This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Sweatin' to the Oldies*

Our contemporary propensity to equate beauty and good health with slimness seems to be of recent vintage. To judge from Talmudic sources, earlier generations held diametrically different positions on these questions.

The ancient rabbis more often took pride in their corpulence. Thus, it was related of two famous sages (apparently with some satisfaction) that when they stood opposite one another, a team of oxen could pass under their bellies without touching them.

Conversely, the Talmud often regarded thinness not as a mark of physical beauty, but as a symptom of diseases like consumption, dehydration or dysentery.

There are a handful of traditions that allude to efforts at weight-loss, whether through exercise or other means. However it is clear from those passages that they do not reflect an attitude that "thin is beautiful."

Efforts at weight-reduction are mentioned only in connection with unusual circumstances and occupations.

For example--wrestlers:

The Mishnah (Shabbat 22:6) refers to a type of physical exertion that it calls "mit'ammelin" as being forbidden on the day of rest. The Hebrew word was generally understood as a reference to a calisthenic-like regimen, as described by the tenth-century North African commentator Rabbenu Hananel: "They flex and unflex their arms in front and behind, and similarly bend their legs from their hips, leading them to work up heat and perspiration. This is considered medically beneficial." Based on the above interpretation, the term was adopted as the modern Hebrew word for exercise.

However, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, a careful reading of the passage in light of its context and manuscript variants reveals that it is speaking of a very specific form of physical activity. For the same Mishnah includes references to anointing the body, massaging the belly, inducing vomiting and "going down to the peloma." This last-mentioned word is apparently a Greek designation for a mud-filled arena used by wrestlers. An alternative textual tradition reads keroma, another well-known Greek term for a wrestling arena. All these activities, including those intended to evacuate the combatants' bowels and stomach to control their weight, were part of the athlete's normal training.

It is evident that such procedures would not require rabbinic regulation unless Jews were actually involved in them--and after all, are we not descended from no less a wrestling champion than the patriarch Jacob!

It is unlikely that the chief purpose of the exercise was esthetic, so much as to enhance the individual's athletic prowess.

Similarly, concern for beauty was clearly not the main motivation behind the following remarkable episode from the Talmud:

The third-century sage Rabbi Eleazar ben Simeon had been hired as a detective by the Roman government who had recognized (long before Harry Kemmelman!) that Talmudic deductive reasoning and can make valuable contributions to police investigations. Though he took care to limit his arrests to those who were unquestionably guilty of felonies, Rabbi Eleazar--whose father Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai was notorious for his opposition the Roman regime--continued to be plagued by doubts that he might nonetheless have inadvertently been responsible for handing over innocent Jews to the despised occupation authorities.

In order to put his mind at ease, Rabbi Eleazar contrived a way to test the purity of his actions: He declared that if his deeds had been consistently sinless then his innards should be impervious to natural decomposition.

The rabbi then swallowed an anesthetic, and had himself carried into a marble chambre, where his belly was surgically opened and the fat removed. Baskets full of fat were removed from his body and placed in the sun on a hot summer day; but miraculously they proved immune to putrefaction.

The results of the experiment satisfied Rabbi Eleazar that he had not compromised his righteousness even unknowingly. He saw in this sign a fulfillment of the words of the Psalmist (16:9): "My flesh too shall rest and confidently dwell in safety."

When I mentioned this early report of a liposuction operation to various physicians, they assured me that there must be some mistake, and that the procedure had only come into use in recent decades. The fact is that the first-century naturalist Pliny described an almost identical operation that was performed on the son of the Roman consul Lucius Apronius Caesianus, though in that case the surgery was for purely cosmetic purposes.

At any rate, most Jews in Talmudic times were neither wrestlers nor detectives. Nor, for that matter, were they subject to the temptations of "fast foods" or remote-controlled televisions, so that undernourishment was probably more of a threat to them than obesity.

And who knows? Maybe there is some hope that society will eventually revert to those fleshier models of beauty that prevailed in earlier times!

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 15 1997, pp. 18, 20.
  • Bibliography:
    • S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine, New York 1965
    • J. Preuss, Julius Preuss' Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, New York 1978.