Avraham ben Yaakov
Parents' Guide to Teaching Children Healthcare

2 Guard yourself!
The mitzva of caring for body and soul

Our sages teach us that the true purpose for which we enter this world is to come closer to God through study of the Torah and fulfillment of its commandments. Through this our souls are elevated, attaining good in this world and forever.

The soul can only enter the physical world in the garb of the physical body. The body is the soul's instrument to attain its purpose in this world. Only through the body can we carry out the practical mitzvos of the Torah, which relate to things of this world.

In order to survive in the physical world we are obliged to provide the body with what it needs, such as food and drink. Enjoyment of the material world has a legitimate place in our service of God when it assists us in linking the physical with the spiritual. But when satisfaction of our material inclinations goes beyond the proper bounds, this can cause damage to the soul and the body. The soul's mission is to take control of these inclinations, directing the body to its true purpose.

To ensure that the body will be a fitting instrument with which to perform the mitzvos, God has commanded us to protect and guard our bodies. : "Guard yourself and guard your soul very carefully" (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).

This commandment is so important that our rabbis taught that it is part of the commandment not to forget the Giving of the Torah: "Guard yourself and guard your soul very much lest you forget. the day when you stood before HaShem Your God at Horev" (Deuteronomy 4:9-10). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: "'Guard yourself' means taking care of the body."

Bodily health is the foundation for keeping all the commandments of the Torah since in most cases they are bound up with physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit and unhealthy, this detracts from proper fulfillment of the commandments.

In the words of Rambam (Maimonides): "Bodily health and wellbeing are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits" (Hilchos De'os 4:1).

Man's use of the world for his own needs should be circumscribed by the limits imposed by God's Will and should not include anything forbidden by God. It should be motivated by the need to best maintain his health and preserve his life, and not merely to satisfy his physical urges and superfluous desires. One's motivation in maintaining his body should furthermore be so that the soul should be able to use it to serve its Creator, without being hampered by the body's weakness and incapability. When man makes use of the world in this manner, this itself becomes an act of perfection, and through it one can attain the same virtue as in keeping the other commandments. Indeed, one of the commandments requires that we keep our bodies fit so that we can serve God, and that we derive our needs from the environment to achieve this goal. In this manner, we elevate ourselves even through such activities. The world itself is also elevated, since it is then also helping man to serve God.

-- Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem 1:4:7.

Our health is in our hands

"Everything is in the hands of heaven except chills and fevers (which sometimes come though negligence)". (Babylonian Talmud, Kesuvos 30a and Rashi.)

The time, place and circumstances in which each soul is born into this world are decreed by God. Each person has his or her own unique body and constitution. Not everyone is born with the gift of a healthy body. When we are born with this precious gift, we must be grateful to God for His kindness and do everything in our power to cherish and protect it.

Our health and the length and quality of our lives are to a large extent in our own hands. The body grows older every day and must eventually die. Yet proper attention to its needs and avoidance of harmful habits can increase the length and quality of our lives, saving us from many illnesses, accidents and other troubles that can strike through neglect and abuse.

"The wise person has his eyes in his head" (Koheles 2:14) -- "He sees what is ahead" (Avot 2:9). Good health is a precious gift, and the wise person does everything necessary to protect it from possible hazards by taking proper care of the body.

On the other hand, "The fool looses everything he is given" (Chagiga 4a). Our sages teach us that when a doctor heals the sick, the doctor is performing the mitzva of returning lost property: "And you shall return it to him" (Deuteronomy 22:2) - "This refers to the loss of the person's body, i.e. his health" (Sanhedrin 73a; see Rambam's Commentary on Mishneh Nedarim 4:4).

It is better to guard your health than to have to try to get it back if God forbid you loose it.

How do we guard our health?

In much of the wider world, health is valued not only as a condition of productivity but also as one of the main keys to the enhancement and prolongation of life. Not only are enormous effort and resources poured into the promotion of health by governments, the public health and medical establishments, in education and the media. There is also a vast, lucrative health economy that spans everything from breakfast cereals and sports shoes to exotic herbal remedies and computerized fitness equipment. In practice, many people's pursuit of health goes no further than swallowing a few vitamins pills or being passive sports spectators.

The Jewish goal in the pursuit of health and our path towards it are qualitatively different. For the Jew, health is valued primarily as the essential condition for serving God through following the commandments.

Keeping the commandments is itself a guarantee against illness, as promised to the Jewish People directly after leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. This was at Marah, their first camp in the wilderness, even before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai: "There He laid down for him a statute and a judgment. And He said, If you will surely listen to the voice of HaShem your God and do what is right in His eyes and attend to His commandments and guard all His statutes, all the diseases that I have put upon the Egyptians, I will not put upon you, for I HaShem am your Healer" (Exodus 15:26).

Serving God draws His blessing into our very food and drink, protecting our health: "And you shall serve Hashem your God, and He will bless your bread and your water, and I will remove illness from within you" (Exodus 23:25).

We keep the Torah not only because it is the means to protect our health but more essentially because this is what God has commanded us. Yet the true Torah life is the proven golden path to health of soul and body as God promises.

"Guard yourself and guard your soul very much" (Deuteronomy 4:9). "The repetition of the word 'guard' alludes to the positive and negative commandments, which protect the limbs and channels which make up the mortal house [the body]. For our rabbis stated (Zohar, Vayishlach 170b) that the 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of the body, while the 365 prohibitions correspond to the connecting sinews, arteries and channels" (Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 4:9).

Our part

Of all the 613 mitzvos that make up the pathway to a healthy life, the mitzvah of guarding bodily health has special importance since this is where we have to put in effort to properly maintain and protect the instrument with which we perform all the other mitzvos. The body is physical and functions according to the natural laws God has fixed. Our part is to provide the body with everything necessary for it to function at its best in accordance with its nature.

As stated by Rambam: "A person must avoid anything that may harm the body, and must cultivate healthy habits" (Hilchos Deos 4:1). In other words, the mitzvah of self-care has two sides: avoiding all risks to the body and acquiring good health habits.

In the words of the Shulchan Aruch, the binding Code of Jewish Law: "It is a positive duty to take all due precautions and avoid anything that may endanger life, as it is written: 'Take care of yourself, and guard your soul'. The sages prohibited many things that involve a risk to life. Anyone who violates such prohibitions, saying 'I'm only putting myself at risk - what business is that of anybody else?' or 'I'm not particular about such things' deserves a lashing, while those who are careful about such things will be blessed" (Choshen Mishpat 427, 8-10).

The details of healthy living and care of the body are not in most cases the subject of specific laws. Yet a wealth of wisdom and many different kinds of advice and guidance can be found scattered in passages throughout the Bible, Talmud, Midrash and other rabbinic literature. Outstanding Torah sages knew the importance of healthcare, and saw fit to provide practical guidance in their writings.

Rambam, a giant both in Torah and medicine, devoted an entire chapter at the beginning of the Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive compendium of Jewish law, to detailed guidance on proper diet, cleanliness, exercise, sleep and much more (Hilchos Deos Chapter 4). Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the Concise Code of Jewish Law, also devotes a whole chapter to the subject (Chapter 32).

The enormous changes in the world in recent generations have caused drastic changes in our whole way of life and even our physical natures and powers of endurance. In contemporary life we cannot always directly apply advice from the classic sources without guidance from present-day experts. Torah law lays down that we must rely on the opinion of expert doctors such as when having to break Shabbos for a dangerously ill person or eating on Yom Kippur. So too we must turn to present-day experts for practical advice about how to maintain health that is faithful to the Torah and applicable in our lives today. In the words of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (32:14): "Every person needs to learn from doctors what are the best foods according to his particular constitution, place and time".

Chapter 3: Teaching Our Children




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