Has Jewish Culture Sabotaged Our Physical Health?

by Jeff Morgan | February 22 2022

a man eating a fruit

A lot of people use the word “health” wrong. They think—and Google helps—of fad diets, Pinterest platitudes, and depressing pandemic headlines. Sometimes, the word launches people into a heated argument about vaccines or into a mental battle about body image. It’s loaded—but is it loaded with the right things?

To be honest, it took me decades to learn, well, a healthy view of health. For a long time, it was elusive in both my viewpoint and in my body.

Understanding the Roots of My Habits

In the summer of 1984, I was sitting with my father in the living room watching the United States Olympic men’s gymnastics team win the gold medal. The strength and skill of these men inspired me. I stared at that screen with my mouth open in silent amazement. I looked up at my dad and confidently stated, “That’s what I want to do.” And I followed through; I became a competitive gymnast shortly after.

I grew in my abilities and competed in college—it was thrilling! But unlike those men I admired on the screen all those years before, my discipline didn’t extend beyond the gymnasium. I had no concept of holistic health. I would go to practice, and then on the way home, eat fast food and cupcakes and wash it all down with a Slurpee. That was my normal.

In my house, holiday treats became a year-round diet.

I grew up in a home without a focus on nutrition or moderation. My mother cooked all the best traditional Jewish dishes throughout the year: latkes on Hanukkah, matzah brei during Passover, brisket for Shabbat, her famous hamantaschen for Purim, and kugels and lox and bagels in between. The food was amazing—Jews really know how to mark an occasion deliciously. But in my house, it extended beyond special occasions; holiday treats became a year-round diet for my family.

In many ways, it makes sense. Many of our traditional dishes evolved from our socioeconomic and migratory patterns as Jewish people, and reflect Kashrut laws.1 There’s incredible diversity in Jewish cuisine—but my Ashkenazi background meant I grew up on food that has its roots in Europe and Russia, where Jewish people were quite poor. The cheapest and most accessible foods were often high in saturated fats and sugars.

Eating my mother’s cooking as a kid, I didn’t think about the connection between what I was putting in my mouth and its impact on my mind and body, and I wasn’t disciplined in eating in moderation. Since then, I’ve learned that the key is to value my upbringing without devaluing my health.

Modern Jewish views see the health consequences of eating in this way on a consistent basis; we know a perpetual diet of shmaltz and shmear isn’t ideal. Culture may have set us up with some unhealthy eating habits, but Jewish tradition actually sets us up for health.

What Jewish Tradition Says About Our Health

Jewish thought leaders and philosophers have weighed in on the role of health in our lives. Taking care of our bodies is a foundational mitzvah called sh’mirat haguf, literally meaning “guarding the body.” The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said it this way: “The body is the soul’s house. Therefore, shouldn’t we take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?”2 Maimonides wrote at length about how the care and maintenance of our bodies impact our spiritual health. He understood that we are generally better people when we feel better.

The emphasis in Scripture is on holistic health.

The Tanakh has plenty to say on the topic. The words “health” and “strength” are used many times in the Tanakh. “Strength” is mentioned 49 times in the Psalms alone,3 usually to say that God is our strength or that He equips us with strength. The usage of the word “health” is most often accompanied by the word “restore.”4 Clearly, the emphasis in Scripture is on holistic health. The usage of these two words alone demonstrates that God cares about the nourishment of our physical bodies and of our minds and souls. In Psalm 139, David reiterates that we were created with intention and purpose by our Creator. God gave us our bodies as a gift to nurture. It’s our job to care for them.

When someone in our community is sick, we say the Mi Shebeirach. This traditional prayer, translated, says, “May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him, to restore him, to heal him, to strengthen him, to enliven him. The One will send him, speedily, a complete healing—healing of the soul and healing of the body.”5

I remember praying the Mi Shebeirach regularly as a child as so many of the elders in my community suffered from horrible diseases like cancer and diabetes. It is an important and powerful prayer, but I realized that I’d much rather be in a position of thanking God for the good health of my family and community than praying for deliverance from bad health.

Practical Ways to Improve Our Health

I may not have understood health growing up, but it wasn’t too late for me to learn the lesson. After many years of neglect, lack of knowledge, and surrendering myself to the ravages of an unhealthy lifestyle, I found that it wasn’t too late to cultivate a healthy lifestyle. That cupcake-eating, Slurpee-drinking kid gymnast went on a journey and eventually became a certified nutritionist and personal trainer.

Quite honestly, if I can make that 180-degree change, I think there’s hope for everyone’s health journey! With some simple lifestyle choices—and help from our Creator—I believe everyone who chooses can begin a path towards optimal health and a better quality of life.

We all want to have more stamina, more vigor, more strength, more life.

We all want to have more stamina, more vigor, more strength, more life. In short, we all want to be healthy, but the process to get there can be confusing. The health trend last month is the thing that apparently gives you cancer this month. Every Google search about health seems to contradict the last, and we end up frustrated. So, here are some tips I’ve learned along my journey that might help you out:

  1. Don’t be afraid to find out what you don’t know about your body. Try setting up an appointment with your doctor or a nutritionist. Allergies and sensitivities could be causing you many issues unknowingly! Every body is different. In my own case, decades of poor eating habits had taken their toll on my body. Once I removed the foods that I was sensitive to, my health and skin improved radically.
  2. Have a good reason to make some healthy changes. Looking better in a swimsuit at the beach may not be enough of a motivating factor to make a healthy lifestyle. Think of your future. Think of your children. I have three young, energetic boys. If I’m going to play sports with them and be part of their futures, I’m going to need energy and strength. Find a positive source of motivation.
  3. Start small. The assumption that every workout has to be an hour, that you need special equipment, or that you need a gym membership prevents many from ever starting. You’d be surprised how much you can benefit from an at-home ten-minute workout three times a week! Start with easily achievable goals and find the exercise you enjoy doing. The goal is to create a habit—a sustainable lifestyle—instead of trying to get in shape as fast as possible.
  4. Build a good relationship with food by picking a sustainable way to eat. Fad diets can help temporarily, but they’re horrible long-term plans. I’ve found that the best approach is to figure out a regular diet that is enjoyable, enhances your health, and that can last. With experience in omnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan diets, I’ve learned that a small change like reducing our intake of saturated animal fat, sugar, and refined cooking oils can dramatically improve health.6 Eating nuts, seeds, and avocados in moderation are great ways to get healthier fats with the added benefit of fiber and minerals otherwise not found in refined, concentrated oils.
  5. Work smarter, not harder. Throughout my years working as a personal trainer, I’ve noticed that when people want to lose fat, they generally think of doing a lot of cardiovascular exercise. They quickly become mentally burdened by the thought of having to run a hundred miles a day to lose weight. But this is a huge misconception. Aside from the human brain, muscle tissue is the body’s best energy consumer. The more muscle someone has, the more calories their body burns per day, period. Resistance training can help both men and women build muscle and increase the body’s ability to burn more calories during any given workout—and even at rest.

Taking the Next Step in Our Journey

Learning the true meaning of health and unloading the incorrect and unhealthy baggage it has picked up for each of us is a worthwhile process. A journey to holistic health can seem insurmountable, but it just takes one step at a time. Start by making a list of two or three simple changes you’d like to incorporate into your life, and see how it goes. Be gracious and flexible with yourself.

When we feel our best physically, we can live out our purpose with vigor and intentionality.

Remember: Our bodies are not merely a clump of cells to live in temporarily—they have lasting significance, and we ought to care for them as such. I believe our bodies play a vital role in our service to God and others on this earth. He has “formed my inward parts; … [He] knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13–14). God showed care, thought, and purpose in the creation of each of our bodies, so we ought to foster what He has skillfully and beautifully created. We have the ability to enhance our quality of life. When we feel our best physically, we can live out our purpose with vigor and intentionality. When we acknowledge our bodies as a gift from God, I believe we will be more inclined to exercise in a way that supports us and eat in a more balanced way. As we say here in Israel, “LaBriut!”, or in English, “To your health!”

Endnotes

1.Jewish Food 101,” My Jewish Learning, accessed February 8, 2022.

2. Rick Schechter, “What Jewish Tradition Says About Health and Wellness,” ReformJudaism.org, accessed February 8, 2022.

3.Keyword Search: Strength,” BibleGateway, accessed February 8, 2022.

4.Keyword Search: Health,” BibleGateway, accessed February 8, 2022.

5. Simkha Y. Weintraub, “Jewish Prayer for the Sick: Mi Sheberach,” My Jewish Learning, accessed February 11, 2022.

6.Healthy Diet,” World Health Organization, accessed February 8, 2022.

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