World of the Sages: A month of exercise

Many of us acknowledge the importance of physical exercise, yet still find it challenging to find the energy and the willpower to act.

The personal prayer addendum of Rav has been included in the Ashkenazi prayer rite as part of the supplication that hails the onset of a new month, by announcing when it will begin. In this prayer we ask the Almighty for a month filled with blessings. While the requests we pronounce are generally standard, there is one request that is somewhat cryptic and must be deciphered - a life of hilutz atzamot (B. Brachot 16b): May it be Your will, God our Lord, that You give us long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of hilutz atzamot, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, a life of wealth and of honor, a life in which we will have a love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which You will fulfill for us all our hearts' desires for good. What is a life of hilutz atzamot? In modern Hebrew the term is used for stretching the limbs or physical exercise. Thus people who are going out for a walk after having sat at their computer all day might comment that they going out lehaletz et ha'atzamot. Was Rav asking for a life of stretching? Many of us acknowledge the importance of physical exercise, yet still find it challenging to find the time, the energy and the willpower to act. Are we asking the Almighty for assistance in this area: Please grant us a life filled with physical exercise? The proposition conjures up some entertaining images: Can you imagine announcing the new month while meditating on your treadmill, while thinking about your exercise bike, while bemoaning the fact that your gym membership has lapsed? What was Rav thinking about when he asked for a life of hilutz atzamot? The phrase originally appears in a prophecy of Isaiah: God will guide you constantly, He will satisfy your soul with pure sustenance, ve'atzmotecha yahalitz and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a water source whose waters do not disappoint (Isaiah 58:11). What was the prophet Isaiah prophesying? Whenever we have a biblical word or phrase whose meaning is uncertain, the first recourse is to seek other biblical passages where the word or phrase appear. The word atzamot, or etzem in singular, appears throughout the Bible and undoubtedly means bones. This we can see from the very first biblical operation. The anesthesiologist was the Almighty, who also performed the operation, and the patient was Adam. It was a delicate operation - a rib or maybe even an entire side had to be removed from Adam and reconstructed into another person, Eve. The operation was a success and when the patient awoke and saw the results, he exclaimed: "This one at last is etzem mei'atzamai [bone of my bones] and flesh of my flesh!" (see Genesis 2:21-23). The meaning of the Hebrew root made up of the three letters h-l-tz is more puzzling, for it appears to bear more than one meaning. In fact the Talmud also grapples with the meaning of this word in the context of release from levirate marriage, a procedure known as halitza (B. Yevamot 102b). The biblical verse says that part of the halitza ceremony involves the widow doing something described by the verb h-l-tz to the shoe of her deceased husband's brother (see Deuteronomy 25:9). The Talmud questions whether she is removing the shoe from her brother-in-law's foot or putting it on his foot. From the biblical context, the Talmud concludes that the verb h-l-tz here means remove, that is, the widow is to remove the shoe as part of the halitza ceremony. Our sages, however, acknowledge that the biblical root h-l-tz also has other meanings, one of which is to ready or strengthen (Vayikra Raba 34:15). Thus those soldiers who go first into battle are said to be the halutzim who go before the army (see Numbers 31:5; 32:29-32; Deuteronomy 3:18). Following this meaning of the verb, pioneers who first came to the Land of Israel are called halutzim because they readied the land for our people, and in modern Hebrew the striker in soccer is called a halutz. What does the verb h-l-tz mean in the case of Rav's blessing? Rav, it would appear, borrowed the phrase from Isaiah. Regarding the prophecy of Isaiah, one of the sages tells us that the promise ve'atzmotecha yahalitz is the ultimate blessing. What is so great about this blessing? Well, that may depend on the meaning of the verb in that context - does it mean remove or does it mean strengthen? If h-l-tz here means remove, the blessing is a promise that our bones will be removed, perhaps from harsh judgment of hell. What a grand blessing: The Almighty will save us from the fires of hell. If here it means to strengthen, then the blessing refers to the physical realm. In the list of blessings in the prophecy of Isaiah, only this blessing directly affects the body; the other blessings merely promise external benefits. This may be the reason that the blessing is so valuable (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). According to this approach, no bones are being removed; rather they are being made stronger. So what did Rav mean when he requested a life of hilutz atzamot: Was he referring to removing the bones or strengthening them? While we may not be able to declare with certainty, Rav's other requests appear to focus on physical well-being. Moreover, it is entirely unclear that even the bones of the worst sinners are sent to hell; hell, it would appear, is a world of punishment for the souls of the wicked (Rabbi Yoshiya Pinto, 16th-17th centuries, Damascus). Thus Rav would request - and we continue to request on the eve of each new month - that our bones be bolstered and that the Almighty strengthens our physical bodies. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.