Returning to our Roots: Reclaiming Health as a Jewish Virtue

Ever since I discovered the intimate connection between lifestyle and disease on my own healing journey, I started wondering why Jewish practice doesn’t place a greater emphasis on healthy living. I had just watched my body break down from Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an autonomic nervous system disorder I was diagnosed with at 18 years old. I had seen how physical illness can literally turn life upside down—preventing one from driving, grocery shopping, socializing and even doing simple household tasks. I had learned how integral our bodies are for literally everything we do and how even a minor malfunction can drastically impair our lives. 

After all of the conventional POTS treatments failed, I turned to the world of holistic medicine and slowly reclaimed my health through a combination of nutrition, acupuncture and neurorehabilitation. While I healed my body and transformed my lifestyle, I became increasingly perplexed about why Jewish communities don’t spend more time discussing physical health. I mean, we often talk about the soul—about mitzvot, about emunah, about connecting to Hashem. But we don’t talk nearly as much about taking care of our bodies—about proper diet, exercise, sleep, stress management and more. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why not?” 

The concept of guarding one’s health is rooted in Jewish sources. It even has its own section in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the summary of Jewish law! Rambam, an esteemed twelfth-century physician and Torah scholar, writes extensively about taking care of our bodies, as do other great Torah scholars like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel. So why does healthy living seem to get pushed to the sidelines in Jewish education, conversation and community life? 

Growing up, I rarely heard health mentioned in my Judaic classes, let alone prioritized in Jewish social settings. While running a Shabbat youth group in high school, I fed the kids mountains of candy and treats provided by the shul. One adorable brother and sister used to bring their own healthy snacks, and I remember feeling so bad for them. I thought, “I’d never be that type of mother.” Now I know that’s exactly the type of mom I will be! Still, I wish I didn’t have to choose between personal values and community values. If health truly is a virtue in Judaism, shouldn’t Jewish communities be paradigms of healthy living?

Let’s back up for a second and see what the text says about guarding our health. The Torah states, “Guard yourself and your soul very much” (Deut. 4:9). Why does it say “yourself” and not just “your soul?” Besides, doesn’t Judaism teach that our soul is our true essence? Yes, but our soul could not exist in this world without the physical body as its vessel. Therefore, we must meticulously care for our body—the soul’s one-and-only vessel—with healthy lifestyle habits. 

Rambam writes in the Mishneh Torah, his groundbreaking book on Jewish law, that it is impossible to fully connect to Hashem when one is unwell. “Therefore, one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger,” he states in chapter 4 of Hilchot De’ot (The Laws of Personal Development). 

Rambam discusses the importance of exercise and sleep, but he considers diet the most crucial factor in maintaining physical health. Over 800 years later, researchers have discovered that poor diet is the top risk factor for mortality in the world, according to data from the Global Burden of Disease, the most comprehensive observational epidemiological study in the world. Wow, Rambam was quite ahead of his times! 

Unhealthy diets, consisting of ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates, contribute to a range of chronic conditions from heart disease and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and stroke. Shifting to real, whole-foods—like vegetables, nuts, fruit, quinoa, eggs, fish and meat—can make a tremendous difference in terms of mental and physical health. 

Which brings us back to our original question: Why don’t Jewish communities place more of an emphasis on healthy living? Why aren’t shul kiddush tables filled with vegetables, fruit and nuts instead of cookies, cakes and chips? Why don’t we talk about the value of exercising and sleep in addition to learning Torah? 

I think part of our answer is that Jewish practice tends to focus on the soul over the body, and it’s easy to see why. The soul is our perfect, pure essence—a piece of G-d Himself. It sure seems more attention-worthy than mere flesh and blood. 

Yet Rabbi Kook declares otherwise, writing in his seminal work Orot (Lights): “We require a healthy body. We have greatly occupied ourselves with the soul and have forsaken the holiness of the body. We have neglected health and physical prowess, forgetting that our flesh is as sacred as our spirit.”

That’s quite the powerful statement: that our body is as sacred as our spirit. It connects back to Rambam’s teachings that we should focus on caring for our bodies as much as caring for our souls. And it creates a powerful opening for us to start discussing health in our Jewish schools, shuls, homes and communities. 

Especially now in the midst of a global pandemic, we must do everything we can to strengthen our bodies and fortify our immune systems. Let us return to our roots and rekindle the great mitzvah of guarding our health so that our pristine souls can be housed in the strong, healthy vessels they so dearly deserve. 

What can you do to guard your health today? Here are some ideas:

  1. Choose real, whole foods that come from plants or animals instead of processed foods that come from a package or box. And remember—it’s not all or nothing! Any positive food choice is a step in the right direction.
  2. Get up and move! Go for a swim, take a walk, dance with your kids, start a garden. The less stationary we are, the more our bodies will thank us.
  3. Aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. To help your body and mind wind down, dim the lights in the evening, avoid screens and do relaxing activities like reading, drawing, meditation, or yoga.
  4. Focus on connection. Connect to loved ones, connect to nature, connect to yourself. By fostering healthy relationships with ourselves, G-d, and all of His creations, we greatly support our health and wellbeing. Alas, we are all connected!

This article was originally published in Nishei Ora | Women of Light.

About the Author
Manya Goldstein is a health writer and educator living in Jacksonville, FL. She graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in journalism in 2019 and is currently pursuing her MS in Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida. Manya became fascinated by health after being diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) at 18 years old. Over the next five years, she reclaimed her health through a combination of nutrition, acupuncture and neurorehabilitation. To learn more about her story, visit: www.meetmanya.com.
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