Mitzvah of Health and Fitness

(The 2nd in a series on the philosophy and principles underlying KosherFit)

Choosing Health

"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life..."
Devarim 30:19

The world values health and fitness for their impact on productivity, longevity, and quality of life.

We Jews value health because it is a mitzvah and part of our avodah, as Rambam writes, “...maintaining a healthy and whole body is an integral part of [our] Divine service.” And “ is impossible to grow in comprehension and wisdom of G-d when one is hungry or ill…”

Recognizing the unique perspective of our Sages on health and fitness is key to understanding KosherFit practice and tapping into an unlimited source of energy and vitality.

Guarding Your Life

Our Sages wrote extensively on the mitzvah of guarding our health. Following are but a handful of references relevant to our discussion.

Rambam, Hilchos Rotzeach v’Shmiras HaNefesh (11:4-5)
It is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life and be very careful regarding these matters, as it (Devarim 4:9) states “Beware and guard your life very well.”

And in Hilchos Deos (4:1), he writes, "A person must avoid anything that may harm the body, and must cultivate healthy habits."

Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 538
The Sages forbade many activities to protect a person from accidents and physical harm. It is improper for an intelligent person to endanger themselves. As such, it is only fitting that a person should be careful to avoid those things that can cause them harm.

Jewish medicine

G-d pays attention to each detail of every individual. He is aware of all their deeds. All that happens to anyone, whether good or bad, follows His decree and command according to [the person’s] merit or sin, as our Sages say (Chulin 7b): No person even bangs his finger unless it has been decreed so from above.

Nevertheless, each person must protect himself from natural harmful happenings. God created the world and built it on the foundations of natural law. He decreed that fire consumes and that water extinguishes a flame. Likewise, nature decrees that if a large rock falls on a person’s head it will crush his skull; and that if someone falls off a high roof to the ground he will die. G-d graciously infused the bodies of men with souls and intelligence with which he can guard himself from harm, and He placed both body and soul within the domain of natural processes that control and activate them. G-d made it such that the human body is subject to the laws of nature, as His wisdom saw fit, and He commanded man to protect himself from danger. This is because nature—which he is part of— will act upon him if he does not take precautions to protect himself…

Consequently, the Torah has commanded us to guard our homes and environs in order that we do not die through our negligence. We may not put our lives in danger and rely on miracles. In fact, our Sages say that if a person relies on a miracle to save him, a miracle will not occur (Torat Cohanim, Parshat Emor, 8,).

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, Arba’ah Turim, Orach Chaim 155
It is a mitzvah to conduct oneself in a balanced manner and behave in a way that preserves health, so that he will be healthy and have the requisite strength to serve the exalted Creator.

Shulchan Aruch, Chosen Mishpat 427:9-10
The Sages prohibited many things on account of their threat to life… Anyone who transgresses these things or anything like them, saying to himself, “I’m just endangering myself, why is it anyone else's concern?” or, “I do not mind [the danger],” should be punished with lashes. And one who avoids these situations will be blessed with goodness.

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 32:1
A person must distance himself from those things which harm or weaken the body, and instead accustom himself to things that promote health and strengthen the body. This is the meaning of the verse, “And you shall guard yourselves very well.”

Three Most Harmful Habits

It is clear that the mitzvah of health requires that we guard ourselves from anything which causes us physical harm. While you can probably come up with a long list of things that fall in that category, Rambam (Medical Aphorisms of Rambam, Treatise 17 ) boils it down to just three.

The three habits most harmful to your body are:

1. Sedentariness—lack of physical exercise

2. Satiation—overeating to the point of boredom, weariness, and/or disgust

3. Stress—excessive preoccupation with matters other than Divine service

It should come as no surprise then, that KosherFit practice (and the first of the Five Gates, i.e., Sanctity of Body ) focuses on building a fitness regimen in these three areas:

  • exercise
  • nutrition
  • meditation

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Deos 4:20) lays out a clear regimen for 'guarding ones health,' with the result that, “Whoever conducts himself in these ways, I guarantee that he will not get sick throughout his life…He will not need a doctor. His body will be in perfect condition and remain healthy all his life.”

And, as the Rambam points out (Medical Aphorisms of Rambam, Treatise 17 ) the benefits are not just physical. "A good regimen promotes excellent traits for the soul, just as it is beneficial for the body, and promotes excellent health."

Infinite Connection

For most people, the benefits of exercise, healthy eating, and fitness in general are obvious. It helps you feel better, have more energy, reduces your chance of chronic illness, and adds years to your life.

So why is it important that health is a mitzvah?

To answer that, we have to understand what a mitzvah truly is.

The word mitzvah has three meanings:

  • Command—as the Talmud (Makkot 23b) states that we were given 613 mitzvos at Har Sinai
  • Good deed—any charitable act, or chesed, is referred to as “the mitzvah” (especially in the Talmud Yerushalmi)
  • Attachment or companionship—in Aramaic, mitzvah is related to the word tzavta (see Talmud, Berachos 6b, Bava Basra 80a)

Taken together, these three meanings result in powerful understanding of a mitzvah. When we do the good that Hashem commands, we are attached and bound up with Him. When we do a "good thing," we "please G-d" and become attached to Him through the fulfillment of His mitzvos. In this way, G-d's Unity (remember that word) permeates all these good action."

mitzvah infinite light

According to Kabbalah and Chassidus, doing mitzvos brings creation and us into a harmonious state capable of receiving boundless Divine energy. (See, for example, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Torah Ohr, Genesis 6b: “ …‘and He commanded us,’ from the term tzavta and connection with the Infinite Light, source of the mitzvos above…”

Of course, we do mitzvos because they are G-d’s innermost desire—not just a means to an end. As it says in Pirkei Avos (4:2), “the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.”

Nonetheless, it is this attachment to the Infinite Light of mitzvos that is KosherFit’s singular focus and enables you to tap into an unlimited source of energy and vitality, so that you can achieve your life's unique purpose—physically and spiritually—on a daily basis.

Next: Meaning of Kosher