Guard yourselves very carefully … (Parashat Vaeschanan, Devarim 4:15)
In context, the words quoted above are part of the Torah’s warning against idolatry: We are warned lest we make an image of any form or likeness. The full verse 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 as a warning to give our physical bodies due consideration, urging us to guard our 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 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 to respond to another’s greeting. “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 appeased immediately, and the pious person returned home in peace.
The source for using the verse as an instruction to be wary for one’s physical well-being is thus the words of the non-Jewish minister. Nonetheless, it has become common usage, both among the lay and in halachic discourse (see, for instance, Kesav Sofer, Even Ha’ezer 19).
Indeed, the pasuk is quoted in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (32:1) as a source for the obligation to aspire to 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 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).
The Prohibition against Injuring Oneself
Although we have mentioned the verse in parshas hashavua as a possible source for the prohibition of causing bodily harm to oneself, it must be noted that the great majority of poskim do not quote the verse as a source for the obligation to maintain good physical health, though it is mentioned by a small number of authorities (see Rashbash 1; Chavas Yair 163; Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 241; see also Tosefos, Shevuos 36a).
Barring the verse, what (if any) is the source for this commonly-quoted obligation?
The Gemara in Bava Kama (91b) cites a dispute between the Mishnah and a Beraisa whether it is permitted for a person to cause himself bodily harm. The Mishnah (Bava Kama 90b), quoting Rabbi Akiva, states that it is forbidden 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 even a monetary incentive does not permit causing oneself bodily harm. The Mishnah tells of a 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 connived to show that he should be exempt from a penalty, for the woman did not care about her shame. This he did by breaking a jug of oil in the market in front of the woman, at which the woman uncovered her hair and began to gather the spilled oil in her hair. The man brought his proof to Rabbi Akiva, stating: “To this woman I should pay four hundred Zuz?”
Rabbi Akiva, however, did not change his ruling: “One who injures himself, even though it is prohibited, is exempt. If another injures him, he is liable.”
As mentioned, the Gemara writes that the question of injuring oneself is disputed between two Tanaic sources—both quoting from Rabbi Akiva. Rambam, followed by Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpot 420, 31)and other poskim, rules in accordance with the Mishnah: one may not injure oneself. As Tosefos point out (91b, s.v. elah)—and as implied by the Mishnah—this prohibition applies even if there is a reason, such as the financial incentive of the Mishnah.
The Opinion of Rav Chisda
An additional source poses something of a contradiction to the above conclusion. The Gemara (loc. cit.) quotes Rav Chisda, who used to pull up his cloak while he walked 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 said, “will heal. But this will not heal.”
This statement implies that it is permitted to inflict physical harm on oneself to avoid monetary loss—a ruling that appears to contradict the above ruling prohibiting self-injury even for monetary gain. Indeed, we find a minority opinion of the Rama (quoted in Shita Mekubetzes, Bava Kama 91b, and in Tur, Choshen Mishpat 420) who rules (based on the Gemara) that it is permitted for a person to cause himself injury. As Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama) writes, this ruling only applies when there is a benefit, but not when there is no benefit from the injury.
Yet, another source suggests that Rav Chisda had a unique opinion with regard to the question of causing oneself bodily harm. In Maseches Shabbos (140b) we find Rav Chisda stating that one who is able to eat barley (cheap) bread, yet eats wheat (expensive) bread, transgresses the prohibition of bal tashchis, sincehis eating an expensive food is considered an act of wastefulness. The Gemara, however, states that the 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 wasteful. It is more important to avoid “wasting” one’s body than “wasting” food.
Rav Chisda, it appears, maintained that it is permitted to harm one’s body in order to prevent the waste of something else. 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 Rasag, 47-48).
The halachah, however, does not follow the opinion of Rav Chisda: It is prohibited to damage one’s body to preserve one’s clothing, and we may eat healthy yet expensive food.
Making Use of the Body
We will be able to deepen our understanding of the issues mentioned above by introducing the rationale behind the prohibition of injuring oneself. Why is this prohibited?
With regard to the halachah that a person is not believed with regard to his being liable for corporal punishment, Radvaz (commentary on Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 18:6) explains that a person’s body is not his own property, but the property of Hashem. Concerning the prohibition of injuring oneself, Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Nizkei Guf Venefesh 4) uses the same rationale: “A person does not have the right to injure or shame his body, or to cause it any pain, even by refraining from eating and drinking.”
According to this rationale, a person’s desire does not suffice to permit injuring himself. The body is not a person’s property, and he has no right to damage it.
However, the wording of the Gemara in Shabbos (140b, as quoted above) implies that the prohibition against damaging the body is a concern of bal tashchis, a question of being wasteful. This is not necessarily a contradiction to the above rationale of the body not being ours. The body is not ours, yet Hashem has given it to us to achieve various purposes. In certain circumstances, it is permitted to make use of the body even when this would cause some injury.
Thus, although Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that the body is not ours to damage, he says that it is permitted to refrain from eating and drinking for 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 …”
Bal Tashchis of the Body
We have seen that the Gemara states that bal tashchis of the body takes precedence over bal tashchis of possessions. Nonetheless, the definition of the prohibition of injuring oneself as 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 explains why Rav Chisda rolled up his cloak to save it from tearing, at the expense of injury to his legs. Even the halachah doesn’t follow this opinion, he held that he may inflict temporary injury to his body, in order to prevent permanent damage to property.
In his Kuntress Acharon (2), Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that it is permitted to suffer injury to earn money—contrary to the rulings of Tosefos andYam 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, Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that it is permitted for a person to undergo shame to earn money, proving his point from the Talmudic instruction to perform degrading labor (skinning animals in the marketplace) rather than receive alms from others. The feelings of shame will pass, and it is permitted to suffer them to earn a living.
According to Shulchan Aruch HaRav, it would appear that Rabbi Akiva prohibits causing temporary damage to the body (or causing shame) only when the intention is merely for the sake of pleasure, as in the case of the woman who uncovered her hair so that she would be able to collect the oil.
One distinction that could be made is between monetary gain and monetary loss: perhaps it is prohibited to inflict bodily harm for monetary gain, yet permitted to injure oneself in order to prevent loss.
Dieting and Cosmetic Surgery
Another important distinction is made by Rav 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. Based on a number of sources, he permits the surgical treatment.
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 that is positive and constructive.
Without a doubt, adds Iggros Moshe (ibid, no. 65), it is permitted for somebody to go on a diet for medical and even for cosmetic purposes, even though the diet causes discomfort. If the diet is for health, 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 that it is prohibited for a girl to diet to a degree that causes pains of hunger. This is considered injuring oneself, and it is forbidden.
Placing Oneself in Danger
The obligation to look after our health forbids us from placing ourselves in physical danger. The Rambam writes (Rotzeach 11:5): “Our Sages forbade many matters because they involve a threat to life. Whenever a person transgresses these guidelines, saying: ‘I will risk my life, what does this matter to others,’ or ‘I am not careful about these things,’ he should be punished by stripes for rebelliousness.”
In 1982, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Shut Tzitz Eliezer 15:39), applied this principle to smoking—after it had become clear that smoking damages a person’s health. Although earlier authorities had ruled that there was no full prohibition against smoking because it was common practice (see Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:49), Rabbi Waldenberg explains that this was only applicable when smoking had not been proven to be clearly and explicitly damaging to a person’s health. Today, this is not the case.
The same applies going on hikes, treks, and so on. These activities are positive and important when done for a person’s physical and emotional health. If, however, they involve an element of danger and actually threaten a person’s physical well-being, they must be avoided.