The preservation of physical well-being is looked upon in Judaism as a religious command. "And live through them, but not die through them" (Yoma 85b, based on Lev. xviii. 5), was the principle applied to all the laws of the Bible, from which the Rabbis deduced that in case of danger to life all laws except those against idolatry, adultery, and murder might be violated (Pes. 25a; Maimonides, "Yad," Yesode ha-Torah, v. 7). The neglect of one's health was regarded as a sin; and the Nazarite who vowed to abstain from wine was considered a sinner, as well as he who fasted or underwent other penance without reason (Ned. 10a; Ta'an. 11b; see Abstinence; Asceticism). Purity, which is the aim of most of the Biblical sanitary laws, was to be not only physical, but also moral and religious.
There was not a distinct department of public health in the government of the ancient Jews. The charge of infectious diseases, such as leprosy, and of epidemics of all kinds, was delegated to the priests, who acted as the physicians (see Leprosy). The Talmud mentions the office of a physician in the Temple, whose duty it was to look after the health of the priests (Sheḳ. v. 12). In later times every town counted among its permanent officials a physician who supervised the circumcision of children and looked after the communal well-being. A scholar was forbidden to live in a city where there was no physician (Sanh. 17b; "Yad," De'ot, iv. 23).
The Rabbis have various laws regulating diet. They enjoin also divers precautions, many of which go to improve the physical well-being of the community. Special emphasis was laid upon early breakfasts, so that R. Akiba included this advice in his last will to his children (Pes. 112a; B. M. 107b). No one should force himself to eat; he should wait until he is really hungry (Ber. 62b), not hurry his meal (ib. 54a), and not talk while eating (Ta'an. 5b). The Rabbis even prescribed the kind of food men should eat, and that from which they should abstain; wheat bread, fat meat, and old wine being recommended as the most wholesome (Pes. 42a). Salt and hot soup are pronounced to be essentials of a meal (Ber. 44a). "After all solid food eat salt, and after all beverages drink water," is the advice of the Rabbis (ib. 40a).Removal of Nuisance.
For domestic sanitation the commandments given in the Bible direct the covering of the blood of a fowl or of a wild beast with dust (Lev. xvii. 13), and the covering of excreta with earth and the appointing of a special place outside of the camp for depositing the excreta (Deut. xxiii. 12-15). The Rabbis forbid the erection of tanneries or the establishment of cemeteries within fifty cubits of the city limits. To deposit carcasses within that distance was also forbidden. Tanneries even beyond that limit could be built only to the east of the town, so that the west wind might dispel the bad odors arising therefrom. The thrashing-floor must also be removed fifty cubits from the city, on account of the chaff and the dust coming from it (B. B. 24b, 25a; "Yad," Shekenim, x. 2, 3; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 155, 22-23). It was suggested by some scholars (following Ḳimḥi) that perpetual fires were kept up in the valley of Hinnom, outside of the gates of Jerusalem, for the purpose of consuming the refuse of the city, thus disposing of all the offal, in order to preserve the health of the city.
In order to prevent the spread of leprosy, a complete system of quarantine laws was developed in the Levitical code (see Leprosy).
The numerous laws of purity scattered throughout the Bible, especially in Leviticus and Numbers, were probably not intended primarily as health laws. The Rabbis built up a complete system with regard to things clean and unclean upon these laws, which occupy a whole section of the Mishnah (Ṭohorot; see Purity). All these laws may be conveniently divided into two classes: (1) those which govern cases of impurity created in the body of a person, as leprosy, unclean flux of man or of woman, menstruation, etc.; and (2) those which govern cases of impurity caused by contact with unclean objects, as contact with a dead body or with a person of the former class. By the careful isolation of such persons and objects and by the complete system of baths and ablutions provided by the Law for their cleansing, the chances of the propagation of infectious diseases were much diminished.Importance of Health Laws.
The Rabbis regarded the laws of health as of greater importance than those which were of a mere ritualistic character. "You have to be more careful in cases where danger is involved than in those which involve a mere matter of ritual" (Ḥul. 10a). On account of "sakkanah" (danger) it was forbidden to eat the meat of an animal that had eaten poison, or to eat meat and fish together, or to drink water left uncovered overnight (see Dietary Laws). It was considered dangerous to drink water at the beginning of the seasons ("teḳufah"). In many places it was customary to place a piece of iron on all articles of food at that period. This was supposed to remove the danger (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yorch De'ah, 116, 5, lsserles' gloss; ShaK and ṬaZ, ad loc.). In time of plague the Rabbis recommended staying at home and avoiding the society of men (B. Ḳ. 60b). Perspiration was considered especially dangerous (); and it was therefore forbidden to touch, during meals, any part of the body which is usually covered, or to hold bread under the arm, where the perspiration is usually profuse. Coins should not be placed in the mouth, as there is the apprehension that they have been touched by persons suffering from contagious diseases. Articles of food should not be placed under a bed, because something impure might fall on them (Yer. Ter. viii. 3; "Yad," Roẓeaḥ, xii. 4, 5; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 116, 4, 8). It wasalso forbidden to eat from unclean vessels or from vessels that had been used for unseemly purposes, or to eat with dirty hands. These and many other laws are derived by the Rabbis from the expression, "And ye shall not make your souls abominable" (Lev. xx. 25; comp. Mak. 16b; Shab. 82a; "Yad," De'ot, iv. 2; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 116, 3, 9, 11, 17).
The washing of the hands and of the face in the morning and, according to some, in the evening also, and the washing of the hands after relieving nature, were considered important by the Rabbis, so that a special blessing was pronounced after each ablution (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 116, 4, 6, 7). The rules concerning the washing of the hands before meals occupy a considerable portion of the ceremonial law (ib. 158-165), and minute regulations were prescribed as to the manner of pouring the water, the size of the vessel employed, and the kind of water to be used. The custom of washing the hands during and after meals, although mentioned by the Rabbis, was not universally followed (Ḥul. 105a et al.; "Yad," Berakot, vi.; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 158-165). The system of baths and ablutions, which forms a large portion of the Jewish laws of cleanliness, and which is still observed to a large extent by pious Jews, has had a marked influence on the physical health of the Jews, so that in epidemics they have frequently been immune (see Ablution; Baths).
Provisions were also made by later rabbis with regard to sleeping. They warned against eating heavy meals immediately before going to bed, and approved of lying first on the left and then on the right side, this being considered good for digestion ("Yad," De'ot, iv. 5; Ḳiẓẓur Shulḥan 'Aruk, 7, and especially 32; Ḥayye Adam, 35, 5).
Maimonides lays down certain regulations by which a man should be guided at sexual intercourse in order to preserve his physical well-being; and he promises him who will comply with these precepts that he will always be well, will never need to consult a physician, and will live to a good old age ("Yad," l.c. 19, 20; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 240, 14, 15).
There are some laws whose purpose it is to prevent any cause of injury to others as well as to oneself (see Damage). One who builds a new house must erect a battlement ("ma'aḳeh") around the roof, so that no person shall fall from it (Deut. xxii. 8). The battlement must be at least ten "ṭefaḥim" (fist-breadths) in height, and must be well constructed, so that one may lean upon it without apprehension (see House). To guard against injury one must not leave a well or a pit on one's premises uncovered, nor must one keep a vicious dog or a broken ladder (B. Ḳ. 15a). It is forbidden to walk alone at night; to stand under a wall that is likely to fall; to walk upon a poorly constructed bridge; to enter a ruin; or to drink in the dark from a well, lest some poisonous animal lurk in the water. He who defies the Law, saying, "It is no one's affair if I wish to expose myself to danger," is punishable with stripes; for life is considered as belonging to God and not to man ("Yad," Roẓeaḥ, xi.; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 427, 9, 10; comp. "Be'er ha-Golah" ad loc.; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 116, 5, Isserles' gloss; see
- Hastings, Dict. Bible, s.v. Medicine;
- Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, ch. xxii.-xxvi., Berlin, 1853;
- Bloch, Das Polizeirecht, Budapest, 1879;
- Rabinowitz, Mebo ha-Talmud (transl. from the French), pp. 139-162, Wilna, 1894;
- De Sola, Sanatory Institutions of the Hebrews.