THE BLOG
12/28/2012 01:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

New Year's Resolutions and Jewish Thought

As we prepare for the new calendar year, it is interesting to look at the Jewish nature of some of the most common New Year's Resolutions:

1. Lose Weight/Start Exercising/Eat Healthy Food

The mitzvah of saving a life (pikuach nefesh) is so great that it precedes most other mitzvot and applies to one's own life as well. Taking care of one's personal health, whether that means eating a healthier diet, exercising or even making certain to go for an annual check-up, is part of the mitzvah that the sages connect to the commandment of Deuteronomy 4:15: "And you shall watch yourselves very well."

2. Take Better Care of the Environment

Judaism has always placed great emphasis on taking care of the world, because the world was created by God. An important component of the Jewish view of the universe is that our very existence is a gift that comes with a responsibility. The sages inform us that "When the Holy One, blessed be God, created the first human ... God said to Adam, 'See my works how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created I made for you. [But] be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world -- for if you do spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it'" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).

3. Refrain from Gossip

People do the most damage to each other with their mouths. Damage done with our hands, such as injuries, thefts, etc, can usually be repaired. Words, however, are like feathers in the wind -- they fly too fast to catch and can never be retrieved. Jewish law regards lashon harah, wicked speech such as gossip and slander, as one of the worst of the transgressions that one may commit against fellow humans.

4. Give to Charity

Ideally, people should have no qualms about supporting those in need. The Torah, however, recognizes that charity is not necessarily a natural instinct, and therefore mandates the giving of tzedakah (charity): "If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which God gives to you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Additionally, Jews are obligated in the mitzvah of ma'aser, which means a 10th (often translated as "tithe"). In ancient times, each Jew was required to give 1/10th of the produce of the fields to the Levite, and an additional tenth to the poor or to support Jerusalem. Today, ma'aser is generally given from both one's regular income and from any additional monies that come to a person, such as bank interest, an inheritance or a monetary gift. Because of the intricacies of the laws and differences in situations, it is recommended that one seek the help of a qualified rabbi to properly allocate one's ma'aser.

5. Spend More Time with Family

In the day-to-day hubbub of our 21st century world, we are wired and wireless. Through our smartphones and tablets we are now truly available 24/7. Even on vacation, we are likely to be accessible. It seems like there is no break.

Jewish life brings a whole new meaning to TGIF, Thank God It's Friday. With the start of Shabbat (25 hours, starting a little before sunset on Friday) all electrical devices are turned off. No phones or e-mail. One is meant to actually sit down with their families and friends and enjoy each other's company, taking time to relax, talk, visit. It's a relief not to be bound to others, to actually have a day, once a week, when we answer to no person.

6. Manage the Budget

Avak gezel refers to situations in which one had no intention of stealing and, in truth, did not actually steal something, but yet caused a loss to someone else.

In his magnificent compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam, Spain/Egypt 12th century) notes that a person who eats a meal with a host who cannot afford to serve that meal has committed avak gezel. The Rambam clearly points out that this is not technically "legal robbery" but is forbidden because there is some element of robbery within this action (Hilchot Teshuva 4:4).

In truth, the laws of avek gezel can apply to one's self as well, and therefore one must make every attempt to maintain a budget and avoid debt.

7. Volunteer to Help Others

While giving to charity (tzedakah) is an act of kindness (chesed), an act of kindness is not charity. According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar, "Acts of Kindness are greater than charity, for it is said (Hosea 1:12), 'Sow to yourself according to your charity, but reap according to your kindness.' If a person sows, it is doubtful whether he will eat or not, but when a person reaps he will certainly eat it" (Sukkah 49b). The sages go on to explain that kindness is better than charity.

There are many ways in which a person can perform acts of kindness. Some of the best-known mitzvot associated with chesed are visiting the sick, welcoming guests, and helping a bride and groom get married. Many of the opportunities to involve one's self with these mitzvot come from being involved with organizations that focus on specific acts of kindness. Within the Jewish community, there are organizations for assisting the poor, helping those who are ill and their families, helping young people find their "soul-mates" and then helping them make a wedding, if needed, and many others.

8. Quit Smoking

Once upon a time, cigarette smoking was assumed to have many health benefits. After all, smokers seemed to feel refreshed and relaxed, a beneficial physical side effect. From a Torah perspective, the only apparent problem with smoking was lighting a cigarette on Shabbat (prohibited).

By the time the dangers of smoking became common knowledge, however, it was a common vice, and rabbinic authorities understood that an outright ban on smoking would be too difficult to enforce (especially given the addictive nature of nicotine). In relation to smoking, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (regarded as one of the greatest Jewish legal minds of the 20th century), felt that he could not outlaw it based on the statement in Yebamot 72a: "Since many people are in the habit of disregarding these precautions, 'The Lord preserves the simple' (Psalms 116:6)." In his 1981 ruling, however, he not only strongly discouraged the habit, but also declared it forbidden to start. More recent rabbinc rulings have outrightly banned smoking.

9. Be Less Grumpy

"When one shows his teeth [smiles] to his fellow man, it is better than giving him milk to drink" (Ketubot 111b).

On the whole, smiling at another person makes them smile too (unless they are in a really bad mood). Imagine passing a smile down a street, "infecting" one person and then another. Unlike a virus, smiling is believed to have great health benefits! A wide range of professionals now believe that smiling not only makes you look better, but actually makes you feel better, perhaps even releasing a small dose of helpful endorphins.

Receiving a smile can change a person's entire perspective. More than just changing a passing mood, sincere smiles (sincerely, as is implied by the reference of showing one's teeth) build self esteem, they change how a person views the world and how a person feels that he/she is viewed by the world.

10. Further One's [Jewish] Education

This a goal that is often elusive. More and more Jews are leaving Jewish life with only basic knowledge about Judaism. Once upon a time, a Jew raised with little knowledge of his/her heritage was the exception, but, according to Jewish law, such a person could not be held responsible for Jewish law. However, one raised without this knowledge can also never know of the depth, ethics, intricacies and fully appreciate the beauty of Jewish life.

Today in North America, where several generations of Jews have been raised with only the most basic Jewish education, there are organizations such as NJOP/Jewish Treats, that strive to provide a more complete understanding of Judaism and Jewish life.