It seems that there is no Hebrew concept of health. Nowhere in the Bible do we find prescriptions about how to be healthy. We do not have a word in the Hebrew Bible for “health.”
And yet the whole Bible is about health. Every page of the Bible, every reflection of wisdom, every parcel of the Hebrew Torah is aimed at health. The Bible starts on that notice.
The affirmation of life is given as the first, the basic principle of biblical revelation. God creates. He transforms darkness into light, the nonbeing into being. The Hebrew concept of health is to be understood in that perspective. Because the God of Israel is the God of life, he is the God of health. Life is the first place of God’s revelation. It is significant that God’s first manifestation is given as Ruach Elohim, the Wind, the Air of God who1 “was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). God reveals Himself not in the form of darkness, nor in the form of the watery abyss as in the ancient Near Eastern mythologies. God appears as a force that is distinct from water or darkness, a force that brings life
The first page of the Bible is therefore a description of life at its best. Creation is given as “good,” “very good.” The world as it came out of the hands of this God was perfect, not yet spoiled by evil or death. It was perfect, “complete” life. The lesson that emerges from the first chapter of Genesis will accompany the reader of the Holy Scriptures from then on. It is a call for life. “Therefore choose life” (Deut 30:19). Life becomes, therefore, the duty that is required of anyone who wants to walk on God’s paths. Health is the first mitzvah of the Jew and of anyone who believes in God
This biblical affirmation of life teaches about a holistic view of life. From the first words of the Bible we are notified that the spiritual world and the physical world are the same thing. They are not two separate categories. The spirit of God, Ruach Elohim, is the principle of life. To be spiritual means to be alive, and to be alive means to be spiritual. This is the first implication we may infer from the story of Creation. Man’s “biological” life is directly dependent on his relationship with God. God breathes into man’s nostrils and man becomes alive. Life is then a dimension of the “encounter” between God and man (cp. Ps 115:17).
Another implication of the creation of man reported in the Bible is that the human person is conceived as a whole. Man became a living soul (Gen 2:7). Thus it would be inappropriate to say that man has a soul; man is a soul. The Hebrew conception of man makes no room for a dualistic theory of man. The word nephesh which is commonly translated by “soul” implies in fact all the functions of man, spiritual, mental, emotional, as well as physical. The nephesh can be hungry (Ps 107:9; Deut 12:20), thirsty (Ps 143:6), satisfied (Jer 31:14), enjoy good food (Isa 55:2); it can also love (Gen 34:3; Song 1:7), be troubled (Ps 31:9), cry (Ps 119:20), make research (Lam 3:25), know (Ps 139:14), be wise (Prov 3:22), worship and praise God (Pss 103:1; 146:1). The same principle applies for the human organs. Guts, rechem, have compassion (Gen 43:30); kidneys, kilyot, convey instruction (Ps 16:7); the heart, leb, thinks (Ezek 38:10), feels (Ps 39:4) or understands (1 Kgs 3:9); the ears, ozenim, understand (Prov 18:15). The flesh, basar, which is supposed to contain all the physical functions of man, has also spiritual functions. The flesh is troubled (Jer 12:12), knows (Ezek 21:10), is spiritual (Joel 3:1), worships (Isa 66:23; Ps 145:21).
Thus, man may think with his body and eat with his soul, just as he may think with his soul and eat with his body. Actually the two words nephesh (soul) and basar (flesh) are often interchangeable (Num 31:35; cf. Ps 145:21). The reason for that confusion is that soul and body do not exist separately. Man is conceived in totality. If the physical mechanism stops working, the spiritual mechanism does the same (Eccl 9:5). Death is total just as life.
For the Hebrew, to be whole, complete, “total” means therefore to be healthy. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word Shalom which means “complete,” “whole” is mostly used with the connotation of health. The first appearance of the word Shalom appears in Genesis 23:6 when Jacob inquires about Laban’s shalom, a way of asking his well-being, his health. This language is still used in Modern Hebrew when one asks mah shlomekha, the equivalent of “how are you?” In Hebrew we are in fact asking “how complete are you?” Likewise, King Hezekiah calls his healing the recovery of his shalom, of his completeness (Isa 38:17). The same principle underlies the lessons of the book of Proverbs. Religious life, the obedience of language is still used in Modern Hebrew when one asks mah shlomekha, the equivalent of “how are you?” In Hebrew we are in fact asking “how complete are you?” Likewise, King Hezekiah calls his healing the recovery of his shalom, of his completeness (Isa 38:17). The same principle underlies the lessons of the book of Proverbs. Religious life, the obedience of God’s commands, is essential for health. “My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands; for length of days and long life in peace (shalom) they will add to you (Prov 3:1-2).
It’s interesting and indeed important to realize that when the Bible speaks about food, it does not do it with the concern of health but with the concern of the sacredness of life. The first time that food is mentioned, it is to inform the reader that food has been given by God in a way that does not threaten life. Humans and animals are sharing the same vegetarian diet (Gen 1:27-30). The same principle justifies God’s commandment not to eat meat with its blood (Gen 9:3-4)
The reason for this prescription is explicitly indicated; it is because life is in the blood. (Gen 9:4). This is the lesson hidden behind man’s diet. We should eat with the awareness that life is sacred. This association of thought is quite consistent with the biblical idea that God is the creator of life. This food is given by God to sustain life; it therefore could not be otherwise: we cannot on one hand provide and affirm life in eating and at the same time withdraw life in killing and the shedding of. blood that is life. This principle is so important that the biblical text goes so far as to associate it with the killing of humans and the fact that man has been created in God’s image (Gen 9:5-7).
In the book of Ezekiel it is associated with idolatry and murder (Ezek 3:25-26). No wonder then this prescription has been maintained for the non-Jew in the Noahic law and is still valid even under the “new covenant” as understood by the early Christians (Acts 15).
The same lesson is implied in the Levitical restriction “you shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exod 23:19). It is clear that besides the cultural reason that associated this recipe with the Baal fertility cults of Canaan, and the ethical intention to prevent the cruelty against animals, there is another deeper reason: affirm the teaching of the sacredness of life. Just as we should not eat the meat with its blood that provides life in the veins of the animals, it is not decent to eat the animal with the milk which is supposed to provide it with life. This is also why the clean animals that we are allowed to eat in the Levitical system are generally not animals that kill. Even here when we can eat meat that belongs to the selected life of the Torah, we are supposed to remember creation. It is indeed highly significant that the life that is given in Leviticus 11 reflects the blueprint of the creation story. It follows the same sequence as in Genesis 1:24-26, uses the same technical expressions and is associated with the same principle of the creation of humans in God’s image. “You shall therefore be holy for I am holy” (Lev 11:44).
The biblical raison d’etre of sexual relations is the high reverence for life. Here also the reference to creation is implied. The four duties that are associated with sexual life are pointing to creation. The first duty is given in the creation story; it is the first commandment of God, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:20). It is amazing that the first human conception is put in the context of sexual life. “Adam knew Eve”—and yet it is interpreted by Eve as a divine creation. “I have acquired a man from the Lord” (Gen 4:1)
The second duty concerns hygienic measures taken in relation to bodily discharges. Both man and woman are subject to the same laws which imply rituals of washing and cleaning. For the woman however the time of uncleanness is longer (7 days) during which the woman is set apart (Lev 15:19) and no sexual relationship is allowed (Lev 10:18). Here again we may perceive the same principle that was behind the dietary laws, namely that life is not to be associated with death. Sexual relation, an act of life, cannot take place at the time of menstruation, which is associated with the blood and the loss of potential life.
The third duty concerns sexual satisfaction. Man should not frustrate the woman, not only from her food or her clothing, but also from “her marriage rights” (Exod 21:10). According to this view sexual relations are then legitimate outside of procreation (contrary to the Catholic tradition). Yet it is noteworthy that this duty concerns only the husband; the woman remains sovereign on that matter. She is the one who should control the relations. This nuance is suggested in the context of the creation story where man is described as the one who “shall leave father and mother” to follow his wife in their becoming “one flesh” (Gen 2:26). The same principle seems to dominate the man-woman relationship in wisdom literature, especially the Song of Songs, where it is the woman who takes the initiative and controls the relationship (see also Jer 31:22). All these measures may surprise or even shock our “macho” views. But they make sense from the perspective of the protection of woman and hence the health of the sexual relations. Sexual satisfaction is achieved insofar as it implies reverence for the sacredness of life.
The fourth duty concerns the nature of the relation that is contained in the sexual relations. The Hebrew word that describes sexual relations is yada‘, which implies personal, intimate and reciprocal experience in time. In other words, sexual relations imply the knowledge of the partner. It is not a onenight experience. It implies the duration and the commitment of life. It also implies it is between two persons. The woman is not given to man or reversely as a mere object of pleasure. They are both subjects facing each other. The Hebrew experience that describes this relation is given in Genesis 2:18: the woman has been created by God in relation to man kenegdo, which literally means “as his opposite.” The relation that was given at creation necessitates a relationship with someone who is both like me and different from me; she/he is both with me and against me. She/he supports and confronts me.
It’s clear then that this biblical view of the couple excludes any relationship with the same sex (only like me) or relationship with an animal (only different), just as it excludes any extramarital affair. It is only in this experience, vis-avis with the one who is like me and different from me, only in monogamous experience which implies the real knowledge of the other that we will produce and guarantee. Only within these parameters will we achieve the highest biblical ideal, namely the resemblance with God. It is in clear significance that equal creation of the human couple as man and woman in their sexual relations is associated with the principle of Imago Dei: “So God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27).
All those biblical laws which apply to space and object surround the human person and concern his/her welfare. This relation is already obvious in creation. The environment is indebted to the Hebrew view of creation. Contrary to the Greek and the dualistic views where creation is depicted as negative, the Bible describes creation as positive and valuable. After each act of creation God evaluates that it is very good and beautiful. God creates the world as a perfect and enjoyable environment for the humans. Before creating man, God creates his environment, the light, the sun, the water, and the animals (Gen 1). The plants of the garden precede the formation of man (Gen 2). Also this garden is not just given to promote shelter and food for the man. It is not just a useful context. The biblical text lengthens in discussing the harmony and the “useless” beauty of the space where man will be put. Trees are not just good for food but are also “pleasant to the sight.” And the tree of life is in the middle (Gen 2:9). Four rivers are flowing there, and are associated with precious stones and gold.
The lesson God gives in His creation should be meditated by the professionals of religion. Beauty is the sign of life. Ugliness and boredom are not signs of good religion. God is first of all an artist. People who despise beauty and lack good taste miss an important aspect of God’s presence, perhaps the most important one.
The very fact that God created the human environment as beautiful is a religious invitation to appreciate the beauty of creation. This exercise of the sensitivity will bring life and health to our human existence. Maimonides, the great physician of the Middle Ages, recommended his patients to contemplate beautiful things and to listen to beautiful music. For the agency of beauty will dissipate despair and cure depression. Creation (not drought), life (not death), beauty (not boredom), joy (not sadness) will teach about God (Job 12:2-10)
Now, the fact that the world has been created as a whole and in relation to man, indicates an organic unity of the world within itself and as it relates to man. The nature of this relationship is such that the history of the whole world is described as dependent upon man’s actions. The original good creation becomes bad as soon as man disobeys God. Evil and death enter the world and the ecological balance has been upset due to the sin of man. This lesson of dependence is repeated over and over again in the scriptures. In Genesis 4, as a result of his murder, Cain had to be protected (Gen 4:15). The text does not specify from what, but it is clear that animals are implied since these are the only things left besides his parents. The same principle underlies the Hebrew concept of the promised land which has the property of “vomiting out” its sinful inhabitants (Lev 18:25, 28). The iniquity of the Israelites who steal and commit adultery (Hos 4:2) affects the character of the land which “will mourn . . . And waste with the beasts . . . the birds and the fish” (Hos 4:3). Likewise the mere lie of the individual Achan has an effect upon the immediate surroundings. Not only will the whole people be hurt but the space in which the sin takes place, the valley, is hit and becomes the “valley of trouble” (Josh 7:10-26). Thus the geography seems to bear witness to the iniquity. And this principle is so vivid for the prophets that they go so far as to infer the fate of the nation merely from the meaning of the names of the cities where that nation dwells (Mic 1:10-16). As a matter of fact, the world is intimately associated with its inhabitants (Isa 49:13; Jer 51:48; Ps 96:11; 1 Chr 16:31) and man’s success or failure involves the failure or success of all creation (Isa 51:6; 44:23; 45:18
This is why the Bible is full of laws that regulate the person’s relation to his/her body and environment. This principle of dependence was behind the notion of infection and the transmission of disease, and thus behind all the hygienic laws, and the duty to wash not only the body, but also any infected space or objects. The justification for all these measures). is repeated over and over again in the book of Leviticus, “Be holy, for I am holy,” (Lev 11:40; 19:2; 20:7; 21:6, 8). God’s presence is recognized everywhere; the whole space is owned by God. Therefore the whole world is to be kept holy. The recognition that God owns the world belongs to the biblical view of creation. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the waters” (Ps 24:1-2)
The human duty to keep nature in good condition implies the health of creation. For this awareness that God has created the world will preserve against two pitfalls that have destroyed the earth: The trap of idolatry where man is crushed by creation, where creation is left by itself and therefore bound to confusion and death; the trap of ecological abuse where man destroys the earth. The biblical text and creation calls man to responsibility in the garden where he has been put. He will have “to tend it and keep it (Gen 2:15)
Man has been created a social being. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). The Hebrew concept of health is therefore based on relationship. Shalem (complete) implies Shalom (peace). A bad relation is bound to produce a disease. The first human depression is so diagnosed. Because Cain failed in his relationship with his brother “his countenance fell” (Gen 4:5)
The book of Proverbs elaborates on this observation. The idea that the wicked perishes is repeated like a refrain in the book (Prov 13:13; 19:9; 28:28 etc.). Unethical behavior leads ultimately to death. “A worthless man, a wicked man goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken without remedy” (Prov 6:12- 15).
The tongue plays an important role in ethical behavior: it is therefore expected that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:4). In fact, the tongue of the wise promotes health (Prov 12:18). “A wholesome tongue” is identified with “the tree of Life” while perverseness in the tongue will break the spirit (Prov 15:4).
Psalm 41 relates explicitly the biblical ethical ideal of charity to the poor to health. “Blessed is he who considers the poor. The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble . . . the Lord will strengthen him on his bed of illness; you will sustain him on his sick bed” (Ps 41:1, 3)
The primary function of the Sabbath is to remember creation (Exod 20:18). For that matter the Sabbath commandment contains all the lessons of creation, and hence all the lessons about the Hebrew concept of health.
1. It implies a spiritual attribute since it calls for the recognition of God as the creator and the savior (Deut 5:15). It is a moment of rest, a pause from work and a time to be devoted to spiritual activity.
2. It emphasizes the holistic view of life; the shalom has been traditionally been associated with Shabbat. Remember, “Shabbat Shalom.” This is the moment when the physical and the spiritual spiritual are reconciled or re-created.
3. Because the Sabbath is the time of exalting creation, this is the day when good food is in order. It is noteworthy that the first experience of the Sabbath by the liberated people of Israel is associated with food, the manna from above. This is why the Sabbath table has two breads, the two hallot, calling the double portion of the manna during the Exodus time.
4. Sexual life is relevant in the holy time of Sabbath. The message is given through the literary parallelism that associates the gift of the Sabbath (on the seventh section of the first creation story in Gen 2:1- 3) with the coupling of Adam and Eve (also on the seventh section of the second creation story in Gen 2:23-24). The Sabbath is thus given as the time for family par excellence. It is not an accident that the fifth commandment follows the fourth commandment about the Sabbath. These are the only positive commandments. No wonder then that the book of Leviticus associates the keeping of the Sabbath with family relations (Lev 13:3).
5. The law of the Sabbath has ecological implications. On Sabbath we are to affirm and remember creation; “heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them,” and enjoy the beauty of nature. This whole idea permeates the central principle of the Sabbatical year and the jubilee (the Sabbath of Sabbaths) when the land is left by itself. Thus the land is kept in good health rejuvenating itself, and preserving its natural resources.
6. The Sabbath is also the day that overthrows social barriers. No more slave or master, no more stranger or natives (Deut 5:14). It is the day when we learn to respect each other, not only because we remember that we are equals, we are all created by God, but also because we have time to relate to each other and the faith to notice in the other the face of God.
Indeed the Sabbath contains all the dimensions of health. And yet the Sabbath contains one more dimension that transcends all the others. The Sabbath brings the surplus2 that makes us nostalgic and dream about another time. It is the hope “of new heavens and new earth” where “the voice of weeping shall no longer be heard” (Isa 65:19), for we shall then no longer be concerned with health . . .
1In Hebrew, the word ruach means spirit, wind or air.
2The neshama yeteira of mystical Judaism.
Image: Yemenite boy washing his hands in 1949. Public Domain