What Is Authentic Jewish Medicine According to The Rambam (Maimonides)?
When a person hears the term “Jewish medicine,” s/he invariably asks if that means the medical guidelines from the Rambam (Maimonides). The Rambam unquestionably was the master physician in Jewish history. We look to him to learn how to maintain and restore health. But rather than dance around
what he says about healing from various sources and places, let’s hone in on the Rambam’s definitive statement of the role of a doctor in one’s health.
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman shlita, in his book Torah and Science, quotes the Rambam as follows:
“… A medical treatment must be specific to the physical make-up of the patient at that particular time.” (Moreh Nevuchim, 3:34). (…) In other words, not only do different patients require different prescriptions for the same ailment, but even the same patient may require different treatment when any of the factors impinging upon his constitution have changed (Moshe Meiselman, Torah and Science, 2013, Israel Bookshop, Lakewood, p. 227).
From this we see clearly how wrong are those who espouse the so-called “Rambam diet” to heal their every ailment. For though it is true that in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os (particularly in chapters 3 and 4) and throughout the Rambam’s sifrei refuah and machshavah he does give dietary advice on how, what, and when to eat; the context from which The Rambam speaks, is HIS world, of Egypt almost 1,000 years ago. In the world WE live in, however, the climate in most places is different from Egypt, and the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe is certainly more toxic and denatured then in the Rambam’s time. Furthermore, as the Rambam emphasizes in the Moreh, treatment must be bio-individual, reflecting the history, lifestyle, and constitution of each patient. Therefore, when it comes to health and diet— both maintaining and restoring — we cannot rely exclusively on a fixed, reductionist “Rambam’s diet” and even more importantly, we need to be very cautious of those who claim to know and espouse the Rambam’s approach to either “transform your life” or to “guarantee” healing. The fact is, that such approaches are out of date, inaccurately represent the Rambam, and take little snippets from the Rambam’s writings to actually promote their own agendas that more often than not are neither medically nor nutritionally sound.
So, what are we to do, then? Where can we find from genuine Torah sources how best to get well; maintain good health; and live long, happy, and healthy lives? From none other than the Rambam, himself! — and these are his words from Hilchos Dei’os (ch. 3, halachos 3 & 4):
A person needs to completely direct his heart and all of his actions, without any distractions to know our Blessed G-d, so that all that he does and says reflects this connectivity to Hashem….And when he eats or drinks, he is not preoccupied with the hedonistic pleasure, to merely satisfy his palate, but rather, he eats and drinks specifically to support the health of his organs and body. Therefore, he should not eat foods that he craves like a dog or a donkey, but rather he should eat foods that are beneficial to the body, whether they are bitter or sweet, and avoid foods that are harmful to the body, even if they are sweet…
One who conducts himself according to this holistic medical model of supporting and nourishing the health of his organs and body, so that the entire purpose of his existence is to be healthy and have children following in his footsteps and continuing his work misses the point! Rather, he should consciously live a holistic lifestyle to make himself healthy and strong, in order to become a proper vessel to know Hashem. For it is impossible to grasp and understand the sublime wisdom of Hashem if one is hungry, sick, or in pain. Furthermore, if he merits a son, he should have in mind that perhaps this child could become a chacham and gadol among the Jewish people. This, then, explains how it is possible to constantly serve Hashem: For whether he’s conducting business, whether he’s with his wife in the privacy of his home … and even when he’s sleeping in order to regain his strength, clear his mind, and maintain his health, he’s also serving Hashem! As Shlomo HaMelech writes in Mishlei, ‘Know Him in all your ways and He’ll straighten your paths.’”
This, therefore, is the real medicine according to the Rambam: To eat a healthy balanced diet and follow appropriate lifestyle guidelines, with the support of a knowledgeable, humble and G-d fearing physician and Jewish medicine gives us the tools to get there, with Hashem’s help.