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Secrets of Longevity

By Tzvi Fishman
11/3/2011, 9:11 AM

Want to live a long and healthy life? 800 years ago, long before the pop holistic craze began, the Rambam set forth the guidelines to healthy living. Instead of peddling lies and false panaceas to the reading public, I incorporated the Rambam's teachings into my novel. Say what you will about me - no one can accuse the Rambam of being a phony.     

Heaven's Door

Chapter Five - The Secrets of Longevity

I was awakened by the sound of running water. Saba Yosef was in the back yard, dragging a hose, watering one of his rock and flower gardens. Sitting up, I shook the sleep from my head. The old man got around with an unexpected agility. He bent down, lifted a broken branch, and threw it a distance away.

“How are your hands?” he asked.

I looked around to see who he was talking to, but I was the only other person in the yard.

“My hands?” I asked, standing up.

“They used to shake, didn’t they?”

Sure enough, when I held out my hands, there wasn’t a trace of a flicker. The trembling was gone. I was stunned.

“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Don’t thank me,” Saba Yosef answered. “Thank God. He does everything. I am nothing at all.”

When I held out my hand, it was as steady as a brain surgeon’s.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“I prayed, that’s all. I said to God, ‘True, this pilgrim to Your Holy Land has made some mistakes in his life, but who doesn’t make mistakes? He didn’t know better. No one ever taught him.’”

“Will you teach me?” I asked.

“With the help of God, I can teach you what I have been taught by others. The question is – do you have the humility and sincerity which a person needs in order to learn.” 

Setting down the hose, he sat down in a chair by a plastic white table and motioned for me to join him. Set out on the table were two hot cups of tea and small plastic plates with grapes, olives, figs, potato chips, and nuts. A cool afternoon breeze filled the air.

“My grandchildren don’t like me working in the garden, but exercise is very important,” he said.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” I asked.

“Four-thousand years old,” he replied with a smile.

“Four-thousand years old?” I repeated.

“That’s right. Counting reincarnations.”

“There really is such a thing?” I asked.

“By all means. The Holy One Blessed Be He keeps bringing us back until we complete our missions on earth.”

“Can you know what reincarnations a person has had?” I inquired, wondering who I was in my pasts.

“It is possible, yes. The holy Arizal, whose mikvah you immersed in, wrote a book on the theme, but I am not allowed to disclose matters like that.”

He picked up one of the cups, recited a blessing in Hebrew, and took a sip.

“Please, help yourself,” he told me, pointing to the snacks, as if to change the subject. “People don’t come by at this hour, so we have some time to learn a little something together. How long will you be here?”

“I have to return to America in three days.”

“I suppose we can compress 4000 years into three days. In fact, we’ll have to do it in less than that. Thank God, I have a lot of obligations and visitors.”

I lifted my cup of tea, overjoyed that my hand wasn’t shaking. Remembering that I had brought a small tape recorder, I asked if I could tape our conversation.

“If you don’t forget to share the royalties with me,” he joked with a happy smile.

I was astounded how he seemed to hover between two worlds. On the one hand, he seemed to possess all the secrets of the universe, but he also knew what was happening in the modern world. I removed the small recorder from my shoulder bag and, with a steady hand, set it down on the table between us.

“Most people who come to see me are suffering from medical problems,” he said. “In addition to being a great scholar of the Torah, the Rambam was a doctor. I believe there is a hospital named after him in New York, Maimonides, as he was known to the outside world.”

“Yes,” I muttered, finding it strange that the namesake of the high school where I taught had popped up again. “Maimonides Hospital. In the Bronx, or Brooklyn, I think. The school where I teach in America is also named after him. I was just at his grave in Tiberias.”

The old man nodded his head, without registering any reaction, as if he already knew.

“The name Rambam is made up of the initials letters of his name - Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon. Maimonides is a westernization of his name. I have what he wrote right here,” he said. “So why trust my memory when I can read it to you?”

He opened a large tome that rested on the table. It looked just like the book the hitchhiking Hasid had been reading in my car. But the old man’s eyes didn’t really look at the page while he translated the Hebrew text. Perhaps he knew it by heart.

“Did you know that Maimonides was also a pioneer dietician?” he asked.

“I really don’t know anything about him at all,” I admitted.

“One of the secrets of longevity,” he said, “is to eat the proper foods. As I mentioned, at one point in his life, Maimonides, or the Rambam as I prefer to call him, was the chief physician for the sultan in Egypt. The other doctors were jealous of him, and quite possibly a little anti-Semitic. They complained to the sultan, saying that he was wasting his money by employing the Jewish scholar since the sultan never was ill. On their advice, he decided to fire him. ‘You don’t do anything for me, so why should I keep you?’ he asked Maimonides, who answered, ‘The sultan is never sick because he follows the proper diet. Every morning, I enter the palace kitchen and tell the cook what to prepare you for the day. That’s the reason that you are always feeling healthy.’”

“Diet and nutrition are very popular in America,” I told him.

“They have learned from the Rambam. He was the first nutritionist.” He flipped through a few pages of the book before him and continued. “For instance, he writes that since it is impossible to have any clear knowledge of God when a person is ill, it is man’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body. Thus, a person should not eat foods unless he is hungry. Even when he eats, he should not stuff himself until he is fully satiated, but leave a third of his stomach open, so that he can properly digest his meal.

“During the meal, water should be drunk in moderation, so as not to wash away his natural digestive juices, and the water should be mixed with a little wine. After the process of digestion is underway, water may be taken as needed, but not in an excessive amount. In the morning, it is beneficial to exercise till the body is in a glow. After a sufficient rest, breakfast should be eaten.  Laxative foods such as grapes, figs, mulberries, pears, watermelon, cucumbers, and pickles should be eaten before the meal, and not with the main dish. It is best to allow for their digestion before the meal is resumed. In general, lighter foods should be eaten first, so that, for instance, it is preferable to eat chicken before beef. In the summer, cold foods should be eaten. In the winter, warm foods are the best.”

I was impressed. It sounded just like the latest self-help best-seller. Though I had read about many of these things back home, I was a pretty compulsive French fries and cheeseburger man, with a passion for carbonated beverages and sweets.

“Some foods are very harmful and should always be avoided,” he continued. “For example, large, salted and stale fish, and aged salted cheese. Milk, cheeses, and fruits should not be consumed in abundance, nor the meat of large cattle. Fruits should be eaten in moderation, however, figs, grapes, and almonds are always good, but they too should not be eaten all the time. Honey and wine are bad for children, but good for the elderly, especially in the winter. In short, a man who is wise and watches over his diet, never eating to his harm, is indeed a hero.”

Motioning to the simple foods on the table, he invited me to eat.  

“At all times, a person should maintain a free and relaxed condition in the movement of his bowels. He should attend to his needs both before and after eating. It is a principle of medicine that if there is constipation or the bowels move with difficulty, serious physical disorders will follow. As long as a person engages in active exercise, works hard, does not overeat, and keeps the state of his bowels relaxed, he will not fall sick and his strength will increase, even though the food he eats is not the very best. But if a person leads a sedentary life without exercising, ignores the call of nature, or is constipated, even if he eats wholesome food and does what his doctor tells him, he will suffer aches and pains throughout his life, and his vigor will surely lessen.”  גולש

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