Many people use the word “health” incorrectly. They associate it – and Google helps them a lot – with trendy diets, abstruse fitness blogger channels and depressing pandemic headlines. Sometimes heated debates about vaccines or intellectual battles over body image break out around this word. It carries a lot of emotional and semantic baggage, but do we load it with the right meanings?
To be honest, it took me decades to develop, shall we say, a healthy view of health. For a long time I was not able to do this, both in terms of my worldview and in terms of my body.
Understanding the roots of your habits
In the summer of 1984, I sat with my father in the living room and watched the gymnastics competition in which the US men’s Olympic team won the gold medal. The strength and skill of these people inspired me. In utter amazement I silently stared at the screen. Then I looked at my father and confidently declared: “This is what I want to do.” And these were not just words – I really became a competitive gymnast.
In college, I continued to do sports and took part in many competitions – it was exciting! But unlike those on-screen athletes I admired so much, my self-discipline did not extend beyond the gym. I didn’t have a wholesome approach to health. Yes, I went to workouts, but then on the way home I could eat fast food and cupcakes and polish it all with some soda. For me it was normal.
Holiday goodies became my family’s daily meal all year round
I grew up in a house where no one thought about the correctness or moderation of nutrition. Throughout the year, Mom cooked all the best traditional Jewish dishes: latkes for Hanukkah, matzebrai for Passover, roast beef for Shabbat, her signature hamantashes for Purim, as well as kugels, smoked salmon and bagels on all other days. The dishes were always delicious – the Jews really know a lot about how to celebrate an event with incredible deliciousness. But in our home, it went beyond special occasions—holiday goodies became my family’s year-round everyday meal.
In many ways, this is quite logical. A large number of our traditional dishes have emerged as a result of socio-economic circumstances, in particular the multiple migrations of the Jewish people and reflection of the kashrut laws (1). Jewish cuisine is incredibly diverse, but my family’s Ashkenazi roots meant that I grew up on dishes that were shaped in Europe and Russia, where Jews lived quite poorly. And the cheapest and most affordable foods are often high in saturated fat and sugar.
When I ate my mother’s food as a child, I didn’t think about the connection between what I put in my mouth and how it affected my mind and body and I wasn’t accustomed to eating in moderation either. However, over time, I was able to learn to appreciate the culture in which I was raised without devaluing my own health.
Modern Jewish opinion leaders recognize that such a diet on an ongoing basis adversely affects health. We all know that a daily fat and cheese diet is far from ideal. While our culture may encourage unhealthy eating habits, Jewish tradition actually sets us up to take care of our health.
What Jewish tradition says about our health
Jewish thinkers and philosophers attach great importance to the role of health in our lives. Taking care of your body is one of the main mitzvahs called shmirat haguf, literally translated as “protection of the body”. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said: “The body is the home of the soul. Therefore, should we not take care of our house so that it does not fall apart?” (2) And Maimonides wrote at length about how caring for the body affects our spiritual health. He understood that we generally get better when we feel better physically.
The Scriptures Emphasize Wholesome Health
The Tanakh talks a lot about this subject. It often uses the words “health” and “strength”. Only in the Psalms “strength” is mentioned 49 times (3). Usually in contexts that God is our strength or that He empowers us. The word “health” is most often accompanied by the word “restore” (4). This use of these two words shows that God cares about nourishing both our physical body and our mind and soul. In Psalm 139, David reiterates that we were created by our Creator for a purpose. God gave us our bodies as a gift to be treasured and cherished. And taking care of them is our responsibility.
When someone in our community is sick, we say Misheberach. This traditional prayer in translation sounds like this: May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body” (5).
I remember how I regularly prayed the Misheberach prayer as a child, as many of the elders of my community suffered from such terrible diseases as cancer and diabetes. This is an important and powerful prayer, but I have found that I prefer to thank God for the good health of my family and community rather than pray for deliverance from ill health.
Practical steps to improve our health
Maybe in my childhood and youth I did not understand what health care is, but when I finally realized it, it was not too late to correct the situation. After years of neglect, ignorance and surrender to the ravages of an unhealthy lifestyle, I’ve found that it’s not too late to start developing healthy habits. This cupcake-and-soda-guzzling child gymnast decided to take a different path and eventually became a certified dietitian and personal trainer.
Honestly, if I turned out to be able to radically change the situation, then I think everyone else has a hope to follow the path of recovery! Through simple, everyday healthy lifestyle choices—and with the help of our Creator—anyone who makes these choices can begin the path to optimal health and a better quality of life.
We all want to have more energy, more stamina, more strength and more life. In short, we all want to be healthy, but there are a lot of recommendations and opinions about how to achieve this state, and sometimes they are directly opposite. What was considered a healthy lifestyle trend last month is now unequivocally declared a cancer-causing anti-trend this month. Each new Google health search seems to contradict the results of the previous one and it ends up being a total annoyance and disappointment. Therefore, I would like to give you some tips based on the experience gained during my path to health, which I hope will help you too:
Don’t be afraid to learn something about your body. Try talking to your doctor or dietitian. Many of your problems can be caused by allergies or food intolerances that you may not even know exist! Each body has its own characteristics. In my case, decades of malnutrition have taken their toll on my health. But once I removed the foods I had a bad tolerance for from my diet, my health and skin improved drastically.
Find a good reason to make healthy changes to your daily life. Contrary to popular belief, “looking better in a bathing suit/swim trunks on the beach” is far from sufficient and most importantly lousy long-term motivation for the transition to a healthy lifestyle. Think deeply about your future. About your children. For example, I have three young energetic sons. And if I’m going to play football and baseball with them and want to have a meaningful presence in their later lives, I’m going to need a lot of energy and strength. Find your personal positive source of motivation.
Start small. The certainty that each workout should last at least an hour, that you cannot do without special equipment or at least must join the gym, scared away a considerable number of people from thinking about health. However, you will be surprised how much benefit a simple home workout for 10 minutes three times a week gives! Start with goals that are easy to achieve and find a type of regular physical activity that you enjoy. The goal is to create a habit – a sustainable lifestyle – and not try to achieve ideal physical shape as quickly as possible.
Build a relationship with food by choosing a sustainable way of eating that you can stick to for a long time. Strict diets for weight loss can help in the short term, but sitting on them for a long time is impossible and unhealthy. I have found that the best approach to this is to choose a diet that you enjoy, that is good for your health and that you can stick to for the long haul. From experience with omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets, I’ve learned that even a small change, such as reducing your intake of saturated animal fats, sugar, and refined cooking oils, can make a big difference in your health (6). Eating nuts, seeds and avocados in moderation is a great way to get healthier fats with the added benefit of fiber and minerals that refined oils won’t have.
Train smarter, not harder. Over the years I have been a personal trainer, I have noticed many times that when people want to lose weight, they tend to think that they need a lot of cardio. Their minds are clouded by the thought of having to run 100,000 miles a day in order to lose weight. But this is a huge mistake. After the human brain, muscle tissue is the largest consumer of energy in our body. The more muscle a person has, the more calories his body burns per day, period. Strength training can help both men and women build muscle and increase the body’s ability to burn more calories during any type of physical activity—and even at rest, unsurprisingly.
The next step on our journey
Learning the true meaning of health and removing from our consciousness the wrong, unhealthy baggage that this concept has acquired is an indispensable first step on which the success of all our efforts depends. The path to wholesome health may seem insurmountable, but in fact it is just a series of not-so-complex steps that should be taken smoothly and gradually. Start with two or three simple changes that you would like to make in your life and then see if they work for you. Be kind and flexible with yourself.
When we feel completely healthy physically, we are able to achieve our goals with more energy and purpose.
Remember: our bodies are not just a bunch of cells for the temporary residence of the soul, their condition can greatly affect the quality of our spiritual life, and, if only for this reason, we must take care of them. I believe that our bodies play a very important role in our service to God and others on this earth. It is He who “made my inward parts and knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 139:13). God has taken care of, carefully considered and put a purpose into the creation of each of our bodies, so that we must properly care for what He skillfully and beautifully created. We can improve the quality of our own lives. When we feel completely healthy physically, we are able to achieve our goals with more energy and purpose. If we realize that our bodies are God’s gift, I believe that we will be more disposed to reasonable exercise and balanced nutrition that will support our health. As we say here in Israel, “Labriyut!” or “To your health!”
Jewish Food: The Basics // My Jewish Learning, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-food-101/.
Schachter Rick. What Jewish Tradition Says About Health and Fitness // Reformjudaism.org, accessed February 8, 2022, https://reformjudaism.org/what-jewish-tradition-says-about-health-and-wellness.
Keyword Search: Strength // Biblegateway, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=strength&version=ESV.
Keyword Search: Health // Biblegateway, accessed 8 February 2022, https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=health&version=ESV.
Weintraub Simkha Y. Jewish Prayer for the Sick: Misheberakh // My Jewish Learning, accessed February 11, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mi-sheberakh-may-the-one-who-blessed/ .
Healthy food. World Health Organization website, accessed 8 February 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet.
By Jeff Morgan, Jews for Jesus website.