At the Sunday family barbecue, I was complaining that my whole body ached from the intense Pilates class I took that morning. My husband’s older son, a Torah scholar and law student, quickly commented that Pilates sounds a lot like the beds of Sodom. Frankly, I had no idea what he was talking about while he quoted the source in the Gemara, but anyone who takes real Pilates knows that the “reformer” bed-like apparatus is very serious on the body – with the sole function of stretching, toning, and strengthening the body with straps, coils, bars, and balls.
According to Wikipedia, Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, from Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father was a gymnast and his mother a naturopath. During the first half of the 20th century he developed a system of exercises that were intended to strengthen the human mind and body. Pilates believed that mental and physical health were interrelated. His method came to him during World War I, while he was being held at the Knockaloe internment camp on the Isle of Man. Joseph Pilates accompanied his method with a variety of equipment, for which he used the term “apparatus.” Each apparatus was designed to help accelerate the process of stretching, strengthening, body alignment, and increased core strength. The best-known and most popular apparatus today, the Reformer, was originally called the Universal Reformer, aptly named for “universally reforming the body.” Eventually Pilates designed other apparatus, including the Cadillac, Wunda Chair, High “Electric” Chair, Spine Corrector, Ladder Barrel, and Pedi-Pole.
These all sound quite gruesome, so I decided to do a little research of my own. What does the Torah have to say about the issue of exercise and maintaining a toned body? Is this important at all? Sure enough, I found a related passage in the Gemara Sanhedrin (chapter 11/ 109b) as to the story of Eliezer’s (Abraham’s servant) visit to Sodom. The Sodom people had a law, and the citizens were cooperating with it; such law was harsh and barbaric. It enabled them to regard charity as decadent and to deem visitors as a nuisance.
When a stranger arrived at the gates of the city, they didn’t turn him away. They hosted him and offered him a special bed. There were two beds reserved for guests, one long and one short. If the stranger was short, they would give him the long bed – and stretch his limbs to the point of fitting in the bed. If the stranger was tall, he would get the short bed and they severed his limbs to fit the bed size. Rashi’s text of the Gemara reads “they shortened him” – shortening by amputation. Due to these horrible hospitality traits, in Jewish literature mittat S’dom, “the bed of Sodom,” became legendary. Pirkei Avot (5:13) and other sources speak of midat S’dom, “the usage of Sodom,” as an example of terrible things done in the name of political correctness and legalistic insanity. Greek mythology had the similar idea of “the bed of Procrustes” (Plutarch’s Lives, Theseus, 11).
Surely, Pilates is not an act of cruelty devised from practices of Sodom. Please allow me to have a sense of humor surrounding my exercise routine. However, what does the Torah teach about overall exercise programs?
In the Talmud (Shabbat 82a), Rav Huna urges his son Rabbah to study with Rav Chisda. Rabbah resists, saying that Rav Chisda focuses only on secular matters: anatomy and hygiene. Rav Huna admonishes his son, saying, “He speaks of health matters, and you call that secular!”
Rambam (Maimonides) includes extensive discussions in the Mishneh Torah about the importance of exercise and health and measured eating. For example, Maimonides states that a person “should engage one’s body and exert oneself in a sweat-producing task each morning.”
In the 20th century, Rav Kook (chief rabbi of Israel) went further in connecting physical and spiritual health. He advocated that physical health is in itself a value in the process of t’shuvah and that in each human organism there is a relationship between body (guf) and spirit (neshamah).
Rav Kook explains: “Great is our physical demand. We need a healthy body. We dealt much with soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected the physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh; no less than holy spirit…” He continues: “Our t’shuvah (repentance) will succeed only if it will be – with all its splendid spirituality – also a physical return, which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, mighty solid bodies, a fiery spirit radiating over powerful muscles…”
Although Pilates seems undesirable, it’s worth every bend, stretch, and twist that delivers the best results. If you spin, run marathons, or casually walk the neighborhood, exercise is good for your mind, body, and spirit. Thankfully, Torah scholars, rabbis, and religious traditions give us an outline for relating properly to our physical selves, which is in Hashem’s image… So go book a series of Pilates classes, if you dare, and know that Hashem is cheering you on.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.