץ אֶת עַצְמִי בַּמִּדָּה הָרְאוּיָה
,מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ
;שֶׁנָּתַתָּ לִי אֶת הַכּוֹחוֹת הַנְּחוּצִים לְהִתְאַמֵּן
,כֵּן שׇׁמְרֵנִי נָא מִפְּגִיעָה בְּאִמּוּן זֶה
וְעֲזֹר לְמַאֲמַצַּי לְחַזֵּק אֶת גּוּפִי
.וּלְהַאֲרִיךְ אֶת יָמַי בִּבְרִיאוּת
My God, You have created my soul and body, and have commanded me to fervently watch over them; grant me the courage to exert myself to the suitable degree.
I am grateful to You that You have provided me with the necessary vigor to exercise; please continue to guard me from injury during this training, allow me to delight in it, and assist my efforts to strengthen my body, and to lengthen my days in health.
In everything that we set out to do during our days, we must ensure that there is, at a basic level, a modicum of activity to keep our bodies strong and our minds clear. Exercise is a vital means of keeping our entire being in top shape to take on the challenges of the world. It is with this thought in mind where I believe adding an extra occasion for a blessing is not only welcome but exciting! Let us strengthen our physical capabilities while also taking the time to bolster and excel in our spiritual capabilities. This way, we actualize our best selves to ensure that our bodies and minds are in top form wherever we are in our lives.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.