At Har Sinai, not only was the written law given, but the oral law as well. The oral law, Torah Shebaal Pe, is recorded in the Gemara; hence, one must follow all that is in the Gemara. Furthermore, one is considered an Apikores if he does not adhere to the Gemara (see Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 3:8).
What about when the Gemara deals with non-Halachic issues? Is one obligated to follow these as well? This essay will explore one aspect of this issue, namely the medical practices presented in the Gemara. For example, on Gittin 68b, the Gemara explains the procedure for curing a migraine headache: One would bring a wild rooster and slaughter it with a sharpened Zuz (a certain denomination of coin) of pure silver over the side of the head that aches so that the blood would trickle down the side of the head. Then one would hang the slaughtered hen on the doorpost of one’s house so that every time he entered and exited the house he would brush against the hen.
Another example is Chazal’s remedy for a nosebleed (Gittin 69b). Chazal says one should bring a Kohen whose name is Levi and should write the name Levi backward for him. A different solution is to bring any man and write, “I, Papi Shila bar Sumki,” backwards. Another solution is for him the write, “The taste of a bucket in silver water, the taste of a bucket in tainted water.” An alternate cure for a nosebleed is to bring the root of a stalk of Aspasta, the rope of an old bed, rag-paper, saffron, and the red part of a palm branch and burn them together until they turn to ash. Then he should bring a ball of wool, twist the fiber to form two strands, and immerse the strands in vinegar. Then, he should roll the strands in the ashes and insert one strand into each nostril. Another alternative is to find a canal that flows from east to west and to step over it. One should stand with one foot on each side of the stream and take mud with his right hand from beneath his left foot and twist two strands of wool with his left hand from beneath his right foot and immerse the strands in the mud. Then he should insert one strand into each nostril. The last resolution of Chazal is to sit beneath a waterspout while others pour water on him through the spout and say, “Just as these waters stop, so too should the blood of so-and-so son of so-and-so stop.” Modern medicine has many different ways to cure migraines and nosebleeds, but Chazal’s ways are not included. What should one do?
Opinions That Science May Override the Gemara
Tosafot in Moed Katan 11a (s.v. Kavra) says that the medical procedures may not be effective nowadays because Nishtane Bateva – the nature and constitution of people and plants have changed throughout the course of history; hence, the remedies that were effective in Talmudic times are not necessarily effective today. For a list of the many authorities who subscribe to this view, see Nishmat Avraham 1:4, footnote 14.
Moreover, the Maharil (cited by Rav Akiva Eiger, Yoreh Deah 336:1, s.v. Nitna) believes that in this day and age one cannot even attempt to use the Talmudic remedies due to the fact that one cannot properly identify the various herbs detailed in the Gemara and does not properly understand the precise directions of how to administer the remedies. Thus, if one tries to use these cures, he is bound to fail, which may lead people to doubt all teachings of the Gemara. As a result, one should not use the remedies in order to prevent questioning of the authenticity of the Gemara. The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Chullin 8:12) adds that even if some cures are still effective, they should not be done, in order to reduce the risk of arousing heretical responses from the unlearned.
Similarly, Rav Akiva Eiger (ibid.) rules that one should ignore these Talmudic texts because one cannot fully understand them and will consequently misconstrue them and cause more harm than good.
Rav Sherira Gaon (see Otzar Hageonim Gittin 68b, responsa section no. 37b) held that the sages were not physicians; thus, they were only recommending procedures that were effective at that time. Therefore, one would be foolish to follow these procedures without properly examining them. The Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 4:18) seems to have considered most of the Talmudic remedies to be ineffective. This appears to be the reason that the Rambam does not cite any of the Talmudic cures in his Mishna Torah (see, however, the Kesef Mishna’s comment to Hilchot De’ot 4:18). Likewise, Rav Avraham ben HaRambam (Ma’amar Al Ha’agadot s.v. Da Ki Ata) says that Chazal gave these instructions based on the medical knowledge of their time, and they have no Torah basis. Hence, they only carry the weight of a doctor’s advice and do not have to be followed. Rav Avraham ben HaRambam’s thoughts are printed in the introduction to the Iyun Yaakov. On the same note, the Magen Avraham (O.C. 173:1) suggests that invalid medical advice by the rabbis does not need to be followed. Interestingly, the Magen Avraham suggests that one need not separate meat and fish, as the reason for this common practice is because Chazal considered it unhealthy.
Rav Yitzchak Herzog (cited in an article published by Professor Frimer) adopted the approach that Chazal were not superior in medical knowledge. Whenever possible, however, he tries to try to avoid confrontation between the Gemara’s medicine and modern medicine. For instance, when Rav Herzog found out that there was danger in the Mohel sucking blood directly from the baby, Rav Herzog said that the Mohel should use a cloth. Yet, in a case of Shechita, Rav Herzog did not allow the Shochet to tranquilize the animal prior to Shechita, even though it would alleviate much of the animal’s suffering (according to modern science). His reasoning was that Shechita is a cryptic and enigmatic Mitzva that represents the most painless form of killing animals (it allows a highly effective flow of blood). Thus, Rav Herzog did not contradict science, but instead he found a way to avoid confrontation (Rav Moshe Sokol, Engaging Modernity).
The Chazon Ish (Y.D. 5:3 and E.H. 27:3) believes that since Har Sinai, Hashem has only revealed Himself to man through science. He constantly reveals new forms of scientific information for our use. Thus, Chazal were not wrong; rather, we have better, “modern” ways to cure people.
Opinions That The Gemara is Superior to Modern Science
There is a Pasuk in Vayikra that says, “You shall not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is shed” (15:16). This Pasuk obligates us to cure one’s illness; hence, one should try Chazal’s suggestions first.
The Maharsha (Gittin 68b) explains why Chazal recorded medical procedures in the Gemara. He cites the Gemara in Berachot 10b, which says that there was a book of remedies that King Chizkiah hid. The Gemara explains that he did so because the people of his time were too reliant on this Sefer Refuah and stopped praying to Hashem because they forgot that it was Hashem who ultimately provided their healing. However, the secrets of the Refuot still remained with the Tzaddikim, who revealed them to worthy individuals. By the time of the Gemara, explains the Maharsha, Chazal felt that the Refuot were being forgotten, and they consequently wrote the Refuot in the Gemara so that the Gemara would encompass all areas of knowledge and so that people could not say that Chazal were not fluent in medicine.
The Maharam Schick (Y.D. 244) uniquely believes that only regarding a matter of life and death must one follow the Gemara. One must recognize that medical research cannot predict the exact result of a certain action but can only suggest the typical or most likely result. Thus, he holds that we cannot disregard Chazal’s words regarding health issues. Hence, only in matters that do not relate to bodily danger may one change the Halacha and use modern medicine.
Hinda Brandwein (“Did Our Sages Write the Nutrition Tips That Modern Research Has Uncovered?” Derech Hateva 1997) believes that the words of Chazal are not contradictory to modern medicine, but modern medicine actually proves much of the information about the medical procedures in the Gemara. For example, Gittin 67b states, “For quotidian fever drink a jug of water.” Modern doctors confirm that it is essential for one to drink water to maintain one’s health. Furthermore, Gittin 70a states the rule to “eat a third [of the capacity of the stomach], drink a third, and leave a third empty.” This rule is accepted nowadays by nutritionists who stress that one should not eat too much. The reason is so that one will not become overweight, which may lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, Chas Veshalom. Additionally, Gittin 70a states that meals should be eaten while seated because “to eat or drink standing shatters the body of a man.” Doctors today think say that one should be relaxed while eating. Thus, one sees that modern science sometimes proves what Chazal said long ago.
We see that there are many reasons for our practice not to follow the medical advice contained in the Gemara. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (see Lev Avraham 2:19) believes that eventually we will discover that all of the medical information contained in the Gemara is accurate. He rejects Rav Avraham ben HaRambam’s approach to this issue.
Medicine and Healing in the Talmud
As you saw in the previous chapter, the sages of the Talmud were
very connected to their environment and were keenly interested in
how it functioned. These factors are even more apparent when it
comes to the healing arts.
The Talmud is a rich source of information concerning remedies and
potions. The sages’s knowledge in the area of health, personal
hygiene and disease, and their natural curiosity about its origins, also
led to a number of discoveries that were way ahead of their time. In
this chapter, we’ll examine a number of these discoveries, and see if
we can detect a pattern of connecting the ancient to the modern.
Talmudic Sage as Physician
During ancient times, religious leaders were often healers. In fact,
for many centuries there was little, if any, difference between
religion and medicine.
The tractate Baba Batra relates that Abraham himself was no slouch
in the healing arts, and could cure people with a certain luminous
stone that may have been given to him by Noah. The general healing
power of precious stones and crystals, some of which are also
mentioned in the Torah, is noted by later commentaries.
Moses was instructed by God to “build a fiery serpent, and put it on
a pole” to cure the Israelites of snakebites.
The caduceus, a figure of snakes entwined around a pole
(applied by the Greeks and Romans in their mythology)
symbolizes the healing professions even to this day seems to
have its origin in the Biblical account involving Moses.
Years later, King Hezekiah ground up Moses’ copper snake to keep
it away from the children of Israel, who were abusing it. The sages
approved of Hezekiah’s actions, even though God originally
revealed the snake to Moses. Hezekiah also hid a book called the
Book of Remedies, purportedly written by Noah, which contained
instructions on the healing powers of all the herbs in existence. He
did so because people had become so imbalanced in their outlook
that they had forgotten God in the equation of healing.
Jewish tradition states that the Book of Remedies is resting in the
same place as the Ark of the Covenant, which houses two sets of the
tablets that were given to Moses. When the Ark is restored, so, too,
will this book be.
For the Jewish people, the study of medicine came to be part of the
regular rabbinical curriculum. A long and distinguished line of
rabbi/physicians graduated from these academies. Over the centuries
that followed, they served as personal physicians to caliphs,
emperors, popes, bishops, and priests.
The Talmud mentions the office of the chief physician in the
Temple, whose duty it was to look after the health of the
Cohanim (priests). (Shevuot 12a) A later law required every
town to include as a permanent resident a physician who
supervised the circumcision of children and looked after the
communal well being. In fact, a scholar was explicitly
forbidden to live in a city where there was no physician.
The Talmud valued the skills and services of a physician with the
proclamation, “He who is in pain let him go to the doctor.” (Baba
Kamma 46b) The sages obviously decried the notion, sometimes
ascribed to by the overly pious, that “If God caused the illness, let
Him cure it.” Not only did the sages encourage one to visit a truly
skilled healer, they even insisted that the physician should be duly
compensated, “A healing for nothing, is worth nothing.” (Baba
The Prince’s Physician
Several prominent rabbi/physicians are noted in Talmudic literature.
Among the early greats, one figure stands out more than all the
others. Mar Shmuel, an astronomer/ scientist par excellence, was a
second-century Babylonian sage. It seems that not only was he
intimately familiar with the paths of the stars in the cosmos, but also
with the art of the physician.
Shmuel was Rabbi Judah, the Prince’s doctor, and, according to the
Talmud, quite a skilled one when it came to fine-tuning dosages.
Once, the Rabbi had a pain in his eye, which Shmuel wanted to treat
with a potion. The potion’s strength was more than Rabbi Judah
could bear. Shmuel suggested using something to serve as a buffer
between the remedy and the Rabbi’s eye. Rabbi still refused.
Finally, Shmuel prepared the potion so that just enough of its fumes
would vaporize from under Rabbi’s pillow, and Rabbi was cured.
(Baba Metziah 86a)
In another Talmudic story, Shmuel was attempting to cure the sage
Rav of his stomach pains. Shmuel took Rav to his home, fed him
barley-bread and small fish fried in flour, and gave him specially
brewed beer to drink for its laxative properties. The treatment was
effective, and apparently, overly so, as it caused Rav much
discomfort and embarrassment when he had to spend the entire day
in the bathroom.
According to the Talmud, Shmuel was somewhat of a general
practitioner, and was skilled in anatomy, blood-letting, cardiology,
dermatology, embryology, gastroenterology, gynecology, general
medicine, obstetrics, ophthalmology, pediatrics, urology, and wound
Let’s Get Talmudic
“… Shmuel brought him (Rav) to his house and fed him barley
bread and small fried fish with beer. And he (Rav) did not
cease from visiting the bathroom from the intense diarrhea. Rav
then uttered a curse ‘One who causes so much pain should not
sire any children,’ and thus it happened (e.g., Shmuel was
childless).” (Shabbos 108a)
The Poor Man’s Doctor
The most famous physician, scholar, and teacher of post-Talmudic
time was Assaf Harofeh, or Assaf the Doctor. His seventh-century
work, called Sefer Asaf ha-Rofe or The Book of Asaph the
Physician, is the oldest known medical text in the world.
Assaf’s treatise on medicine seems to have been a “poor man’s
medical bible,” as it was comprised of cheap and easy remedies. He
believed in making medicine accessible to all, and made his pupils
swear that they would attend the poor and needy free of charge. His
book, which includes descriptions of more 150 plants and herbs and
their uses, also contains the first mention of the hereditary nature of
The Sultan’s Doctor
The leading Talmudic healer was the universally acclaimed Rabbi
Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, who served as the personal
physician to the Sultan of Egypt.
Moses Maimonides wrote 10 treatises on medicine, covering such
diverse topics as hemorrhoids, cohabitation (the Sultan’s nephew
wanted to increase his sexual prowess), asthma, and epilepsy. He
wrote a glossary of drug names, and was the first to identify the
difference between two different types of poisons—neurotoxins,
which affect the nerves, and hemotoxins, which affect the chemistry
of the blood.
During the Middle Ages, the art of the physician was seen a
more as a religious metaphysical practice and not true
“science,” and was thus a profession “tolerated” for Jews
living in a very racially discriminating era.
In his medical treatises, Maimonides anticipated modern discoveries
such as psychosomatic illnesses, allergies, epilepsy, the nervous
system and overall individual constitution. Almost all of his books
were written in Arabic and shortly thereafter translated into Hebrew
and Latin. Today, they are available in English.
Cleanliness Is Holiness
Personal hygiene, which included frequent hand washings and
ablutions for certain ritual practices, was a spiritual duty of Jews in
Talmudic times, and continues to be practiced widely today.
The Talmud advises that the hands, legs, and face should be washed
every day. (Shabbat 108b) Attention to bathing the body and the eyes
was seen as very important. Rabbi Nathan said: “The eye is (like) a
princess and it hurts her to be touched by a hand that has not been
washed three times.” Rabbi Yohanan says: “Puch (a precious stone
or a certain herb) applied to the eye, stills its wrath, dries its tears
and causes its lashes to grow.” Samuel said, that bathing the eye in
cold water in the morning and bathing the hands and feet in warm
water at night is better than any medicine for the eye in the world.”
Let’s Get Talmudic
“The existence of the world is maintained with six things and
one of these is bathing.” —Midrash Mei Hashiloach
To the sages, cleanliness had both aesthetic and healthy aspects. The
sophistication of the Talmudic understanding of disease prevention
through hygiene cannot be overstated. The sages considered
perspiration especially dangerous, and referred to it as “Som
HaMaves” (potion of death). It was therefore forbidden while eating
to touch any part of the body that is usually covered, or to hold bread
under the arm, where perspiration is usually abundant.
Interestingly enough, based on the Biblical verse “With the sweat of
your brow you shall eat your bread,” (Genesis 3:19) the sages
advised that the sweat of one’s brow or head was not detrimental.
(Modern medicine today confirms that there is a great difference
between the toxicity of the sweat glands of the head and that of the
rest of the body.) The Talmud also admonishes against placing coins
in the mouth, for fear that they might transmit contagious diseases.
The sages taught that it was forbidden to eat from unclean
vessels or from vessels that had been used for unseemly
purposes, or to eat with dirty hands. One was likewise
admonished not to eat while in need of evacuating. Gluttony, as
well, was expressly proscribed. All of these cautions were
based on the Biblical exhortation, “And you shall not make your
souls abominable.” (Leviticus 20:25)
Healing with Good Scents
Aromatherapy and oil massage, which are making a comeback in
today’s health practices, also weren’t unknown to the sages. Oiling
the body was considered a necessity and not a luxury, and was done
by a majority of the population in Talmudic times. One of the
gestures of hospitality in the homes of the sages was to anoint your
visitor with oil, along with washing his feet, giving him a cold cup of
water, and/or burning incense in the home to freshen the air. A base
of vegetable oils, such as olive oil, almond oil, sesame oil, or even
the fat of geese, sheep, goats, or cattle was used. Often, various
spices, minerals, salts, milk, and/or honey were added to these
blends. Fragrant resins or aromatic flowers were also added to give
them a sweet scent.
Let’s Get Talmudic
A passage in the Book of Ruth supports the practice of anointing
after bathing. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, advises her to
“wash, anoint, and put on her finest clothing,” in anticipation of
her visit to Boaz. (Ruth 3:3) The Talmud comments, “One who
bathes without anointing is likened to water on the top of a
barrel that remains on top and does not enter.” (Shabbat 41a)
Maimonides considered it a healthy practice to bathe after
dinner is digested, and to anoint the body with oil following the
bath. (Mishna Torah) The benefit of such a regimen is
emphasized by Rabbi Chanina, who attributed his vim and vigor
in old age to the baths and oil treatments his mother gave him as
a child. (Chullin 20b) Modern pediatricians also recommend
such a regimen.
Some historians attribute the relatively low level of Jewish
casualties during the black plague that decimated Western Europe in
the Middle Ages to their greater consciousness toward personal
hygiene. Jewish law actually requires one to wash the hands after
using the restroom.
Talmudic Hygiene and Surgery
Infectious disease control was also well known to the Talmudic
sages. In tractate Shabbat 29, the physician and sage Shmuel ruled
that all medical attendants must wash their hands and sterilize their
medical implements. Another passage explicitly mentions washing
hands when attending more than one patient to guard against disease
transfer between them. The Talmud also relates that surgeons were
assigned to marble-lined “batei deSha’isha, or operating rooms, to
perform their procedures. (Baba Metziah 83b)
Medical Discoveries Ahead of Their Time
Scientific inquiry and discovery often makes tremendous
advancements and improvements in our lives. The religious leaders
of the Talmud were equally fascinated by the advancements of their
time and embraced (and participated) in the scientific method that
drove them. The Talmud mentions how the students of the second-century sage Rabbi Ishmael were given permission to dissect the
cadavers of criminals executed by the Roman Government.
Also mentioned in the Talmud are several surgical operations and
experiments. The tractate Abodah Zarah gives an account of an
operation to cure a fistula. The Talmud also states that Mar Bar Rav
Ashi, the son of Rav Ashi, had operated on a man suffering from
crushed testicles. (Yebamoth 75a)
The sages of the Talmud agreed with Greek physicians such as Galen
(c.131-200 C.E.), who attributed disease to the imbalance of the four
humors of the body: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile.
However, there were discoveries and healing philosophies with
which they vastly differed. Galen, for example, testified that he once
saw a patient remain alive after having his heart removed. He used
this as conclusive proof that the seat of life was in the brain, not the
heart. The Greeks accepted this, and his other theories as well, as
However, Maimonides, among others, demonstrated just how far off
the Greeks were on this and other important medical theories. For
example, Greek physicians believed arteries actually contained air.
In fact, the Latin term “arteria” means windpipe. The scientific
community took a very long time to make the discovery that blood
actually flows through the veins. In fact, it wasn’t until the work of
the early seventeenth-century British physician, William Harvey, that
we learned that the blood didn’t just sit there, but circulated
throughout the body and heart.
The Talmud, however, clearly states that the blood moves internally
through the veins and arteries. Rabbi Zeira, an early fourth-century
sage, states in Kritut 22a that “at the time of respiration the blood
moves from a point in the neck into the heart.” Maimonides and other
Jewish physician/sages of the twelfth century confirmed his findings.
The sages also shot down several other leading medical theories of
the day. Galen wrote that humans and mammals have three
pulmonary lobes on both the left and right sides of the lungs.
Hippocrates, the father of all Western medicine, taught that there
were two on both the left and right sides. The sage Rava, however,
spent 18 months of his life living among four-legged creatures to
learn their anatomy, and had become an effective authority on kashrut
(dietary laws) issues. In tractate Chulin 47a, he correctly states that
there are three lobes on the right side, and two on the left.
Galen also categorically stated that conception can only occur
through coitus. However, the Talmud in Chagiga 15a, openly
entertains the viability of artificial insemination.
Sex and the Unborn Child
Chapter 10 tells the story of Mar Shmuel and how he was able to
determine the exact age of an embryo, and the exact day of
conception. The tractate Niddah 25b confirms his expertise. Sex
determination is an entirely different skill, but here too, the sages
reveal an intuition far ahead of medical science.
Modern science has shown that there are 23 base pairs of x and y-chromosomes that comprise the DNA of every cell of our body.
These chromosomes determine the sex of a child at conception.
Talmud tractate Brachot 60a states an interesting concept of a “vain
prayer.” That is, one can only wish or pray for something where
there is a chance of what is desired being granted or coming true.
Yet, it also states, “Within the first 40 days after conception one is
allowed to pray for a boy. However, after 40 days, such a prayer is
said in vain.” How can this be? Isn’t gender assigned at conception?
Maybe not. In an article titled “What Makes a Man a Man?” that
appeared in the July 19, 1990, edition of the British journal Nature,
author, Anne McLaren details research that found enzymes located
on the short arm of the Y chromosome that need to be activated for
sex differentiation to take place. When does this happen? Between
days 42 and 49 of gestation.
In other words, regardless of what occurs at conception, a number of
chemical or endocrine reactions must take place for sex
determination. So the sages weren’t off their rockers after all!
Offering prayer to have a boy baby could still have a positive effect
until the seventh week or so.
There is actually a Biblical hint to this notion, found in the story of
the conception of Leah’s daughter Dinah. Genesis 30:21 says,
“Afterwards, she bore a daughter and called her name, Dinah.” Rav
Yosef in the Talmud (Brachot 60a) comments that Leah’s daughter’s
name comes from the word “din” or judgment, for indeed Leah
passed judgment on herself. How so? Leah reasoned, “Jacob is
destined to sire twelve sons who will comprise the 12 Tribes. I
already have six, and each of his two hand-maids have two, making a
total of ten, thus far. If the child that I am bearing is a male, then my
sister Rochel will only beget one and not even be equal to the hand-maids.”
With the intent of sparing Rochel this degradation, Leah supplicates
God to change the sex of the fetus to female. Rav Yosef understood
the superfluous word “Afterwards” in the verse to imply that after
Leah judged herself and supplicated the Almighty, she bore a girl in
place of the boy she was bearing.
The Talmud makes another ahead-of-its-time observation on
genetics. The sages rule that if a woman bears two sons who die of
bleeding following circumcision, any additional sons that she has
should not be circumcised. This bleeding refers to the genetically
linked disorder hemophilia. Furthermore, the Talmud states that the
sons of her sisters must not be circumcised, whereas the sons of her
brothers should be (Yevamoth 64b), a clear understanding that this
disease is transmitted through the female, yet only affects the male.
One more medical discovery for the road. As is well known, Louis
Pasteur, one of the giants of medical research, began his
experimental research with an effort to cure rabies. His germ theory
of disease, while opposed by some schools of thought at the time
(and by some advocates of alternative medicine now), is still the
basis of prevention and cure of illnesses that have plagued society
Let’s Get Talmudic
Jewish law prohibits marrying a woman from a family of
epileptics or lepers, (Yevamoth 64b; Shulchan Aruch, Even
Haezer 2:7) lest the illness be genetically transmitted to future
generations. According to Rashi (Yebamot 64b), any hereditary
disease is included in this category.
Pasteur’s revelations in his experiments with rabies serve as a
foundation for all types of immunization. But was he the first to toy
with the idea of artificially stimulating the immune response?
Likewise, the homeopathic approach to the cure of disease, whose
premise it to cure ailments by using materials similar to those that
cause them, is generally considered to be less than 200 years old. Or
A Hebrew book called Mevo She’arim (An Entry to the Gates) was
published in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In it, the author
quotes trustworthy witnesses who heard from Pasteur’s close friend,
rabbi and doctor Israel Michel Rabinowitz, that Pasteur actually
discovered the basis for immunizations in the Talmud.
How did this all begin? Rabinowitz, then living in Paris, simply
began to translate the Talmud into French. His translation of Seder
Moed (Appointed Times) reached Pasteur and piqued his curiosity.
Much to his astonishment, Pasteur discovered an extraordinary
statement found in the Mishna of tractate Yoma, 83a, which read:
“If someone was bitten by a mad dog [and affected with rabies],
one should have him ingest the lobe of the (infected) dog’s
liver, perhaps it will help.”
Pasteur’s fascination with this theory led him to another observation.
He noticed that when a full-fledged cholera outbreak occurred,
chickens that had previously been exposed to a weakened form of the
cholera bacterium were able to withstand the onslaught of the
epidemic relatively unscathed.
The five symptoms that characterize a rabid dog—mouth
remaining open, drooling saliva, drooping ears, dragging tail,
and abnormal gait, are all identified in the Talmud.
Advances in the area of controlled exposure to nonlethal doses of
these diseases to stimulate immunity are generally attributed to
Pasteur, but it would have been nice if he had given credit—where
credit is rightfully due.
Talmudic Potions and Remedies and Health
“Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy,” said Alexander
Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist credited with discovering
penicillin in 1928. As the story goes, Fleming noticed that bread
mold which had fallen into a Petri dish proceeded to consume and
dissolve the culture of staphylococcus bacteria. He won the Nobel
Prize in medicine in 1945, and his “discovery” has saved millions of
It might come as a surprise, but the Talmud is actually the first
medical account to recognize the anti-microbial properties of these
bread molds, and even mentioned that it could help curb internal
infections as well.
Compared with such progressive healing knowledge, some of the
Talmud’s other recommended medical practices, potions, and
remedies seem quite weird and even backward. Consider the
Talmud’s suggestion for curing a migraine headache; “One should
find a wild rooster and slaughter it with a sharpened pure silver coin
over the side of the head that aches, allowing the blood to trickle
down the side of the head. Then he should take the slaughter rooster
and suspend it from the doorpost of his house so that every time he
would enter or exit he would touch up against the bird.” (Gittin 68b)
Kind of sounds like a magical potion, doesn’t it?
And if that isn’t off the wall enough, consider the remedy for
nosebleeds: “One should bring the root of a stalk of Aspasta, the
rope of an old bed, rag-paper, saffron, and the red part of a palm
branch and burn them together until they are reduced to ash. Then he
should bring a ball of wool, twist the fiber to form two strands, and
immerse the strands in vinegar. Finally, he should roll the strands in
the ashes and insert one strand into each nostril.”
The position taken by most of today’s Torah authorities in regard to
the medical procedures found in the Talmud is “don’t try this at
home,” or anywhere else, for that matter. While remedies such as
these might have been effective in ancient times, they’re not today.
Why? Here are a few possible reasons:
• Humankind’s constitution has gone through considerable
change, and so has nature.
• The medicinal qualities of plants and herbs have also
• We cannot properly identify many of the ingredients of
these Talmudic remedies today and how to prepare and
In addition, the sages were only recommending conventional medical
practices of the times, and like much of folk medicine some of it was
effective and some of it wasn’t. In some cases, though, their advice
was right on the mark, as for instance, in the case of certain fevers
drinking “a jug of water” was strongly advised. (Gittin 67b)
The post-Talmudic sages posed an additional concern. If one were to
try one of the Talmud’s remedies and it proved ineffective, or worse,
it could lead people to doubt the veracity of the sages on other
issues, even on religious and spiritual ones. The medieval Talmudic
commentator Rabbi Shlomo Luria Lublin even stated that even if
some of these remedies were still effective, they should not be tried
as there was still a risk of apostasy or heresy from among the
The Sages on Preventative Medicine and Diet
It should be noted, however, that the sages dispensed much advice on
nutrition and preventive medicine that is still quite valid today. For
example, garlic has been known for years to have antiseptic
qualities. The Greeks used garlic to bring strength to their athletes at
the Olympic games and in other contests, and employed it, as well, to
help heal battle wounds. During World War II, the Russians called
garlic “poor man’s penicillin.” Research suggests that garlic may
help protect against heart disease and stroke by lowering blood
pressure. The Talmud states, “Our rabbis taught, ‘Five things were
said concerning garlic: It satiates, it keeps the body warm, it
brightens up the face, it increases semen, and it kills parasites in the
intestines.’” (Baba Kama 82a)
The Talmudic scholars warned against overeating, because “more
people die from eating too much than from eating too little.”
(Shabbat 33a, Gittin 70a) The Talmud also states the rule to “eat a
third [of the capacity of the stomach], drink a third, and leave a third
empty.” This rule is today accepted by modern science, which
confirms that the easiest way to extend life is to simply decrease the
number of calories consumed.
The sages also noted that eating too much meat was unhealthy.
(Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 14:15) They warned against eating
heavy meals immediately before going to bed, and advised lying first
on the left and then on the right side, this being considered good for
digestion (a fact substantiated by modern medical research).
In his treatises, Regimen of Health, Maimonides put it this way, “If a
person cared for himself the way he cares for his horse he would
avoid many serious illnesses. You won’t find anyone who gives his
horse too much fodder. He measures out only as much as the horse
can tolerate. But he himself eats to excess. He makes sure his animal
gets proper exercise to keep it healthy. But when it comes to himself
he neglects exercise even though this is a fundamental principle in
health maintenance and the prevention of most illnesses.”
Let’s Get Talmudic
Talmudic scholars held that the amount of food a person eats
should be warranted by climate, season, occupation, age, sex,
body weight, and state of health, (Pesachim 112a, Taanit 11a)
which, in light of modern medical science, is a very
sophisticated way of looking at nutrition. Additionally,
Maimonides laid down certain regulations by which a man
should be guided at sexual intercourse in order to preserve his
physical well-being; and he promised that those who complied
with these precepts will always be well, will never need to
consult a physician, and will live to a good old age.
The Talmud contains a plethora of advice on maintaining sound
health, such as procuring healthy vegetables; “A disciple of the
Sages is not allowed to reside in a city where no vegetables are to
be had,” and foods that supported good digestion and elimination;
“… three things decrease feces, raise the stature and bring light to
the eyes: bread made of well-sifted flour, fat meat and old wine.”
(Pesahin 42a and Erubin 55b)
“An army marches on its stomach,” was Napoleon’s famous refrain.
However, the Talmud goes a step further to teach us that you can
measure the health of a nation by the quality of its bread. Rabbi
Elazar taught that eating pas shachris, or morning bread, salt, and
water prevented 83 afflictions attributed to the bile of the gall
bladder. (Baba Metzia 107b) A discussion then unfolds that extols
the virtues of “morning bread” in 13 ways, namely that it will:
• Protect you from the heat
• Protect you from the cold
• Protect you from flatulence
• Protect you from demons
1 thought on “Medicine in the Gemara by Elli Friedman”
Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article! It is the little changes that produce the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!