Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household has had a positive impact on my life as a chronically ill person

·3 min read
Samarah Cohen headshot
Courtesy of Samarah Cohen
  • I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household.

  • I'm in the process of getting a diagnosis for my autoimmune issues.

  • Growing up in a Jewish home has been incredibly beneficial in my journey with chronic illness.

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household where almost everyone has an autoimmune disease. My brother has Crohn's disease, my sister has lupus, and my mother has both Crohn's and lupus.

I am in the process of getting a diagnosis for autoimmune issues I have had since birth. Doctors said I had UCTD, or undifferentiated connective tissue disease, which is a fancy way of saying that there's something wrong with me, but my doctors could not come to a definitive consensus on what it is.

I have spent a lot of time trying to juggle healthy living with chronic illness, and having been raised in a Jewish home has been the most beneficial part of my journey.

These are three things my Jewish life taught me about keeping my body as healthy and pain-free as possible despite my illness.

The preservation of life 

In Jewish tradition, we have a concept known as pikuach nefesh, which literally translates to "watching over a soul." In essence, pikuach nefesh is the teaching that human life takes precedence over everything. Without our lives, we would be unable to perform good deeds, make significant changes in the world, help others, and strive to be our best selves.

I was always taught that there is nothing more important than keeping my body and mind healthy. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to do the things you enjoy or the things that need doing. If you don't feel well, take a break from doing household chores. If you need a nap, you must take a break and take a nap. If you're too sick to go to work tomorrow, you shouldn't. In our culture, this is a mitzvah, a good deed.

Keeping Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest

Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, begins Friday at sundown and ends Saturday after sundown. During this time, Jewish people are ordered to rest for 25 hours. Orthodox Jewish people won't do things such as travel, cook, use electricity, or any other type of activity that might be seen as work. It is a day of reconnecting with one another, resting our bodies, and nourishing ourselves with good food.

Shabbat didn't only influence me on the actual Sabbath. Shabbat is something that stuck with me during the week as well. Often, we don't want to sit down and rest because we're too busy and we have too many chores left on our to-do lists. Shabbat exists in order to force us to do this, but we shouldn't only rest because we have to. Rest is important throughout the week as well.

Shabbat taught me the importance of winding down in the evenings, setting boundaries with my workload, and ensuring I was doing the best I could for my physical and mental health.

Learning to embrace my differences and recognize my own importance

In Judaism, everyone has a significant role to play in this world. We all have a unique mission and unique attributes which help us achieve our goals. It doesn't matter if you're physically or mentally disabled — everyone is exactly who they were meant to be.

Being chronically ill was hard for me, and sometimes it still is. I'm often not able to do all the things my peers can because of my body's many physical limitations, but being physically disabled has taught me to embrace and love my emotional and mental strengths. While I rest my body, I can work on my writing or read books about topics I enjoy. I can spend meaningful time with friends and family.

Being chronically ill is not always easy, but I am always grateful for having been raised in a culture that taught me to see the beauty in my limitations as well.

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