What Jewish Tradition Says About Health and Wellness

Rabbi Rick Schechter

Think back to the start of the secular new year: Did you make any New Year's resolutions? To exercise more? To take better care of yourself? To lose weight or lower your blood pressure?

Believe it or not, Judaism supports these popular aspirations, both at the turn of each new secular year and beyond. You may not think it given our penchant for fatty, rich foods during Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover. Oil, butter, and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) aside, it’s a mitzvah (commandment) to be healthy and well. We could even go so far as to think of it as a foundational mitzvah.

Our tradition calls it sh'mirat haguf – literally, guarding the body. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find the verse, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very carefully” (Deut. 4:9). Biblical commentators have understood this passage to be the religious imperative for taking care of both body and soul. As the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria put it, “The body is the soul’s house. Therefore, shouldn’t we take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?”

Moses Maimonides, a towering Jewish thinker and physician to Egyptian royalty, knew the importance of physical health and wellness – and its relationship to spirituality – better than most. He devoted an entire chapter to bodily health and well-being in his comprehensive compendium of Jewish law, his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah. He began the chapter by writing: “When keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the way of God ... it is a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.”

In Judaism, a healthy body gives us the strength to fulfill the mitzvot and sacred actions of our religion. A healthy body helps us thrive in our everyday lives. And by taking care of our bodies – fulfilling the mitzvah of sh'mirat haguf – we take responsibility for and demonstrate our deep appreciation for the divine gift and miraculous workings of the human body. As the psalmist wrote: “I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made. Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.” (Ps. 139:14)

How does one go about fulfilling the mitzvah of sh'mirat haguf? It goes back to those perennial New Year’s resolutions: diet and nutritious eating, exercise and physical activity, avoiding things that harm the body, and embracing those things that benefit the body.

Diet and Nutrition

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches: “It is forbidden to live in a city that does not have a vegetable garden.” (J.T. Kiddushin 4:12, 66d) Today we well understand this Talmudic wisdom. The most current recommendations of the USDA advise us to fill half our plates with vegetables and fruit; the other half should comprise grains and lean protein.

Food is so essential to Jewish living, and healthier food choices in the new year help us fulfill the mitzvah of sh'mirat haguf, taking care of our bodies.

Exercise and Physical Activity

Maimonides, wrote: “As long as a person exercises and exerts himself … sickness does not befall him and his strength increases … But one who is idle and does not exercise … even if he eats healthy foods and maintains healthy habits, all his days will be of ailment and his strength will diminish.” (Mishneh Torah, “De’ot” 4:14-15)

The robust scientific research on the many health benefits of exercise and physical activity bear out much – though not all – of Maimonides’ bold claim. Physical activity and exercise reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. Exercise and physical activity promote general well-being, stronger bones and muscles, improved cognitive functioning among older adults, and the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Physical activity and exercise also have been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

So many health benefits accrue from physical activity that it could be the single most important resolution we make to improve our wellness and help fulfill the mitzvah of sh'mirat haguf.

Avoid Things that Harm the Body

Judaism is, in many ways, a path of moderation. We are encouraged to enjoy the body and bodily pleasures, while at the same time to avoid excesses in food, drink, and other physical and mental enjoyments. (Of course, sometimes abstaining altogether is what’s necessary.) In Hebrew, it’s called shvil hazahav, “the golden path.” Smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse, and other forms of addiction (including workaholism) rob us of our health and well-being, and cause pain and suffering to our loved ones.

Part of the mitzvah of sh'mirat haguf is recognizing when our behaviors have become harmful to ourselves and others, making necessary changes, and seeking professional help when needed (from physicians, mental health practitioners, or qualified addiction specialists).

Embrace Things that Benefit the Body

A teacher in my applied positive psychology program once called sleep a “game changer” for physical and emotional health. I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps we’ve all felt it when we didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Deprived of adequate sleep, the world can look very different. We may feel irritable. More pessimistic. Less able to concentrate and focus on everyday tasks. We can feel fatigued and weak. Our memory suffers. Our immune system weakens. We are more susceptible to colds and flus. Sleep deprivation puts us at greater risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Sleep is key to our health – as important as good nutrition and exercise. Perhaps it is for this reason that Rabbi Judah said in the Talmud, “The night was created for no other purpose than sleep.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 65a)

How much sleep do we really need? According to a 2015 scientific journal article of the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children need between nine and 11 hours nightly. For teenagers, eight to 10 hours is considered appropriate; young adults and adults need seven to nine hours; and seven to eight hours of sleep is appropriate for older adults.

Judaism views the human body as a precious, wondrous gift from God that we are to protect and nurture. It is the home of the soul, the spark of God within us. Body and soul, so intimately interconnected, require care and attention, no matter our age. With proper sleep, diet and nutrition, exercise and physical activity, and by avoiding things that harm the body, we can practice sh'mirat haguf, helping us thrive in our everyday lives.

Wishing you health and wellness in the new year. After all, it’s a mitzvah!