Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood.

In another place (Shabbat 41a), our Sages say it is good to drink a little bit of water with food to help with digestion (but not too much that the digestive power is diluted). Better yet, it is good to go for a short walk after eating to stimulate the innards so that the food does not “rot” inside the body, and this also helps to avoid bad breath. Here our Sages also note the importance of staying hydrated if going to a hot bath, and of doing a cold immersion after a hot bath (or shower). One who makes their body very hot without a cold immersion at the end is likened to an iron implement forged without immersing it in cold water. Today, such “cold water immersions” or “contrast bath therapy” have become very popular in sports medicine and in other healing schools.

The Japanese katana sword of the samurai is famously forged with a quick dunk into cold water to strengthen and shape the blade.

Bathing is mentioned as a healthy practice in Berakhot 57b as well. Here it is found alongside others like anointing with oils and creams, and tashmish, which can mean either moderate sexual intercourse, or staying “regular” and making sure to go to the bathroom to keep one’s innards clean. On the same page, the Talmud also lists a number of foods to avoid when ill: beef, fatty meat, roasted meat, poultry, roasted eggs, and dairy products. As is well-known, today scientific evidence abounds in confirming that a plant-based diet is generally superior.

This leads us to a single sentence from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, “Maimondes”, 1138-1204) that encapsulates nearly all there is to living a health life: “As long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot, takes care not to eat to the point of being completely full, and keeps his bowels soft, illness will not come upon him and his strength will increase—even if he eats unhealthy food!” So, there are three simple keys to a longer and healthier life: staying active and regularly exercising, avoiding overeating and always leaving a little stomach space at the end of each meal, and staying regular. Such a person will be healthy even if they partake in unhealthy foods here and there. On the contrary, the Rambam continues, “Whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, holds his waste or has ‘hard’ innards, even if he eats all the best foods and follows the top medicine, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.” (Hilkhot De’ot 4:14-15)

In his other monumental work, Moreh Nevukhim or “Guide for the Perplexed”, the Rambam makes another statement of immense significance: “He who exercises brings about good health; for example, by playing with a ball, wrestling, boxing, and performing breathing techniques… in the eyes of the ignorant he is playing a game, but in the eyes of the wise, it is no game!” (III, Ch. 25) The Rambam points out that regular exercise is vital and should be taken up by all, and only the ignorant would say that such things are just a game or are a waste of time. The Rambam specifically mentions mischak b’kadur, “ball games”, as a worthy exercise. And so, playing sports regularly may very well be a mitzvah!

Finally, I believe Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, said it best when he wrote in his Orot: “The claim of our flesh is great. We require a healthy body. We have greatly occupied ourselves with the soul and have forsaken the holiness of the body. We have neglected health and physical prowess, forgetting that our flesh is as sacred as our spirit…” Rav Kook encouraged Jews to get physically stronger, and even supported the Maccabiah Games. He tied all of this into the success of the Zionist movement, and the Jewish people’s long-awaited return to their Promised Land: “Our return will only succeed if it will be marked, along with its spiritual glory, by a physical return which will create healthy flesh and blood, strong and well-formed bodies, and a fiery spirit encased in powerful muscles.”

This is really what a Jew is supposed to be. Our Sages described our forefathers and prophets as being physically strong and domineering: Abraham took on four massive armies with his servant Eliezer alone, and brought them to their knees. Moses battled the giant Og, and defeated him single-handedly. King David similarly defeated the giant Goliath, and was a ferocious warrior who inspired terrible fear in his enemies. At the same time, all three were prophets of the highest caliber, with tremendous souls inside solid bodies, each being a unique model of, as Rav Kook described, “a fiery spirt encased in powerful muscles”.