Eruvin 56 Looking after one’s health

In loving memory of our dear Rosh-Yeshiva of Yeshiva-college, South Africa, Moreinu haRav Avraham Tanzer of blessed memory, and as we daven for a Refuah Shleima for ALL those ill with COVID-19 and other diseases

At the bottom of the previous daf, Rav Huna rules that a Talmid Chacham is prohibited from living in a city where vegetables are not available.

Rashi explains that this is because in places where vegetables are easily available, they are generally a cheap form of healthy food, which enables him to sustain himself easily and have more time to learn  – (“טוב למאכל ונלקח בזול ויכול לעסוק בתורה”)

In our world of global trade, such a thing might seem hard for the Westerner to imagine, and we indeed daven that global supply of produce will continue uninterrupted despite the current pandemic, but in days prior to modern transport, storage  and technology, this was simply not to be taken for granted- If a certain  perishable species did not grow locally, it was usually simply not available .

Given that both Eretz Yisrael and Bavel were generally arid regions, making the availability of vegetables a requirement for one’s place of abode was no simple thing ,even in the “fertile crescent” region which can hardly be called lush by temperate and tropical standards.

 Even if we could regard Rav Huna’s statement as non-authoritative halachically but more as a form of advice coded in the strong language of halacha, it certainly is a very strong statement about the importance of a healthy diet.

Although Rashi seems to understand that vegetables are not the ONLY healthy foods, and that the reason for Rav Huna’s ruling is that they are a cheap form of healthy food which will allow the scholar to maximize his learning time without having to work too hard to be able to afford it, the basic assumption that eating healthy food is an obligation remains.

The Gemara questions this ruling, not because of any doubt regarding the importance of having access to healthy food, but because of Tannaic statements that say that vegetables can actually be harmful.

It upholds Rav Huna’s ruling by distinguishing between different types of vegetables, different parts of vegetables, and different seasons (see similar discussions in Brachos  44b ), and whereas the correct approach of a Ben-Torah to specific health advice of Chazal requires its own post, the basic idea that Chazal required us to eat healthily is not open to debate.

The Rambam (Deos 4 ) codifies this idea, going a step further and claiming that the main source of illness is an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, a claim which  has stood the test of time and is largely borne-out by modern medical studies that list poor diet, lack of exercise, and other unhealthy lifestyles (such as smoking)  as primary risk factors in most most serious diseases.

Those who attended Yeshiva College in Johannesburg can never forget the words of the school anthem “Rosh-Yeshiva we are for you, both in sports and back at school.”

Rav Tanzer זצ”ל  always drummed it into us that we were always his representatives wherever we were and needed to try our best to make a Kiddush Hashem on the sports field as much as in the classroom.

He viewed sports and exercise as an essential part of life in order to maintain physical, emotional, and social health, and strengthen us so we could better carry out our spiritual duties, something that cannot be taken for granted amongst all Teachers of Torah.

As Chazal say (Kesubos 30a)-  “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מצינין ופחים”- “everything is in the hands of heaven, except for colds and fever”- Rashi explains that these can sometimes come upon a person through negligence, presumably by not looking after one’s health properly.

Particularly during this time of lockdown and pandemic, it goes without saying that we all need to make an extra effort to look after our health, both by eating healthily and exercising as well as possible under the circumstances, and avoiding contracting or spreading the disease chalila.

With the right effort on our side, we can than daven with all our strength that Hashem keeps us all healthy, heals the ill, and brings a ישועה very soon!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Shabbos 82  Health and safety  matters (excuse the pun)

On this daf, we are told how Rav Huna asked his son Rabbah, why he did not go to learn anymore by Rav Chisda, who was particularly sharp in his learning.

Rabbah replied that Rav Chisda used to always teach them “worldly matters”, and he preferred to focus on only Torah during his studies .

For example, he used to tell them that when one goes to the toilet, one should not sit down too quickly or push too hard, as it could cause injury .

Rabbah’s response was that he was teaching him matters of health (the life of people ) , and that was even more reason to go learn with him!

The most obvious explanation of this is that the Torah commands us to look after one’s health and safety and avoid danger, in the passuk

 ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם ( be very careful with your lives.) ( Devarim 4/9) 

The Rambam is generally presumed to hold that anything one does that is bad for one’s health or a danger to his life will usually be a transgression of this Mitzva ( See for example  Hilchos Deos chapter 4 and Rotzeach ushmiras hanefesh chapter 14 and 11/4, though he might also have other sources for this- another discussion for a different post, perhaps )

If the Rambam’s definition is correct, than anything which is health or safety related is part of this Mitzva and thus considered Torah, so Rabbah’s claim that he preferred to focus on “Torah” was ill informed, seeing as this very much WAS Torah !

In truth though, even if this particular passuk is not referring to avoiding physical danger, but rather spiritual danger as in its context (see Torah Temima on the passuk for different views on this ), there are plenty sources that avoiding danger is a Torah requirement, and in fact that it is MORE important than avoiding sin (חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא -see Chullin 10a.)

However, if one takes a more careful look, one still needs to explain :

1. What was Rabbah was initially thinking?- did he really not know that looking after oneself is a Torah requirement?

2. Why does Rav Huna say that it was even MORE reason to go? If health and safety is just another Mitzva , then why should it be even more important than learning Brachos  or Shabbos or Yevamos?

This is only one of many statements of Chazal that venture into the realm of health and medicine, to the point that one often finds what seem like clear contradictions between the views they express and those of modern medicine (more on this perhaps in a different post.)

In order to address this problem,  Rabbeinu Avraham son of the Rambam (Maamar al Derashos Chazal)  tells us that such contradictions should not worry us, as Chazal did not get their medical knowledge from any form of Torah  tradition or prophesy, but rather based their advice on the medical knowledge available to them at the time.

The Rambam himself wrote similar things regarding Astronomy (Moreh Nevuchim 3/14.)

Perhaps precisely for this reason, Rabbah was of the view that medical issues should be left to the doctors and Rabbis should focus on teaching Torah only, stating the mitzva to look after oneself , but not going into the practical details, which one should rather learn from the doctors of the time .

Rav Huna, however , knew that if Rabbis don’t take health matters seriously and teach it to their Talmidim, the talmidim won’t take it seriously, and it is therefore their absolute obligation to become as familiar as they can with the medical knowledge of the time, and under the guidance of their medical consultants, drill it into their students .

Alternatively, perhaps Rabbah held that such details, being subject to change as medical knowledge develops,  cannot be part of a timeless Torah ,that never changes .

Rav Huna taught him that although the facts and knowledge one has available to apply to the Mitzva might change , the Mitzva itself is timeless and part of that timelessness is the need to constantly apply new knowledge to how it is carried out.

In fact, Rav Huna might be suggesting that studying  a theoretical mitzva  which does not include practical ways of fulfilling it in each time and environment, is an inferior form of Torah study itself .

As such, he tells his son, destined to become a leading Amora in his own right , that on the contrary, the fact that Rav Chisda doesn’t just teach the mitzva out of context, but emphasizes the  contemporary wisdom required to carry it out in each place and time, is EVEN more of a reason to learn by him, as such Torah is actually superior – it is not enough to learn about the Mitzva of being healthy- one has to study health itself in order to be able to fulfill the mitzvah properly , and that is not a secondary level of Torah, or a mere הכשר מצוה , but Torah itself !

This also explains the Mitzva of learning astronomy which we discussed in a previous post re כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם , and is summed up incredibly by the famous statement of the Vilna Gaon  that “all categories of (secular) wisdom are required for our holy Torah and are incorporated with it” (See  “הגרא” מאת דב אליאך   chapter 19 for references and detailed discussion)

And while it could be argued that this is only necessary later in life once one has completed a basic understanding of Torah , perhaps also the initial feeling of Rabbah bar Rav Huna, it seems that Rav Huna was teaching him that, on the contrary, one has to study these wisdoms in one’s youth, at least as they come up, in order for one’s learning to be of a more superior quality!

P.s. one could go a simpler route and argue that Rav Huna was simply teaching his son that looking after one’s health is NOT just another Mitzva, but more important than other Mitzvos, given the precedent of וחי בהם and pikuach nefesh,  but one would then have to explain how Rabbah bar Rav Huna was not aware of such a simple principle such as “danger is more severe than prohibition .”

In light of recent events where we have seen plenty people who learn regularly but seem to be unaware of this rule, at least on a practical level, that might seem less far-fetched  than our initial feeling, but I would still rather not attribute such a view to any one of the Amoraim, even in their earlier years of study !