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Preservation of the Body in Halachah


In the current period of the year – the time known as bein ha-zemanim – many warn of the physical dangers that can be latent in vacationing in general, and trekking in particular.

Of course, a reasonable person is wary for health hazards irrespective of halachic instruction. Yet, it is important to note that halachah certainly has what to say about a person’s looking after one’s health, and there can often be room to take the halachic angle into consideration.

Befitting the time of the year, and on account of the verse, occurring in this week’s parashah (Va’eschanan), which is understood as a warning concerning bodily preservation, we turn below to the halachic issue of preserving the human body and its wellbeing.

“Guard Yourselves Very Carefully”

The string of words “Guard Yourselves Very Carefully” (Devarim 4:15) – ve-nishmarten me’od le-nafshoseichem – are a familiar exhortation for taking care of our physical health. Yet, it must be noted that in their textual context, the words form part of the Torah’s warning concerning idolatry, and have no connection to physical health: We are warned lest we make an image of any form or likeness.

The full verse thus reads as follows: “But you shall greatly beware for your souls, for you did not see any likeness on the day Hashem spoke to you at Horeb, from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make yourselves a carved image.”

Nonetheless, the verse is often quoted in everyday speech as a warning to give our physical bodies due consideration, urging us to keep the body from all damage and to sustain its healthy condition as best we can. The source for this surprising reading of the verse is a passage of the Gemara (Berachos 32b), which teaches as follows:

A pious man was once praying on the road. A minister approached him and greeted him, yet the pious man did not respond. The minister waited until he had finished praying, and then said to him: “Empty one! Is it not written in your Torah: ‘Take heed and watch yourself carefully’ (Devarim 4:9), and ‘Guard yourselves very carefully’ (Devarim 4:15)? When I greeted you, why didn’t you answer? If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have sought vengeance for your life?”

The Gemara records the response of the pious man, who compared the act of prayer before Hashem to somebody who stands in front of an earthly king. The minister readily agreed that while addressing an earthly king, one must not interrupt the conversation for the sake of responding to another’s greeting, and that doing so is a heinous offence.

“If this is true,” continued the pious man, “it is all the more forbidden to interrupt one’s prayer before the King of Kings!” The Gemara concludes that the minister was immediately appeased, and the pious individual returned home in peace.

Deriving an Obligation of Care from the Verse

The source for using the verse as an instruction to be wary for one’s physical wellbeing is thus an interpretation mentioned by a non-Jewish minister – though perhaps accepted by the pious man, and cited by the Talmud. In spite of the source, it has become common usage, both among the lay and in halachic parlance.

Indeed, the pasuk is quoted by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (32:1) as a source for the obligation to aspire for good health: “Because possessing a healthy body is among the ways of Hashem, for a sick man cannot know or comprehend anything of Divine knowledge, therefore a person must distance himself from things that damage the body, and to cling to ways that heal and maintain the body. Of this the verse states, ‘Guard yourselves very carefully.'” The obligation as based on the pasuk is also mentioned in Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim 328:6).

Responsa material also includes a number of authorities who cite the verse as a halachic source for the obligation of self preservation, as found in the Rashbash (1), the Chavas Ya’ir (163), and the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 241). The latter goes so far as to say that the reason for the prohibition of injuring somebody else is as a “safeguard for the positive mitzvah of ‘guard yourselves very carefully.'” The implication is that the instruction of the verse (to guard oneself carefully) is a full Torah mitzvah (see also Tosafos, Shevuos 36a, s.v. Ushmor; Kesav Sofer, Even Ha’ezer 19).

In similar fashion, Rabbi Yehudah Asad (Shut Mahari Asad, Orach Chaim 160) discusses the question of a sick individual for who was ordered by doctors to refrain from eating matzah or maror on Pesach. His question was whether it was nonetheless permitted for him to partake of matzah and maror, and whether he could recite a berachah over their consumption. The response given by Rabbi Asad was that it was absolutely forbidden for him to eat matzah or maror, by dint of the biblical injunction “you shall guard yourselves very carefully,” and that if he eats no berachah can be made.

Thus, there is no shortage of halachic material tying the biblical verse to the obligation to take care of one’s physical wellbeing. The Mesilas Yesharim (Chap. 9) likewise mentions the verse in connection with the obligation of care for the body.

The Prohibition of Injuring Oneself

Yet, although we have mentioned the verse in our parashah as a possible source for the prohibition of causing bodily harm to oneself, it must be noted that many poskim do not cite the verse as a source for the obligation to maintain good physical health. In particular, it is not mentioned by any of the rishonim who number the 613 mitzvos. There thus remains room to investigate alternative sources for the obligation, and to define the nature of the mitzvah.

A likely Talmudic source, in which the above verse is not mentioned (both by the Mishnah and Talmud themselves, and by later commentators) appears to emerge from the prohibition of self-injury.

The Gemara in Bava Kama (91b) cites a dispute between the Mishnah and a Beraisa concerning whether or not it is permitted for a person to cause himself bodily harm. The Mishnah (Bava Kama 90b), quoting the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, states that it is forbidden for one to injure oneself. The Beraisa, however, also quoting Rabbi Akiva, states that it is permitted for a person to harm himself physically.

It is noteworthy that the case mentioned by the Mishnah implies that the chance of financial gain is not sufficient to permit a person to cause himself bodily harm. The Mishnah tells the tale of a certain man who uncovered a woman’s hair in the marketplace, thereby causing her shame (which is equivalent to bodily harm). Rabbi Akiva found him liable to pay four hundred Zuz as compensation for the shame he inflicted on the woman.

The man, who was none too pleased with the decision, connived to show that he should be exempt from penalty, by demonstrating that the woman did not care about her own shame. This he did by breaking a jug of oil in the market in front of the woman, at which the woman revealed her hair and began to gather the spilling oil and applying it to her uncovered hair. The man brought his proof before Rabbi Akiva, stating: “To this woman I should pay four hundred Zuz?!”

Rabbi Akiva, however, was not impressed: “One who injures himself, even though it is prohibited, is exempt. If another injures him he is liable.”

Although as mentioned above, the Gemara writes that the question of injuring oneself is disputed between two Tanaic sources (both of them quoting from Rabbi Akiva), the Rambam, followed by the Shulchan Aruch and other poskim, rule in accordance with the Mishnah: One may not injure oneself. As Tosafos point out (91b, s.v. elah), and as implied by the Mishnah, this prohibition applies even for a need (such as the financial need of the Mishnah).

Thus, it can be suggested that the general obligation to look after one’s health, and to avoid the unhealthy and damaging, is a derivative of the prohibition on causing self-injury.

The Opinion of Rav Chisda

Having mentioned the question of bodily harm versus damage to one’s possessions, it is worth noting the practice of Rav Chisda (Bava Kama loc. cit.), who used to pull up his cloak when walking through a field of thorns. Although his legs were scratched as a result, Rav Chisda deemed it worthwhile to save his cloak from tearing at the expense of scratching his legs. “These,” he adjoined, “will heal – but this will not heal.”

Based on this Gemara, we find that the Rama (cited in Shita Mekubetzes, Bava Kama 91b, and by the Tur, Choshen Mishpat 420) rules that it is permitted for a person to cause himself injury. As the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama) writes, this ruling only applies when there is a need, but not when there is no benefit gained by the injury.

Yet, another source suggests that Rav Chisda held a unique opinion with regard to the question of causing oneself bodily harm. We find in the Gemara (Shabbos 140b) that according to Rav Chisda one who is able to eat barley (cheap) bread, yet eats wheat (expensive) bread, transgresses the prohibition of bal tashchis (his eating an expensive food is considered an act of wastefulness). The Gemara, however, states that this ruling of Rav Chisda is incorrect, because “bal tashchis of the body takes preference.”

Wheat bread is healthier than barley bread, and its consumption in place of barley bread is therefore not considered wastefulness. It is more important to avoid “wasting” one’s body than “wasting” food.

It appears that according to Rav Chisda, it is permitted to “waste” one’s body in order to prevent the waste of something else (though as we will point out below, it is possible that this ruling applies only to temporary physical damage – a point noted by Rav Chisda in the case of injuring his legs). This explains both the ruling concerning rolling up one’s cloak at the expense of scratching one’s legs, and the ruling prohibiting eating a healthier, yet more expensive food (this idea is found in the commentary of Rav Yehudah Perlow to Rav Saadya Gaon’s mitzvos, 47-48).

The halachah, however, does not follow the opinion of Rav Chisda, and it is thus forbidden to damage one’s body for the sake of preserving one’s clothing – and permitted (or even obligated, at least to a degree) to eat healthy yet expensive food.

Whose Body Is It?

We can perhaps deepen our understanding of the issues mentioned above by introducing the rationale behind the prohibition of injuring oneself. Why is this act prohibited?

With regard to the halachah whereby a person is not believed with regard to his being liable to corporal punishment, the Radvaz (commentary on Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 18:6) explains that a person’s body is not his own property, but the property of Hashem. A person is not permitted to kill himself, nor injure himself, for his body is not his. In the same sense, he is not believed when he confesses to being liable to corporal punishment.

Addressing the prohibition of injuring oneself, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (Nizkei Guf Venefesh 4) seems to relies the same rationale: “A person does not have jurisdiction over his body to injure or shame it, or to cause it any pain, even by refraining from eating and drinking.”

According to this rationale, it follows that a person’s need or desire does not suffice to permit injuring oneself. The body is not a person’s own property, and one has no right to damage it.

However, the wording of the Gemara (Shabbos 140b, as quoted above; see also Bava Kama 91b) implies that the prohibition of damaging the body is a concern of bal tashchis – a question of being wasteful. Just as it is forbidden to waste elements of nature, it is similarly forbidden to “waste” one’s own body.

Based on this rationale, it follows that where we find a legitimate need it is permitted to cause bodily harm. Along these lines, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav rules that it is permitted to refrain from eating and drinking, in spite of the resultant physical discomfort, for the sake of repentance: “This pain is good for the person, saving his soul and it is therefore permitted to fast for the purpose of repentance … and even for the purpose of training the spirit for Hashem, for there is no good greater than this.”

Although our bodies are not ours, they have been given to us for a purpose, and where this purpose involves physical harm the prohibition of harming the body is deferred.

Bal Tashchis of the Body

The definition of the prohibition of injuring oneself as an offshoot of bal tashchis can lead to important ramifications.

One such ramification is that the prohibition might not apply, or may not be as stringent, for injuries that heal. This would explain why Rav Chisda could roll up his cloak in order to save it from tearing, at the expense of injuring his legs. He considered it permitted to inflict temporary injury to his body (in fact, Rav Chisda emphasized that his bodily injury was of temporary nature), in order to save permanent damage to his property.

In his kuntress acharon (2), the Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that it is permitted to suffer injury for the sake of earning money – contrary to the ruling of the Yam Shel Shlomo. He proves this from Yaakov Avinu, whose body was consumed by the cold and the heat in his work for Lavan. Once more, we might suggest that suffering from cold and heat is a case of temporary damage or discomfort, and is therefore permitted for the sake of earning a salary.

In a similar vein, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that it is permitted for a person to undergo shame for the purpose of earning money, proving his point from the Talmudic instruction whereby a person should perform degrading labor (skinning animals in the marketplace) rather than receive alms from others. The feelings of shame will heal, and it is permitted to cause them for the sake of earning a living.

This should not be seen as contradictory with the prohibition declared by Rabbi Akiva on the woman revealing her hair for the sake of collecting spilled oil. In the case of the spilled oil, the woman shamed herself not for earning a living, but merely for making a gain by saving the oil. This is incomparable with somebody who must earn a living, and has no way of doing so but engaging in a shameful activity.

Permission to Diet

Another important distinction is highlighted by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat Vol. 2, no. 66).

Addressing the question of whether a woman is permitted to undergo plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes, he writes that the prohibition of injuring oneself applies only when the injury is caused in a destructive or degrading manner, and not when the injury is constructive and respectful. Basing himself on a number of sources, he therefore permits the surgical treatment. We have expounded on this topic here.

This distinction can also be related to the definition of the prohibition as bal tashchis of the body. Because the prohibition is hashchasah – destruction – it applies only to acts that are destructive and degrading, and not to an act defined as positive and constructive.

The Iggros Moshe (ibid, no. 65) adds that it is certainly permitted for somebody to go on a diet, for medical and even for cosmetic purposes, even though the diet causes a degree of bodily discomfort. If the diet is for health purposes, its purpose is to preserve the body rather than destroy it, and the diet is certainly permitted. Even for cosmetic purposes, the pleasure a girl takes in her appearance outweighs the discomfort of refraining from certain foods, and there would be no prohibition.

However, he writes where the purpose is only cosmetic, it is possibly forbidden for a girl to go on a diet so extreme as to cause pains of hunger. This is considered injuring oneself, and it is forbidden to do so merely for cosmetic purposes.

Thus, in summary it can be said that although it is forbidden to cause self-injury, where the purpose is constructive, and depending on the circumstances, there can be room for leniency. Certainly, however, one must always seek to minimize physical harm, and to lessen the risks involved.


In conclusion, it is worth dedicating a few words to the issue of smoking.

Long before the dangers of smoking became fully known, the Chafetz Chaim (Likutei Amarim Chap. 13; Zeicher Le-Miriam Chap. 23) noted the warning of doctors concerning the ill effects of smoking on “weak individuals.” Based on this warning, the Chafetz Chaim writes that the obligation of “guarding oneself” surely applies to smoking, and adds that our bodies are not our own, and we must be wary of causing them damage.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:39) cites the words of the Chafetz Chaim, and argues that since doctors currently believe that smoking endangers everyone – including those who have a strong constitution – the Chafetz Chaim would rule that all should adhere to the doctors’ warnings and refrain from smoking.

Today, when the dangers of smoking are known to all, many authoritieshave voiced their strong objection to smoking, which endangers health and life.

The Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116:5) writes: “One must avoid dangerous activities because we treat danger even more seriously than issurim (forbidden behaviors). We must be more concerned about even possible danger than about possible violations of prohibitions.” The Rema thus writes that a person must be wary of walking beneath a ladder, or drinking from rivers at night. It is fairly clear that the same prohibition will apply, all the more so, to smoking.

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