Personal health, mitzvot and Jewish law


When Mayor Bloomberg wanted to pass a law restricting the size of soda that a person could buy, he claimed that the issue was a matter of public safety. Declaring obesity as a public issue, the state must step in to regulate the size of your soft drink. He couldn’t simply state that it makes sense a person buy a smaller soda, because that would make the law unconstitutional.

Every law of the country that affects our personal behavior has to be justified on the basis that the law is protecting the greater good of society. You can’t speed because you may crash and injure someone. You must wear a seat belt and motorcycle helmet, because otherwise when hurt, you will become a public burden. Personal health insurance can be mandated so that the public does not have to pick up the bill. But when the issue is totally personal, individuals are only accountable to themselves and the state has no right to create obligations. As an example, we cannot be told that we must walk the old lady across the street or how we have to act on certain days of the year.

Judaism has totally different parameters. We have mitzvot, translated as commandments, obligations, as well as “a connection to God.” God gave us mitzvot at Mt. Sinai, and we understand them as personal responsibilities. As Jewish people, we readily accept the idea that on a certain night of the year we are required to eat matzah, on a different day we are to hear the shofar, not to eat on Yom Kippur, say Sh’ma twice a day, and wholeheartedly respond when someone is in need. Judaism is all about personal responsibilities and obligations. They form our connection to God.

One of the fascinating areas where this plays out is in our personal health. The Torah instructs us (Deuteronomy 4:15) “You shall watch your lives very well.” We are commanded to take care of our health and not to create unnecessary dangers. Maimonides explains that our health is a matter of our personal relationship with God.

So patients who ask their doctor, “Am I required to take this treatment?” will receive a response about patient autonomy and how its totally the patient’s decision. But as a rabbi, I frequently get asked, “According to Jewish law, am I required to… .” And it’s treated as a valid and necessary question. Jewish law is called Halacha which translates as “a path,” as it shows us a path in our personal conduct and life.

As medicine advances and new frontiers of treatment and information are available, the principle of “watch your lives very well” takes on new implications. Questions that once were never even possible must now be taken seriously.

While people don’t necessarily want faith to dictate what they do regarding personal medical decisions, most people do want to be knowledgeable about what Judaism says when weighing such decisions.

A new course, Life in the Balance, presently being given at a number of local Chabad centers, will help when faced these decisions. It looks at everyday medical ethical dilemmas from a Jewish standpoint. Are Ashkenazic women required to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation? Can one be compensated when donating a vital organ that saves a life? What are appropriate instructions for a living will or health care proxy? What are the ethical considerations in a multifetal pregnancy? These and other questions will be examined and discussed.

The fascinating conclusions based on Torah and talmudic law will demonstrate how the instructions that God gave us at Sinai are eternal and applicable in every era and wherever we live.

Please join in and share your views in the discussion. For locations, dates and times, go to

 \Rabbi Sholom Raichik, director of Chabad of Upper Montgomery County, serves as an editor of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

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