Dear Rabbi Simon,
I am learning in depth about the mitzvah of health and how the great rabbis and leaders (Rambam, Chafetz Chaim and others) focused on guarding their own health and spoke about this to their students and encouraged them to have a healthy lifestyle. Here is my question: From my personal experience, I do not see this mitzvah (of guarding your health) being a priority (or even ever mentioned or implemented or encouraged at all!) in schools or Shuls, (at least in Brooklyn, NY where I live). I’m wondering why that is. I would appreciate any feedback on 1. This topic – health 2. Why don’t leaders and educators in the Jewish community talk about it in schools and Shuls? 3. Why are things like smoking cigarettes kosher?
Thank you for your question.
It is true that Rambam and other authoritative sources write of the importance of preserving one’s health. However, it would seem that many Torah leaders nowadays feel that in general, the spiritual perils that we face are more menacing than the physical ones. Urging greater attention to physical fitness, body image and awareness may come at the expense of appreciation of Torah and mitzvah observance generally. The trade-off is delicate and possibly risky.
Nevertheless, I believe that, if consulted, many rabbis would encourage their followers on an individual basis to be mindful of their health through sensible eating habits and regular moderate exercise. (I say this even while recognising that some of those rabbis themselves may fall short in both of these regards.)
WRT smoking, many authorities have indeed ruled that this is an unhealthy practice which should be avoided. One should certainly not take up smoking, and one who has already acquired this habit should seek to wean himself from it. However, the grounds to forbid it outright are contested, as the deleterious effects of smoking are gradual and indirect rather than palpable and immediate. On the other hand, the baleful effects of indirect smoking, posing a hazard to the lives of others, mean that many posekim agree that one may not smoke in an indoor public space (which in any case is now illegal in many settings).
I hope this is helpful.
Rabbi Rashi Simon