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Judaism on Health and Wellbeing: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century

“That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette,” wrote a Professor at a leading research university in 2014. The report was widely circulated, and, as expected, the Internet exploded with panic and distress. Less than 5 years later, a study referenced in the New York Times purported to show little evidence meat increases the risk of disease. Plenty of people probably started eating meat again, but the damage was done. 

The prevalence of dubious health claims, constantly evolving research, and experts motivated by profit should empower us to reconsider our collective obsession with the latest “revolutionary advice.”

Ancient guidelines for a healthy life are found in the Torah and its commentaries, backed by reputable science and thousands of years of application. There’s no advice to backpedal or products to recall. No trends, fads, or attention-grabbing headlines. Just seven timeless, evidence-backed tips to improve your health and wellbeing.  

Exercise and Sweat Frequently 

Jewish leaders were exercising before it was widely considered healthy. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Rambam, was a renowned Physician in the 11th century. In his book the Laws of Personal Development, Rambam writes that one must “exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning” Did the sages do high-intensity interval training, yoga, or weightlifting? Probably not. But Rambam recognized well before his time that physical health is “a means to enable a long and meaningful life where you are energetic and capable of learning Torah, and understanding and implementing all of your ideals.” Studies show physical activity allows your body to release endorphins, a chemical that triggers a positive feeling, and it is well-proven to reduce depression, cancer, and increase satisfaction in life. 

Eat Whole Foods and Avoid Anything Packaged

The Torah understands food to be medicine and provides guidelines for what to enjoy or avoid. Rambam believed most illnesses were caused by unhealthy foods or overeating. He thought one should stop eating “close to three quarters of full satisfaction.” We now know there’s a 20 minute delay between eating and feeling full, so this advice was before its time. In terms of what to put in our bodies, the Torah is clear: prioritize fruits and vegetables. Bereshit 1:29 reads, “I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit–to you it shall be for food.” God commands Adam to eat from the garden of Eden, and not, of course, processed food. And interestingly, those who only ate fruits and vegetables lived long lives. Adam lived 930 years while his son and grandson lived 912 and 905 years respectively. We don’t fully understand the science behind nutrition yet, but the benefits of eating whole foods are well documented. Make sure your diet primarily consists of fruits, vegetables, low-processed grains, and lean protein. As a general rule, if our ancestors ate it, it’s probably good for you.

Practice Mindfulness and Deep Breathing

The Torah holds that breath is foundational to our consciousness and existence, and its regulation provides a powerful opportunity for emotional stability. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” and “man became a living soul.” Man doesn’t just come alive at this moment; he seems to reach a high level of spirituality. Later, in Shemot 4:30-4:31, the Israelites disobey Moshe “from shortness of breath and from the hard work. “The metaphor used to encapsulate emotional distress – whether anger, depression, or anxiety – is shortness of breath,” writes Dr. Mordechai Schiffman. As such, to alleviate these negative emotions, the Torah alludes to the power of regulating our breath. Among the most effective approaches to meditation is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a renowned practice developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Brain scans reveal reduced amygdala activity and increased activity in attentional deployment regions, as well as many other cognitive benefits, while engaging in meditation. Try breathing in for 6 seconds, holding for 7, and releasing for 8 to enter the “rest and digest” state. Give it a try and see how you feel!

Regularly Hydrate with Water

In Jewish thought, water serves as a symbol of sanctity, dependency, and purity, among many other things. We wash our hands before eating bread, regularly dip in ritual baths, and pray for rain in Israel during the rainy season. The Talmud teaches that wells appeared wherever Jews went (Tractate Ta’anit 9a), even in the arid climate of the Sinai desert. This is a striking manifestation of our reliance on water, and its ultimate source: God. Ancient Israelites understood water is central to our collective experience, both in terms of its spiritual and physiological benefits. Fast forward a few thousand years, dehydration is well-known to cause headaches and impair essential cognitive function. Lack of water also causes constipation and weight gain. Frequently drink water to ensure your body functions at a high level, and remember to avoid processed sugar drinks and sodas.   

Expose Yourself to Sunlight 

The sun has strong origins in Judaism as a healing power. In Bereshit, there is an intense battle between Jacob and the angel of his brother Esau. Just before dawn, the evil angel dislocates Jacob’s hip, but not for long. The Torah says the sun “shone for him” in the morning, and the commentators hold the sun rose in order to heal Jacob’s hip. Jacob was the first human to experience sun healing! Although sunlight doesn’t cure limbs today, we know that Vitamin D is manufactured when sunlight hits the skin, and the main role of Vitamin D is to increase absorption of calcium in the digestive tract. Most recently, Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to increase one’s susceptibility to COVID. So, like Jacob, be sure to get outside for a few minutes every day to experience the healing powers of the sun.

Spend Time in Nature

Judaism values trees to such an extent that the Rabbis established a holiday to recognize their sanctity. Known as Tu Bishvat, this festival celebrates the new year for the trees and the presence of God in nature. Many spend the holiday planting trees, hiking, or immersing themselves in nature. In fact, if a Jew goes outside and sees blossoming trees during the Hebrew month of Nisan, he needs to recite a blessing for the rejuvenation of the tree. Identify a green space near your home or work and appreciate the beauty of the surroundings. There is ample evidence that spending time in nature reduces depression and anxiety. Bonus points if you’re in Israel — you may be taking in the same sights our forefathers did thousands of years ago. 

Sleep When it’s Dark Out

Our forefathers couldn’t choose to go to sleep in the early morning hours. In the absence of artificial light, when the sun set, there wasn’t much else to do besides sleep. Rambam writes one should sleep eight hours and wake at sunrise. He, along with other sages, does not believe sleep should be the pinnacle of our existence, but an important ritual to enable us to perform meaningful tasks. In other words, darkness is not a buffer between days, but rather the start of our day: because the Jewish day begins with nightfall. Many studies demonstrate that artificial light in our bedrooms decreases sleep quality. Be sure to sleep in a dark room, enabling your body to naturally produce melatonin, and wake up when it’s light outside to feel re-energized for a new day. 

About the Author
Isaac Ohrenstein is a student in Jerusalem on a gap-year program called Aish Gesher. He will attend Harvard University in the fall to study politics, philosophy, and economics.
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