The Torah: To your health

The Torah: To your health


Whether Jewish law supports universal health care coverage should be a given. An article elsewhere in this paper by Shmuly Yanklowitz makes this clear.

What, however, do the Torah and the laws that flow from it (“Torah” in its broadest sense) tell us about caring for our health?

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Basically, they tell us pretty much what a modern health professional is likely to tell us: Eat healthful foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables; moderate your intake of meat; avoid all manner of abusive substances; keep yourself and your environment clean (especially the kitchen); get plenty of rest and exercise; and do not overdo anything. In addition, get regular check-ups; listen to your physician; and do not hesitate to consult him or her as the need arises.

Let us look at these last points first. To be sure, God is our ultimate healer (see Exodus 15:16). Nevertheless, “whoever is in pain goes to the physician’s house” (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 46b) because “permission has been given [by God] to the physician to heal” (see BT B’rachot 60a).

That said, let us examine the “halachic guide to healthy living.” That “guide” begins with a commandment to be vegetarians (see Genesis 1:29). Eventually, though, human bloodlust forces God to back off on this (see Genesis 9:3), but from then on He seeks to limit our meat-eating in a variety of ways (all of which we have managed to get around, to our great loss).

The fact that animal blood can carry disease is why – I would argue – the Torah prohibits our eating of blood and adds other strictures as well, such as covering blood that is spilled on the ground and washing body and clothes after touching carcasses. (See, for example, Leviticus 17:13-16.) Of course, an ostensible reason for the blood prohibition and similar ones is to protect the “purity” of the Sanctuary, but the Torah often disguises a more practical (but controversial) intent in the guise of ritual.

We are not through with food yet. Here is a smorgasbord of other such laws (and keep in mind this is a mere sampling):

• Leviticus 11:23-25 limits the fat we may eat. The Sages of Blessed Memory expanded on this. Thus, among the “things [that] bring on a man’s sickness … in a severe form,” we are told in BT B’rachot 57b), are “beef, fat meat, roast meat, poultry and roasted egg,” among other foods, almost all with a heavy fat content.

• From Deuteronomy 14:3, we derive a prohibition against ingesting anything that is harmful to us.

• From Deuteronomy 21:20, we derive a prohibition against overeating and drinking.

• From both the previous verses, we derive a prohibition against substance abuse of all kinds, including drugs (see BT Pesachim 113a). And so that we are clear on the subject, the Sages knew all about opium. They were mindful of its medicinal qualities, but they specifically warned against overdosing on it. (See the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah 2:2, 40d.)

• Long before someone came up with dietary fiber supplements, the Talmud suggested that bran diluted in water could cure some ailments (see BT Gittin 56b). It also suggested that people drink plenty of water during meals. “If one eats without drinking,” we are told in BT B’rachot 41a, “his eating is blood,” meaning that it is harmful, “and that,” they said, “is the beginning of stomach trouble.”

Beyond food and abused substances, Torah law seeks to quarantine people who may be infectious (at least until it is proven that they are not; see, for example, Leviticus 15:2-13).

The Torah also insists that we wash ourselves; wash our clothing; wash our cooking utensils; keep our houses clean; keep our encampments (our “neighborhoods”) clean.

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

The Torah’s attitude towards cleanliness led the Sages to add their own requirements, such as the need for a person to wash his or her face, hands, and feet every day. Hand-washing was also required upon getting up in the morning; each time after going to the bathroom (only in the 1950s did this become a requirement for food workers in the United States); after removing the shoes, which, after all, had the filth of the ancient street all over them; and both before and after eating food. Given the condition of the times, they also decreed that a person had to change into clean clothes before eating (for reasons too indelicate for a family newspaper). 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.

Moving to another area, modern medical science insists that the body requires adequate rest – on a regular basis. The Torah insists on this, too, by mandating one day of perfect rest in every seven – meaning Shabbat. For the record, this was an unheard-of requirement anywhere in the world outside Israel. In Israel, the law applied across the board – including to slaves, strangers, and animals.

The rest is not limited to Shabbat, however. In an agricultural economy similar to ancient Israel’s, the three most labor-intensive times of the year are the beginning of the planting season, the first harvest, and the final harvest. And at each of these times, the Torah builds in rest stops; it calls them Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Beyond a particular commandment, the Sages emphasized the need for sleep, which they said was “as important for the body as a steel edge is for iron.” (See BT B’rachot 62b.)

Indeed, “Rabbi Yochanan said: If one swears that he will not sleep for three nights, he should be flogged.”

Rabbi Yochanan also said that after punishing the man for his vain oath, he should be made to go to sleep for a while. (BT Sh’vuot 25a)

The Sages also emphasized a need to exercise (see, for example, BT Shabbat 41a), but urged moderation even here (see BT P’sachim 113a).

Jewish law indeed does favor universal health-care coverage – but clearly, its main concern is universal health.