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What’s so Jewish about staying fit?

Jewish Ledger | 12-23-11

We wanted to know what the Jewish tradition had to say about keeping our bodies fit and healthy.  So we asked Connecticut rabbis.  Here is what several had to say.


Physical fitness is clearly and definitively a Jewish value. There is a wonderful midrash about two rabbis in the Roman period who see a worker cleaning a statue of the emperor. One says to the other, “If it is important to clean a statue, made by people of flesh and blood, how much more important is it to keep clean the holy body given to us by the King of Kings.”
In the morning prayers, it is telling that the prayer “Asher Yatzer” — thanking God for our physical body — precedes the prayer “Elohai Neshama,” thanking God for our soul. The rabbis understood that as holy as the soul may be, it cannot serve God in this world unless it resides in a healthy body.
The mitzvah “v’chai bahem” — “and you shall live by them” — implies a mitzvah to protect our lives. We learn from modern science that one of the most important ways we can keep healthy is by physical fitness.
Unlike Christians, we do not put a positive valence on the soul and a negative one on the body. Both are God’s gifts to us and are holy.  Both physical and spiritual fitness are vitally important to a full Jewish life.

Rabbi Richard Plavin
Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, Manchester

The idea of a body/soul or physical/spiritual dichotomy is often used to justify physical fitness. We are told that in order for the soul to be able to serve God, the body must be healthy. Yet the Bible’s discussion of man’s existence assumes body/soul unity. Aristotle argued the same. Indeed, there is no word for “body” in the Hebrew Bible until its last book. When we work on our physical fitness, we are not simply exercising our body – we are exercising our entire self.
Deuteronomy 4:15 commands us to guard our lives. This responsibility is linked to man’s first sin – eating from the Tree of Knowledge. With this act, we received both a curse and a source of our greatest blessing – knowledge and freedom. We were cursed with the need to take ownership of the earth in order to eat our bread. Yet we also had the opportunity to choose our own destiny and improve our surroundings with our knowledge. Just as we take ownership of the earth, we must take ownership of ourselves. This is exactly what we do when we exercise – we take ownership of our physical abilities, and improve our entire selves with its benefits.

Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin
Congregation Ahavath Achim, Fairfield

Maimonides writes in very clear terms (De’ot 4) that, “Maintaining the health and wholesomeness of the body is an integral part of one’s service of G-d.”  Then there is the statement of the great mystic, the Maggid of Mezritch: “A small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul!”
Jewish teachings throughout the ages have emphasized the importance of “taking care” of our bodies.  When God gives us a gift as precious as the body itself, we are to make every effort to insure that it be a healthy one.  Only by doing so can we fulfill our mission in life by observing the Torah and performing the mitzvot.  This can only be done with the “partnership” of the body.
It is true that the Jewish value system discourages us from obsessing about our physical wants and needs.  (Hence the Zohar states, “The strength of the soul leads to the weakening of the body”).  This does not mean, however, to compromise one’s health.  Rather, this is stated in the context of the spiritual power of the soul to weaken the desires and demands of the corporal body.
Practically speaking, when a person is healthy he or she can accomplish so much more.  This is true in all areas of life.  From a Jewish perspective, particular emphasis is placed on health and fitness with regard to matters relating to Torah and Mitzvot.

Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky
Benet Rothstein Chabad Jewish Center, Glastonbury

“Since by keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of God – being impossible in sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator – it is a man’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.” (Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) Mishneh Torah: Laws Re: Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct)
The body is created by God.  All of God’s creation is intertwined in ways we will never fully comprehend.
Running gives me time to focus on spiritual concerns.  It is when I write my best sermons.  Training for and running in marathons just made everything else better, especially spiritually.

Rabbi Jeff Glickman
Temple Beth Hillel, South Windsor

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