Some people believe that the watchword of every Jewish mother is, "Ess, ess meine kind" (Eat, eat my child), or the modern-day alternative, "Try it You'll like it." Despite these favorite mottos, traditional advice from the sages was far more concerned with matters of health than is ordinarily assumed.
Some suspect that the enormous growth in the popularity of manufactured kosher products, even among non-Jews, has been driven by an increasing interest in health foods. Observant Jews know, however, that keeping kosher is not necessarily equated with healthy living. Eating to excess, and high cholesterol foods are unhealthy regardless of whether they are kosher or not. Jewish dietary laws are not laid down as health laws, but religious laws, even though many of them have a role in illness prevention.
Similarly, some have suggested that many of the provisions in the Book of Leviticus are a model for modern health legislation. In fact, the provisions relating to what is described as leprosy are not dissimilar from modern communicable disease legislation. The traditional view is that these various requirements, while they may have been appropriate from a public health standpoint. are concerned with matters of purity and spirituality.
And of course, the leprosy referred to may not have been what is now referred to as Hansen's Disease.
The same could be said for the brit milah. Despite all the controversy that arises from time to time as to the value of circumcision in disease prevention (only recently yet another study proved its value in controlling HIV/AIDS), Jews perform it for purely religious reasons.
Quite apart from all the mandated practices outlined in the Torah and Talmud that may have health advantages, Jewish sages have been concerned about health matters that do not have religious overtones.
The one commentator who provided more advice on these matters than any other was Maimonides, also known as The Rambam. Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1138, this rabbi, philosopher and physician gave advice which even today is offered by public health educators for our modern population. In any modern dietary lecture, the stress is not simply on what one eats, but on what the dieticians call "portion control". Maimonides said 800 years ago in the Mishna Torah that one should only eat until one's stomach is three quarters full. Sage advice considering America is faced today with what some have called an obesity epidemic. He also advised that one should not drink too much when eating.
Just as today the common advice is to exercise before breakfast, not afterwards, Maimonides' advice is to work first, wash in hot water, and once the body has settled, eat.
The Rambam even dealt with the matter of constipation and holding back bowel movement, a practice which he considered unhealthy. This is another concept which even today many do not follow. He stressed the importance of nutritious foods, regular bowel movements, and warming the body before eating.
While it is true that the Talmud does not contain medical treatises except in the context of religious practice, much of what the sages said is still relevant. For example, it suggested to physicians that a thorough examination of the patient is necessary for a correct diagnosis. Despite this advice, law courts today still encounter medical malpractice suits where this has not been done.
Jewish medical knowledge was surprisingly advanced. It was known for example, that heart disease was a very serious illness since all organs depended upon the heart. Cleanliness, bathing, proper nutrition and isolation of infected patients was advised. It is interesting to note that Jews were being advised to bathe hundreds of years before bathing became common practice in Europe. The Talmud also directed that washing take place before and after meals.
In public health, it was forbidden to drink water which flowed through a filthy place. Jews were also directed to prepare foods that were fresh and clean, and not to live in a town where there were no vegetable gardens. It would take a hundred years before the necessity of a diet rich in greens was required on long-distance ocean voyages.
The Talmudists recognized that unhygienic conditions, dampness and insufficient sunshine were major factors contributing to illness. Eating of unripened fruit and drinking contaminated water were also declared health hazards.
Maimonides divided the practice of medicine into three sectors, each of which is still regarded as appropriate in modern times: prevention of illness, healing the sick, and long-term care such as invalids and the aged. This recognition is at the core of modern public health policies throughout the world. Is it any wonder that with the discussions of health matters in both the Talmud and by Maimonides, so many Jews over the centuries have played a major role in the practice of medicine and in healthcare generally? It should come as no surprise that the phrase "Abi gezunt" is so popular: "Be healthy!"