This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Taking It All in Stride *

Although my editor does not often let me out for exercise, I do try to indulge in modest regimens of running and walking.

Traditional Jewish sources provide us with some useful tips on the proper ways and times for pursuing those activities.

Thus, the Talmud teaches that a crucial time for taking a walk is right after eating. This routine was recommended by the third-century Babylonian sage Samuel, who was also a respected physician.

Though Samuel had great confidence in his effectiveness as a medical practitioner, he admitted that he was at a loss to offer any assistance to the reckless persons who endangered their health by neglecting to walk four cubits at the conclusion of a meal. Such ill-advised behaviour was certain to have fatal effects upon one's health.

Another Talmudic passage is more specific in spelling out the consequences of such conduct: Those who eat without walking the requisite four cubits will cause the food to decay in their bowels, which will produce unpleasant effects on their breath.

For those who were inclined to rest right after their meals, the Talmud recommended positioning an extra cot in the dining room at a specified distance from the table, in order to force the diners to stretch their legs, if only for a few paces.

In issuing their medical advice, the Talmudic Rabbis were echoing the view of Aristotle who had opined that a walk after a meal is among the indispensable prerequisites of a good physical state. The Athenian philosopher is further reported to have observed that an after-dinner stroll has the power to renew the body's warmth and vigour.

However not all the ancients were in agreement about the benefits of walking after eating. According to Plutarch, there were people who feared that the exertion might interfere with the workings of the digestive tract, and therefore preferred to remain stationary for a while before leaving the table.

There was one point, however, upon which virtually all the authors, Jewish and Greek, agreed, namely that napping immediately after eating will have a deleterious on the body.

Indeed some of the Talmudic commentators understood Samuel's original advice in this light. Rashi, for example, explained that the main purpose of walking after a repast is to prevent one from dozing off right away. A mere four cubits was felt to provide sufficient exertion to avert any ill effects.

Not all forms of walking were considered praiseworthy. In fact the Rabbis took care to discourage certain styles of gait as being either physically unhealthy or morally unseemly.

A frequent target of rabbinical criticism was the practice of "heavy stepping" (p'si'ah gassah) The Talmud warns that "heavy stepping can diminish one's eyesight by one five-hundredth."

From some passages it seems that the reference is to a sort of power walking at an accelerated speed. For this reason it is permitted to eagerly heavy-step towards the synagogue, but not when leaving it.

In this assessment, the Rabbis were again confirming an observation that had been made by Aristotle, that too much physical exertion can be injurious to one's vision. The philosopher was not entirely certain how to account for the phenomenon, but surmised that it might have something to do with the effects of dehydration on the pupils.

From the Jewish sources, which limit their condemnations of heavy-walking to certain situations or personalities, we may deduce that their concern with accelerated walking was not entirely of a medical character.

Thus, the avoidance of heavy-stepping was recommended primarily to scholars. In another context, the Midrash relates that Joseph issued specific warnings against taking rapid strides when advising his brothers how to conduct themselves on their journey to Egypt.

From all this it would appear that an indelicate gait was regarded as a symptom of arrogance and disdain, attitudes to which scholars were particularly susceptible. Similarly, visitors to foreign countries, as were Joseph's brothers, were urged to make especial efforts to avoid demonstrations of superiority.

In this matter as well the Jewish sages were sharing attitudes that were current in classical antiquity. The orator Demosthenes informs us that a rapid gait was looked upon with disfavour by the Athenians, and defendants who were observed racing about the courthouse could seriously jeopardize their cases. Such uncouth behaviour warranted an apology to the judge, including an assurance that it was not intended contemptuously.

Truly, walking can be a very serious activity. If done properly, it is far healthier than sitting idly in front of a newspaper article.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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    First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 9 1996, pp. 13-14.
    • E. E. Hallevy, 'Erkhei Ha'aggadah Vehahalakhah, Vol. 4, Tel-Aviv 1982.