Better living through Judaism

Better living through Judaism

Healthy halachah


One of the things a rabbi hears all too often is that Judaism is a 3,500-year-old religion with rules and regulations that were designed for another time and another place. Traditional Judaism has little or nothing to say to the Jews of the 21st century.

That is what we hear – and, as I said, we hear it all too often.

It is not true, of course. Judaism has a lot to say that is relevant and even necessary in our day. You just have to be willing to listen – and to understand.

Part of the problem is that much of what Judaism has to say is found in the Torah, and to a lesser extent in the remainder of the Tanach, the Bible. Those texts are from another age, and too many of us tend to think of them as having been written for their time only.

The Torah, however, is for all time. Its words are unchanging from generation to generation, but the meaning of those words expands as human knowledge expands.

And that is the way it must be, because Torah was never meant to be read and studied as a product of its time. It was always meant to be seen as a product of the time in which it is being read and studied.

In other words, for us, it was meant to be read as a product of today.

A perfect case in point is what the Torah and the rabbinic literature that derives from it have to say about how to live a healthy life. The Torah remains as forward-looking and up-to-date as cell phones and the internet.

For example, ask a health professional what is the prescription for healthy living, and he or she will tell you:

“¢ Eat healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables;

“¢ Eat less red meat and avoid abusive substances;

“¢ Shy away from fats and other unhealthy foods, including fried foods;

“¢ Keep yourself clean and maintain sanitary conditions all around you, especially in the kitchen;

“¢ Get regular checkups, listen to your physicians, and consult them as the need arises;

“¢ Get plenty of rest and exercise; and,

“¢ Do not overdo anything – everything in moderation, from eating to exercising.

That is what a modern health professional will tell you. That is the most up-to-the-minute advice there is, based on tens of thousands of man-years of scientific research, most of which was done in the last century.

And that is precisely the advice Jews have been getting since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai.


It is no accident that so many of the great rabbis of the talmudic age and the generations that followed were physicians as well as Torah scholars. The two always went hand in hand. They complemented rather than opposed each other.

For example, while we believe that God is the eventual healer of all ailments, we also believe that He wants us to rely on our physicians. As the Talmud says (Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 46b), “whoever is in pain goes to the physician’s house.”

In fact, the Talmud considers the physician to be God’s agent – and finds proof of this in the Torah. Thus, the Talmud tells us, “[It says in Exodus 21:19,] ‘He shall cause him to be completely healed.’ From this, we learn that permission has been given [by God] to the physician to heal.” (See BT B’rachot 60a.)

From this, too, the Talmud derives various rules, including the most important one about doctors: “It is forbidden to live in a city where there is no physician.” (See the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Kiddushin 4:12, 66d.)

The reason for this? Because “If the physician is a long way off, the eye will be blind.” (See BT Bava Kamma 85b,)

That is Talmud-speak for, “If you live too far from medical help, that help will not arrive in time to help you.”

The medieval commentator Rashi disagrees with that interpretation. He thinks the “eye will be blind” statement actually means that doctors tend to take better care of those patients who live nearby, because a doctor’s livelihood depends on their good health. Someone who lives far away cannot count on that kind of attention.

Either way, the rule is that a person must live in a place where medical help is easily obtainable.

To all of this, “Rabbi Eleazar said: Honor your physician even before you need him.” (See JT Taanit 3:6, 66d.)

Not only is Torah, in its broadest sense, up to date on health matters, but from hints we find in it and elsewhere, we get the sense that we may not know all that was once known about disease and their cures.

Miracle or medical technique?

Let us look at two texts. The first comes from I Kings 17:21-22. The prophet Elijah is called upon to revive a child who apparently had died. “And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord…. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

Now this sounds like a miracle, except for the peculiar suggestion at the beginning of these verses: “And he stretched himself upon the child three times.” This makes it sound more like some kind of hocus-pocus.

Something else clearly is going on here. We do not really know just yet what that is, but we do not have too far to look to get a clearer picture of what happened. That is because Elijah’s faithful student and aide, the prophet Elishah, also was called on to bring a child back to life. Listen to the description of the “miracle” Elishah wrought, as recorded in II Kings 4:32-35:

“And he went up and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child became warm. Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him; and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.”

Now let me read a description of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation:

“The person … places the victim on his back, clears his mouth of foreign material and mucus, lifts the lower jaw forward and upward to open the air passage, places his own mouth over the victim’s mouth in such a way as to establish a leak-proof seal, and clamps the nostrils. He then alternately breathes into the victim’s mouth and lifts his own mouth away, permitting the victim to exhale. If the victim is a child, the rescuer may cover both the victim’s mouth and nose.”

So here is what Elishah did when he stretched himself over the dead child. He looked the child squarely in the face, blocked the child’s nostrils, put his mouth over the child’s mouth-and breathed him back to life.

He did other things, as well.

For some reason, he wanted to apply pressure to the child’s chest and he held the child’s hands. The text tells us that as a result of this, “the child became warm.”

In other words, the child’s circulation was restored. That is the central principal behind CPR, which involves both mouth-to-mouth breathing and restoring the circulation to the body.

‘Aha!’ moment

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR are modern medical marvels. Now that we know about them, we can read these two texts, which are nearly 3,000 years old, hit ourselves on our foreheads, and say, “Of course, that’s what they were doing. Why did not we see that before?”

How many lives might have been saved if someone, 1,000 or 2,000 years ago, had looked at the text and, instead of saying “what a fairy tale” said “Let me try and figure out exactly what they did and see if I can’t do the same thing.” It was right there in front of our faces. All we had to do was keep an open mind as we read the text.

Now, let us explore other biblical texts and keep our eyes and our minds open to what the Torah really is saying. We will begin at the beginning, in chapter 1 of B’reishit, specifically with Genesis 1:29.

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, on which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.”

That is all it says. There is nothing here about eating meat of any kind. Fruits and vegetables, yes; meat, no.

Now consider Genesis 9:1-6. The Great Flood has ended. Says the Torah:

“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon all that moves upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea…. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb….”

Now that we have established that God never wanted people to eat meat, let us see if there were any consequences to their health when God finally gave in and said they could.

Before the generation of the flood, Genesis tells us, people lived to a very ripe old age. Adam, for example, lived for 930 years; his son Seth for 912 years.

While Chanoch only lived for 365 years, his father Yered lived for 962 years and his son Metushelach (Methuselah, in English) for 969 years. His grandson Lemech lived for 777 years.

Then something happened. Suddenly, it all changed. Says the Torah in Genesis 6:3. “And the Lord said… [man’s] days shall be 120 years.”

More meat, fewer years

What happened, of course, was that we had reached the generation of the flood. God was now prepared to allow meat-eating within certain guidelines. That meat-eating, however, would come at the price of a much shorter human life span.

Is it merely a coincidence that meat-eating and life expectancy are linked in the Torah, just as they are linked in modern life by study after study that shows that eating less meat is one of the keys to a longer life?

Still, while meat-eating is allowed, the emphasis clearly is on eating fresh fruits and vegetables (see, for example, BT Shabbat 68a.) That is why the Talmud tells us, “It is forbidden to live in a city that does not have a vegetable garden.” (See JT Kiddushin 4:12, 66d.)

Thus far, the Torah’s guide for healthy living is to trust in medical science and to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less red meat.

The Torah also wants us to avoid eating foods that could be contaminated.

One way animals can be contaminated is through their blood. The Torah clearly recognizes the capacity for blood to carry disease. Thus, we are told in Leviticus 17:13-16: “And whoever there is of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among you, who hunts and catches any beast or bird that may be eaten; he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust…. You shall not eat the blood of any kind of flesh; for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. And every soul who eats that which died of itself, or that which was torn by beasts, whether he is one of your own country, or a stranger, he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening; then shall he be clean. But if he washes them not, nor bathe his flesh; then he shall bear his iniquity.”

That last comment, “he shall bear his iniquity,” is another way of saying, “If he gets sick, he has only himself to blame.”

Now, let us take a closer look at what this is saying. If someone kills a permitted animal, he must drain the blood or suffer the consequences.

It does not stop there, however. It also says that the blood that is drained has to be covered up. It does not tell us why, but it is easy to guess: Not only may the blood carry disease, but it could be licked up by other animals, causing them to be diseased. And it could attract all kinds of insects that also would drink the blood, and then carry the disease to the people around them.

Finally, the Torah demands that the person wash his clothes and himself. Again, the reason is the same.

No-fat diets?

We are not through with food yet. One of the big no-nos today when it comes to creating a healthy diet is fat. Avoid fat, medical science tells us. And so does the Torah: Says God in Leviticus 11:23-25, “You shall eat no kind of fat – of ox, or of sheep, or of goat. And the fat of the beast that dies of itself, and the fat of that which is torn by beasts, may be used in any other way; but you shall not eat it.”

We really cannot argue with that, even if Jewish law has limited what the text means by “fat.” Medical science makes it clear that anyone whose arteries are clogged with fat is going to die.

Another rule: Let us remember that we are talking about 3,500 years ago. They did not have refrigerators then, or chemical preservatives. So when it comes to foods that spoil quickly, especially meat, the Torah insists on three things:

1. The meat has to be salted. It is not just that the salt removes the blood. Salt is a natural preservative.

2. You do not kill the animal unless you are prepared to eat it immediately. In other words, you cannot keep raw meat hanging around for a few days. The Talmud, by the way, expands this to include any food that could spoil -including milk and cooked eggs.

3. There are no leftovers. Whatever cooked meat is still around on the third day must be gotten rid of. “And the soul who eats of it shall bear his iniquity,” the Torah says in Leviticus 7.

Here are some other laws:

“¢ From Deuteronomy 21:20, we prohibit overeating and overdrinking.

“¢ From Deuteronomy 14:3, we get the prohibition against ingesting anything impure, meaning anything that is harmful to us.

Put that together with the commandment against overindulging in food and alcohol, and we derive from that a prohibition against all kinds of substance abuse.

Thus, the Talmud tells us in BT Pesachim 113a, “Rav said to his son Chiya: Do not take drugs.”

So that we are clear on the subject, the sages of blessed memory knew all about opium. While they admitted that it could have a beneficial effect medicinally, they specifically warned against overdosing on it. (See JT Avodah Zarah 2:2, 40d.)

Now consider Leviticus 15:2-13. Its message is clear: Wash yourselves; wash your clothing; wash your cooking utensils; keep your house clean.

This emphasis, for example, led BT Shabbat 108b to say, “The washing of hands and feet in the morning is more effective than any remedy in the world.”

Clean living                           

The Midrash tells us at Leviticus Rabbah 34:3 that Hillel compared bathing to caring for a vessel containing the divine spirit. This attitude led the rabbis to add to the Torah’s laws such requirements as that a person had to wash his or her face, hands, and feet every day (see BT Shabbat 50b). Hand-washing also was required upon getting up in the morning; each time after going to the bathroom; after removing the shoes, which, after all, had the filth of the street all over them; both before and after eating food. Given the condition of the times, the sages also decreed that a person had to change into clean clothes before eating. The food itself had to be washed before being eaten or cooked; all utensils used had to be clean; and the food preparation area had to be clean.

The Torah does not tell us why it is so emphatic about washing, and we can only guess at its reasons. It is nevertheless true that this system helped keep down the number of Jews who died or who even suffered during such epidemics as the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the Middle Ages. As one observer put it, “There can be no doubt that the strict observance of the halachah contributed … to their immunity.” (See the accompanying article by our science correspondent, Miryam Wahrman, for a more detailed discussion of this from the point of view of science.)

By the way, it would appear from the Tanach that people back then knew very well what caused plague. In the First Book of Samuel, in Chapter 5, we can trace the path of one such plague as it ravaged the Philistines. In the next chapter, I Samuel 6:5, the Philistines are told by their diviners:

“Make images of your swellings, and images of your mice that ravage the land; and give honor to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land.”

Now, the Tanach is sacred history; it is seen through a different lens – the lens of God. Since ultimately every event comes from God, the sacred historian sees God in every event. That, for example, is why the CPR stories of Elijah and Elishah were written the way they were.

And so we see that theocentricity at work here. The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. They held it for seven months. During that time, in whatever city the Ark rested, plague came. The diviners were asked what to do. “First, get rid of the Ark,” the diviners said. “Then give honor to the God of Israel.”

Oh, yes, they added, “while you are at it, get rid of the rats.”

Clean streets

Incidentally, the Book of Samuel does not disguise the fact that the plague was not limited to Philistine territory. Plagues do not work that way. They keep spreading until they are contained. And this plague spread, too. It went from the Philistine cities into the nearby Israelite communities. Over 50,000 Israelites died in that plague, according to the Tanach.

To return to our topic, however, to relying on medical science, eating healthy foods, and avoiding abusive substances, we now can add something of an obsession regarding cleanliness, both of people and of things.

And of the general vicinity, as well. The Torah also has strict requirements for public sanitation, among other environmental laws.

At times, the Torah prescribes isolation and quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of disease. In some cases where washing clothes or other items might not be enough to eliminate the disease, the Torah insists that these items be burned, or offers similar remedies.

This is only the beginning of what the Torah has to say about health. To our growing list, let us add another thing modern medical science has figured out: The body needs regular and adequate rest. It is in there – one day of perfect rest every seven days. Shabbat.

And it is across the board. Everybody rests – including slaves, strangers, and animals. This idea of everybody and everything getting one day of rest out of every seven was unheard-of 3,500 years ago.

It is not just Shabbat, though. Especially in an agricultural economy, the three most labor-intensive times of the year are the beginning of the planting season, the first harvest, and the final harvest.

And surprise! The Torah insists that we get extra rest during those periods – on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

In fact, at the end of the harvest period, when things are liable to be the most intense, the Torah adds even more rest: On a day it calls “the first day of the seventh month” and we call Rosh Hashanah; and on the 10th day of that month, which both we and the Torah call Yom Kippur.

Perfect rest period

So at a time when people in an agricultural economy are liable to be the most frantic and harried, when they are working around-the-clock to bring in the crops and shut down for the winter, not only does the Torah insist on one day of rest out of seven, but in the space of three weeks, it adds another four days of rest (adding in Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret).

Because the Torah emphasizes rest, the Talmud expanded on this by emphasizing the need for sleep. Thus, one of the most important of the Babylonian amoraim, Shmuel, said: “Sleep … is as important for the body as a steel edge is for iron.” (See BT B’rachot 62b.)

“And Rabbi Yochanan said: If one says, I swear that I will not sleep for three nights, he should be flogged.”

Judging from the context, there are two reasons for this. First, this is the kind of oath a person is unlikely to fill. Second, sleep deprivation is bad for you. That is why Rabbi Yochanan also says that after punishing the man for his vain oath, he should be made to go to sleep for a while. (See BT Sh’vuot 25a.)

How more up-to-date can the Torah get? It is on the cutting edge of modern medical science.

There is more, but let us move on.

The Torah really is not a book of laws as much as it is a book of chapter headings. You really cannot observe most of these laws until someone comes along and fills in the chapters. That is the job of the Oral Torah, so let us see how the sages of blessed memory filled in these chapter headings.

We have seen a lot of it already, of course, but there is more to mention.

First, let me give you a perfect example of what I mean. Earlier, I said that the sages, among other things, made it a law that you had to wash your hands every time you went to the bathroom. They did not make this up out of thin air. They took it from a “chapter heading” in the Torah, in this case Deuteronomy 23.

So let us look at some of the “enabling legislation” the sages promulgated to put the Torah’s laws into practical terms:

First up is exercise. According to the sages, exercise was beneficial to a person. For example, the Talmud says at BT Shabbat 41a: “If one eats without walking four cubits [after it], his food rots,” meaning that a little walk after dinner helps the digestion, thereby preventing illness.

No pain, no gain

Not only is exercise important, but no pain, no gain, says one sage. (Well, Ben He-He [probably not his real name, but that is another story] did not use those words, exactly, and he probably was not referring to exercise specifically. However, in Pirkei Avot 5.26, he does say, “The reward is based on the effort made.”

On the other hand, do not overdo the exercise. That is another thing the Talmud tells us. (See BT Pesachim 113a.)

The Talmud also warned people to avoid fried foods and anything that was hard to digest. And long before someone came up with the idea for Metamucil, it suggested drinking bran diluted in water. (See BT Gittin 56b.)

It also suggested that people drink plenty of water during meals. “If one eats without drinking,” the Talmud said at BT B’rachot 41a, “he is eating blood,” meaning that it is harmful, “and that,” it added, “is the beginning of stomach trouble.”

We could go on, but you get the idea. And it is true that some of the Talmudic sages had bizarre notions about biology and medicine, but they are the exceptions usually held up to ridicule the Talmud, not learn from it. The fact remains that from the giving of the Torah 3,500 years ago to this very day, living a Torah-true life means living a healthy life as modern medicine understands that term. Laws that made absolutely no sense to anyone 3,500 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago, make perfect sense today.

True, you do not need the Torah to tell you how to live a healthy life.


That was not really true just 50 years ago, however.Even 50 years ago, the 3,500-year-old Torah was in some respects light years ahead of medical science.

Maybe it still is. We will not know for certain until medical science makes some new discoveries and we hit ourselves in the foreheads and say, “Of course! That is why the Torah said to do such-and-such.”

If that does not show the timeliness of Torah, both the written and the oral Torah, nothing can.

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