Hillel’s Bathhouse Lesson

Image: A person in a hat lounges in a pool of water. (Free-Photos/Pixabay)

A midrash about the importance of self-care:

There it is written, “The merciful man does good to his own soul (Proverbs 11:17),” this [refers to] Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like regarding the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, as it is written, “For in the Image of G-d He made Man (Genesis 9:6),” even more so!…

Vayikra Rabbah 34:3

I love this story because the first-century sage Hillel teaches his students about taking care of themselves, and he’s very clever about it. He first intrigues his students by going on a mysterious errand after class. His students, always hoping to learn from him, ask him where he’s going. He says, “To fulfill a mitzvah!” They ask which mitzvah, and he surprises them when he says, “I’m going to the bathhouse!”

I can just imagine them saying, “C’mon, is that really a mitzvah?” And he gives them an analogy: Just as a custodian cares for the statues of kings, we care for the image of God in the form of our own bodies. The custodian is paid to do it (receives his sustenance from his job) and keeping the statue clean is a way to honor the person pictured. How much more so should we honor the Divine Image in ourselves?

Hillel was teaching that self-care is really an expression of the love of God, because we are made in the image of God. So we should keep ourselves clean, and decently fed, and exercised, and go to the doctor when we’re sick. Those things are not just “self-indulgence” – they are another way of honoring God.

Hillel lived in turbulent times in the land of Israel, and may have suspected that even harder times were ahead. By teaching his students this important lesson about caring for themselves, he was also teaching them things they needed to know if they were going to be well enough to teach their own students in the difficult years ahead.

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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