Health Foods and Judaism

    July 2010            
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Healthy Body, is it a mitzvah?

By Avi Lazerson

People today seem much more health conscious than they were fifty years ago. My mother remembers that in her generation people used chicken fat for cooking and frying. Today, the concept of using chicken fat is rejected as being unhealthy.

But what does the Torah say about health? Is there a mitzvah to be healthy? If there is, then it should be incumbent on all, especially the religiously observant amongst us, to trim off the extra pounds and eat healthy food. Should it be forbidden to eat all the bambas and bisle, the sweets and tasty deserts, all of the cakes and cookies that we find at celebrations? Should we not serve carrot slices, celery slices and radishes as appetizers instead of deep fried pastry? Yet we can observe with out much difficulty that many in the Jewish community are over weight; even worse many are scrupulously observant! So what goes with being healthy?

The Rambam, the classic Torah codifier who lived about a thousand years ago, brought down many ideas from the Talmud and from his own medical practice (he was a well known and famed doctor) in his great work “the Mishnah Torah.” In the fourth chapter of Hilchot Da'ot he explains our obligation to keep our minds and bodies fit.

“Since a healthy and whole body is in keeping with the service to G-d, since it is impossible to understand or know anything about G-d when one is sick, therefore one must distance himself from those things which ruin the body and instead should accustom himself to those things which cause the body to heal and mend...”

The Rambam was an exacting writer and used his words with an exactness that is lost in our generation, the translation of his words can not do service to his great skills, never the less, we see a pattern in what he has written. Note that the Rambam first gives a rationale for being healthy. “Healthy living” is not a goal in it of itself, nor is the goal to live a long live. Rather the reason given is to enable the person to properly serve his Maker. We are to see ourselves as G-d's servants and to be a good servant means to have the ability to be agile to do the wishes of the master. A person who is healthy can serve G-d better than a person who is ill, for an ill person can not do the bidding of his master. This shows a critical difference between the Rambam's criterion for healthy living and that of modern society who look upon health as an end to itself, a means to enjoy life, and a requisite for extending useful life and aging.

The second point of note is that the Rambam simply states that one must distance himself from those things which ruin the body. I believe that the key word in this phrase is distance himself from those things which ruinthe body. If something is shown to ruin the body then this thing or food must be distanced. But not all chocolate and cookies ruin the body. Here the key is in the amount that is eaten and the circumstances in which the food is partaken.

As an simpele example, a small amount of sweets taken after the meal could be beneficial and give satiation after the meal. If this is so, the Rambam does not condemn sweets as being unhealthy, but rather the circumstances (and the amounts) in which they are consumed. Another example, alcohol in small amounts has been found to be beneficial to the body but in large amounts to be detrimental to the body. Therefore we do not condemn alcohol as an unhealthy (or classify it as a healthy) food, but rather it is circumstance dependent. A small amount of alcohol taken with a meal is beneficial, but a large amount even with a meal is detrimental.

The third point to mention is that the Rambam says that one should accustom himself to those things which cause the body to heal and mend. Here the key is not that one must compel himself to eat only “health food products” but rather to accustom himself to those foods which cause the body to heal and mend. The key word here is accustom himself to foods that have been shown to give the body the ability to mend and heal itself. However the Rambam does not state that one must only eat certain foods that have been 'determined' to be healthy.

We see from this that the Rambam's concept of healthy eating and society's concept are not the same. There is no need to restrict our eating to what is called in today's jargon as 'health food', yet we may not eat in a manner that causes ill health to the body. Healthy eating is not a goal unto itself but rather an extension of a need to be in shape to serve G-d. If we are to be the servants of G-d then we have an obligation to keep our bodies in such shape that we are capable to do those chores to which we are commanded to fulfill.

The mitzvah of being healthy is not a mitzvah to eat healthy foods and to work out so that we may enjoy a long life, rather it is G-d centered. The purpose of being healthy is to be capable of doing G-d's will. May we merit to fulfill His will without getting bogged down in the current fads pertaining to health foods and may we merit to stay away from negative foods which hold us back from achieving our service to Him.


from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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