How to effectively maintain personal health is generally not seen as a topic that’s within the purview of religion. We wouldn’t go to a clergyman, doctor of theology, or rabbinic judge for techniques to lower our cholesterol or to cure recurring migraines, and rightly so. It therefore seems very peculiar that Maimonides (1135 – 1204) devoted an entire chapter in his otherwise overwhelmingly-legal masterpiece Mishnah Torah to health, wellness, and other medical advice. Maimonides was, as a master physician of his era, certainly qualified to give such advice. But that material should not be part of a religious-legal text, but rather part of a medical text – and Maimonides did actually also author multiple works of that sort. His legal text should, ostensibly, deal purely with mitzvot, ritual, and Jewish criminal and monetary law. Does seemingly-mundane physical health play a larger role in religion than one might think?
The Talmud contains a report of a fascinating episode that touches on this very issue. The great Talmudic sage Rav Huna was troubled that his son Rabbah wasn’t taking advantage of an opportunity to attend the lectures of a certain renowned and erudite Torah teacher. Rabbah responded: “How can I attend his classes? Whenever I go there, he goes off on somewhat bizarre, mundane tangents on topics like how to avoid potentially life-threatening complications that may arise from hemorrhoids!” Rav Huna then sharply scolded his son: “He discusses how to live in a healthy way, and you say he discusses mundane matters?! Now you should have even stronger motivation to go study with him!”
In Jewish thought, Torah study and education is an ideal that has nearly no equal. Rav Huna himself was a yeshiva dean and a diligent Torah scholar, but he held that the idea that health is a discipline that is unrelated to religion is mistaken. Caring for our physical health is not mundane; it is holy. A healthy body enables us to cultivate a healthy character and a healthy soul. Study of physical wellness takes precedence even to Torah study, since without physical health we cannot achieve spiritual health. Rabbi Zvi Kushelevsky, founder of an Israeli yeshiva located in Jerusalem, suggests that Maimonides included health and wellness advice in his legal-religious handbook to teach this very lesson – that one cannot live a spiritual life before properly attending to the physical.
Religion is often used to justify inappropriate, bad, and often even outright outrageous behavior. It can sometimes be used to justify neglecting one’s health as well. “We can treat our bodies recklessly because the Almighty will save us!” or “Why expend the effort that it takes to eat healthy food – everyone is taken in their time anyway!” or “If God created this type of food, how could it be harmful for my health?” Rav Huna, and Maimonides after him, made it clear that religion can never serve as a basis to neglect one’s health. What’s bad for the body is, ultimately, bad for the soul.