Photo Credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski / Pixabay
Challah bread. (illustrative)

In this week’s Torah portion, verse says “And you shall serve Hashem your G-d and He will bless your bread and your water and will remove all illness from your midst” (Shemot 23:25). The commentaries say that the reference is not specifically to bread and water, but to all food and drink – meaning livelihood.

It appears that priority is first given to sustenance and only then to health. However, elsewhere we find the reverse, that priority is first given to health and then to livelihood – in the Amidah. Three times a day we first recite the prayer “Refa’einu,” asking for health, and only after that the prayer “Barech Aleinu,” asking for livelihood. So, which comes first, health or livelihood?


The answer is that health comes first. We know this from Shema Yisrael. It says there, “And you will love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your wealth” (Devarim 6:5). You are required to love Hashem to such a degree that you are prepared to sacrifice your life and all your money. It places life before money.

Why then does the verse from our parsha reverse the order?

According to the Ramban, it is a progression; the one is derived from the other. It begins with Hashem blessing your food and your drink. If your food and drink are blessed by Hashem, not only does such blessed food and drink prevent you from illness but they will also cure you from illness.

The Ramban implies that a blessing of food and drink entails two distinct and interconnected components: the physical properties of the food and the spiritual properties. If Hashem blesses your food, both properties of the blessing will be present and such food and drink will prevent and cure illness.

On a physical level, if food is blessed, it contains all the nutrients to sustain health and prevent disease. Theoretically, in such a case a normal person (with a normal body and metabolism, with no genetic predispositions to illness) who eats such blessed food will not become ill, or if they do, they can cure it by eating certain other blessed foods. On a metaphysical, spiritual level, if a person elevates their food from a physical level to a higher spiritual level, by observing all the food-related mitzvotkashrut, brachot, trumah and ma’aser, shmitta, etc., they promote health, not of the physical body but of the spiritual neshama and that – in conjunction with the physical component – will prevent and cure illness.

The Rambam follows a similar vein, but being a physician, he qualifies this somewhat. The Rambam also accounts for anomalous, starting statistics (someone who does not have a normal body or metabolism, etc.) for which they will first need to restore the balance by eating specific foods or quantities of foods until their health is restored, which may then be followed by a general healthy regimen. These concepts are detailed in Hilchot Dei’ot.

According to both schools of thought, the Ramban and the Rambam, illness and disease are the result of an imbalance caused by eating and drinking the incorrect food and drink, which upsets the biochemical balance in the body and lowers the immune system. An imbalance in our spiritual level lowers our “spiritual immunity” and opens us to all kinds of prosecuting angels and trials.

Rashi has a different opinion. According to Rashi, illness occurs because Hashem wants our prayers. The reference to this is in the Gemara (Pesachim 56a), which talks about Sefer ha’Refuot, the Book of Cures.

This miraculous book, according to some opinions (Sefer Hapeli’ah) was taught to Adam HaRishon by an angel. The Ramban and the Rambam say it was written by King Solomon. Anyone who became ill and recited the book’s special “chants” for any specific ailment was miraculously cured. The Gemara tells how King Chizkiya hid this book in such a way that it could never be found. Rashi (ibid.) says he did so because when people became ill, they did not pray to Hashem; they bypassed Him and instead relied on the book.

In truth, Rashi’s opinion does not conflict with that of the Ramban and Rambam. It is simply a subsection of their opinion. If prayer is lacking, it is because there is a spiritual imbalance. Hashem does not randomly make us ill just to get us to pray to Him. However, if Hashem sees that our spirituality is not balanced, that we have forgotten Him, He may afflict us with illness to steer us back to the path of righteousness.

When Am Yisrael left Egypt, we were battered and bruised, both emotionally and physically. By causing the dead bodies of the Egyptians to float up after the splitting of the Red Sea, Hashem gave Am Yisrael closure and healed us from the emotional trauma of slavery. However, due to the decades of forced physical slave labor, Am Yisrael were physically maimed; some were blind, deaf, or chronically ill. By giving us mann and water from the Well of Miriam, (blessing your bread and your water), Hashem physically healed them (removed illness from our midst), so by the time we got to Har Sinai, we were physically and spiritually whole again.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: The verse (Shemot 21:24) says, “An eye for an eye.” What is the punishment for someone who blinds another?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Last week’s parsha begins “And Yitro heard.” What did he hear? Yitro heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek (Rashi, Shemot 18:1). When Yitro heard how each Egyptian was punished measure for measure in the Red Sea, he realized that Hashem was greater than any other “god” he had ever known.


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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.