To lose 10 pounds? To exercise more? To take better care of yourself?
Believe it or not, Judaism supports these popular aspirations at the turn of each new year. You may not think it given our penchant for fatty, rich foods during our celebrations of Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. Yet oil, butter and schmaltz aside, it’s a mitzvah to be healthy and well. We could even go so far as to think of it as a foundational mitzvah.
Our tradition calls it shmirat 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 to be the religious imperative of 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 G-d … 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 good care of our bodies—fulfilling the mitzvah of shmirat haguf—we take responsibility for and demonstrate our deep appreciation of 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 shmirat haguf? It all 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture (www.choosemyplate.gov) advise us to fill half our plates with vegetables and fruit. The other half is recommended to be made of 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 shmirat haguf, taking good care of our precious bodies. Are you familiar with the daily Jewish prayer for the body? See the sidebar for this powerful prayer of bodily awareness and gratitude.
Exercise and physical activity. The incomparable Torah scholar, philosopher and physician, 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. It could be the single most important resolution that we make in the new year to improve our wellness and help fulfill the mitzvah of shmirat haguf. Please see the sidebar for a highly recommended book by a Harvard Medical School professor on how exercise dramatically changes the brain and mind-body connection for the better.
Avoiding 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 avoiding 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 those closest to us. Part of the mitzvah of shmirat haguf—taking care of the body—is recognizing when our behaviors have become harmful to ourselves and others, then making necessary changes and seeking professional help when needed (either from a physician, mental health practitioner, or qualified addiction specialist). It may be the greatest gift we give our loved ones and ourselves.
Embracing rest and sleep. 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).
So how much sleep do you really need? According to a 2015 scientific journal article of the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children need between 9 and 11 hours. For teenagers, 8 to 10 hours is considered appropriate; young adults and adults need 7 to 9 hours; and 7 to 8 hours of sleep is appropriate for older adults. If you want to improve your sleep health, you can find a wealth of useful information at the National Sleep Foundation’s website, www.sleepfoundation.org.
Judaism views the human body as a precious, wondrous gift from G-d that we are to protect and nurture. It is the home of the soul, the spark of G-d within us. Body and soul, so intimately interconnected, require care and attention, no matter our age. Through proper sleep, diet and nutrition, exercise and physical activity, and avoiding things that harm the body, we can practice shmirat haguf—taking good care of our bodies—so that we can thrive in our everyday lives.
Wishing you health and wellness in the new year! After all, it’s a mitzvah!
Rabbi Rick Schechter is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Glendale, Calif. He will be teaching a free, four-part series on Tuesday nights in February at 7:30 p.m. at TSG titled L’chayim! Happiness and Health through Judaism & Positive Psychology, in which he’ll explore these topics and many more related to health and well-being. He has studied the field of positive psychology extensively for more than 14 years and completed 200 hours of training and certification in Applied Positive Psychology.