The second article towards which my attention turned was that of Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky’s “What’s the Truth about… the Uganda Plan?” In truth, I generally turn to his section of the Jewish Action every issue first, as it is something towards which I look forward. And, as happens every time, I always learn something new – this issue being no exception.
A selection of articles, however, jumped out at me. They had a health section in this issue, a rarity. This section included Jack Botwinik’s “Frum and Fit: Are We Fulfilling Our Torah Obligation to Take Care of Our Body?”, Dr. Ronald Nagel’s “Pediatric Obesity: A Challenge for the Orthodox Jewish Community,” “Habits of Highly Healthy Families,” and Nechama Cohen’s “Avoiding the Pesach Pounds.” I wanted to first applaud Jewish Action for taking on this very important topic – something I think which is sorely lacking in Orthodox discourse and consciousness. One thing, however, that I think was lacking both in Mr. Botwinik’s article and in the “Habits of Highly Healthy Families,” per se, was that of the importance of exercise. Whilst the articles generally discussed nutrition and food – which are significant points of Orthodox interest – exercise ought to be emphasized a little more.
One thing that I will point out is that Dr. Nagel claims “According to Chazal, the mitzvah ‘Venishmartem meod lenafshoteichem, Be very careful about your lives’ imposes an obligation to preserve one’s health”, citing “Berachot 32b”. However, what Dr. Nagel unknowingly points out is the actual lack of such an obligation [in the Talmud]. The source Dr. Nagel quotes is the following beraisa (Berakhos 32b-33a):
Although we see that this verse is used in the context of guarding oneself - one's body, even - nevertheless, it is used by a gentile general in somewhat of a polemical context. Actually, Rabbi Samuel Eidels has written already to say that this verse is certainly not discussing a bodily context (מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת ברכות לב, ב):תנו רבנן: מעשה בחסיד אחד שהיה מתפלל בדרך, בא הגמון אחד ונתן לו שלום ולא החזיר לו שלום, המתין לו עד שסיים תפלתו. לאחר שסיים תפלתו אמר לו: ריקא, והלא כתוב בתורתכם רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך וכתיב ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם, כשנתתי לך שלום למה לא החזרת לי שלום? אם הייתי חותך ראשך בסייף מי היה תובע את דמך מידי?Our masters taught: There was an incident with one pious man who was praying on the road; a general came along and said "Hello," but [the Jew] did not return the greeting. The general waited for him until he finished his prayer. After he finished his prayer, he said to him, "You fool! Is it not written in your Torah, 'Only guard yourself and guard your soul' and it is written 'and guard yourselves very well.' When I greeted you, why didn't you respond with a greeting? If I were to have cut off your head with a sword, who would seek vengeance for your blood from me?"
אמר לו: המתן לי עד שאפייסך בדברים.
אמר לו: אילו היית עומד לפני מלך בשר ודם ובא חברך ונתן לך שלום – היית מחזיר לו?
אמר לו: לאו.
ואם היית מחזיר לו, מה היו עושים לך?
אמר לו: היו חותכים את ראשי בסייף.
אמר לו: והלא דברים קל וחומר; ומה אתה שהיית עומד לפני מלך בשר ודם שהיום כאן ומחר בקבר - כך, אני שהייתי עומד לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא שהוא חי וקיים לעד ולעולמי עולמים - על אחת כמה וכמה!
מיד נתפייס אותו הגמון, ונפטר אותו חסיד לביתו לשלום
He said to him, "Wait for me until I appease you with words."
He said, "If you were standing before a king of flesh and blood, and your friend arrived and said 'Hello,' would you respond to him?"
He said, "No."
"And if you were to respond to him, what would he do to you?"
He said, "He would cut off my head with a sword."
He said, "Behold - this is an a fortiori argument: If you were standing before a king of flesh and blood and today you were here and tomorrow in a grave, then I who was standing before the King Amongst Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, that He lives and endures until forever and ever - how much more so!"
Immediately, the general was appeased and the pious man departed unto his house in peace.
Although I can live with it, I have thought that the verse of guarding yourself well was, indeed, an imperative to protect your body and to keep it in good shape. However, that is neither how it was meant in Deuteronomy, nor in the Talmud. Nevertheless, as Jews, we should still be keeping good care of our bodies, anyways, as we see that obesity has been on the ascent in recent years.כתיב בתורתכם רק וגו'. האי קרא בשכחת התורה קמיירי כמ"ש פן תשכח את הדברים וגו' ובפ"ג דאבות שנינו כל השוכח ד"א ממשנתו כו' כאלו מתחייב בנפשו שנאמר רק השמר לך וגו' וכן האי קרא ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם וגו' איירי שלא נאמין בשום תבנית פסל וגו' ולא איירי הני קראי כלל בשמירת נפש אדם עצמו מסכנה ומיהו במסכת שבועות (לו.) דריש ליה תלמודא נמי למלתא אחריתי דהיינו אזהרה למקלל עצמו מנין שנאמר רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך וגו' ע"It is written in your Torah, “only...” – this verse is dealing with the forgetting of the Torah, as it says, “lest you forget these things”. In the third chapter of Avos, [Rabbi Dostai son of Rabbi Yannai said in the Name of Rabbi Meir] taught anybody who forgets one thing from his learning… is as if he is responsible for his life, as it is said, “only guard yourself….” And, similarly, the verse “and you shall guard yourselves well,” is with regards to not believe in any idol… And these verses are not dealing at all with guarding one’s body itself from danger. However, in Shavuos, they expounded another learning , which is a warning to the swearer himself, whence? From only guard youself and guard yourself. See there.