Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Jacques B. Doukhan

The Hebrew Concept of Health

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, and every parcel of the Hebrew Torah are aimed at health. The Bible starts on that notice.

The affirmation of life is given as the first, 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 from that perspective. Because the God of Israel is the God of life, he is the God of health. Life is the first place for God’s revelation. It is significant that God’s first manifestation is given as Ruach Elohim, the wind, the air of God, who"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 a 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" or “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 a 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.

Spirituality

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).

Wholeness

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 as "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 (Ps. 103:1; 146:1). The same principle applies to 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, or basar, which is supposed to contain all the physical functions of man, also has spiritual functions. The flesh is troubled (Jer. 12:12), knows (Ezek. 21:10), is spiritual (Joel 3:1), and 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 the 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 is.

For the Hebrews, to be whole, complete, “total” means therefore to be healthy. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word shalom, which means "complete" or "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 about his well-being and 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. In 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 the length of days and long life in peace (shalom), they will add to you (Prov. 3:1–2).

Food

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; therefore, it could not be otherwise: we cannot, on the one hand, provide and affirm life in eating and, at the same time, withdraw life in killing and the shedding of the 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 that 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 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 that 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).

Sex

The biblical raison d'être of sexual relations is a high reverence for life. Here, too, the reference to creation is implied. The four duties that are associated with sexual life point 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 men and women 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 relations, an act of life, cannot take place at the time of menstruation, which is associated with 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 relationship. 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 women and, hence, the health of sexual relations. Sexual satisfaction is achieved insofar as it implies reverence for the sacredness of life.

The fourth duty concerns the nature of the relationship that is contained in the sexual relationship. The Hebrew word that describes sexual relations is yada‘, which implies personal, intimate, and reciprocal experience over time. In other words, sexual relations imply the knowledge of the partner. It is not a one-night experience. It implies the duration and commitment of life. It also implies it is between two people. 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 relationship 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 relationship that was given at creation necessitates a relationship with someone who is both like me and different from me; she or he is both with me and against me. She or he supports me 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-à-vis the one who is like me and different from me, that we will produce and guarantee the real knowledge of the other. Only within these parameters will we achieve the highest biblical ideal, namely the resemblance with God. It is of 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).

Environment

All those biblical laws that apply to space and objects surround the human person and concern his or her welfare. This relationship 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 whether it is very good and beautiful. God created the world as a perfect and enjoyable environment for 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 men. 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 flow there and are associated with precious stones and gold.

The lesson God gives in His creation should be meditated on 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 is a religious invitation to appreciate the beauty of creation. This exercise of sensitivity will bring life and health to our human existence. Maimonides, the great physician of the Middle Ages, recommended that his patients contemplate beautiful things and listen to beautiful music. The agency of beauty will dissipate despair and cure depression. Creation (not drought), life (not death), beauty (not boredom), and 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 on 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” (Joshua 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 a person’s relationship to his or 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. With this awareness that God has created, the world will be protected 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; and the trap of ecological abuse, where man destroys the earth. The biblical text and creation call man to responsibility in the garden where he has been put. He will have “to tend it and keep it (Gen. 2:15).

Ethics

Man has been created as a social being. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The Hebrew concept of health is therefore based on relationships. Shalem (complete) implies Shalom (peace). A bad relationship is bound to produce a disease. The first human depression was 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 perish is repeated like a refrain in the book (Prov. 13:13; 19:9; 28:28, etc.). Unethical behavior ultimately leads 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, and with a 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 explicitly relates the biblical ethical ideal of charity to the poor and 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).

Sabbath

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; shalom has traditionally been associated with Shabbat. Remember, “Shabbat Shalom.” This is the moment when the physical and the spiritual are reconciled or re-created.

3. Because the Sabbath is the time for 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 hallots, called the double portion of the manna during the Exodus.

4. Sexual life is relevant during the holy time of the 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 slaves or masters; no more strangers 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 and that we were all created by God, but also because we have time to relate to each other and the faith to notice in each 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 which 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

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