In Judaism, the prevention of sickness and the sanctity of the body, both in physical and emotional health, is an important concept. The word for “healthy” in Hebrew is beri’ut (from the root “to create”). One is considered healthy, even with bodily imperfections; as long as an individual is constructive and has the capacity to add to society then they are healthy. It is taught that every person is responsible for the well-being of their bodies, and are required to seek medical assistance when needed.
Taking care of one’s body is considered a mitzvah, because the body is viewed as a channel of one’s soul and the means by which individuals pray to God. According to the Bible, a body is merely on loan by God and therefore must be kept virtuous and healthy. This is the reasoning behind a Jew being forbidden to mark their bodies with tattoos and multiple piercings (beyond a woman’s ears). In Maimonides’ Treatise on Asthma, he presented six ways for preventing disease and illness: clean air, diet, exercise, regular excretion, ample sleep, and regulation of emotions.
The form of treating of illnesses is debated by Jewish scholars, because in the Bible illness was considered a form of punishment. Treating the sick may be considered an intervention on God’s divine plan. Even the eighth blessing in the Amida for healing the sick, suggests God as the ultimate healer of the sick. The Talmud mentions several instances that would permit a physician to heal the sick. Maimonides interprets the verse, if a person loses something, “you shall give it back to him” (Deut. 22:2) implying the acceptability to provide medical care when one has lost his health. Furthermore, the concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) allows medical care in the hopes of saving one’s life.
The Talmud comments that a Jew may not live in a town without a physician (BK 46a) and, according to Maimonides, one must visit the physician when healthy to be aware of bodily changes. Furthermore, medicine should only be prescribed as a final remedy to an illness, because the body becomes dependent on the drugs rather than healing itself. Ultimately, in Judaism physicians are representatives of God in the process of treating the sick; therefore, a physician should not believe they are curing an illness unaided.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.