Medicine in the Gemara by Elli Friedman


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.

Talmud Tidbits

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.

Talmud Tidbits

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.

(Sanhedrin 17b)

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

Kamma 85a)

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

certain diseases.

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.

Talmud Trivia

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.”

(Shabbat 108b-109a)

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.

Talmud Tidbits

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.

(Bechorot 45a)

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

gospel truth.

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

for millennia.

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

is it?

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.

Talmud Trivia

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

lives since.

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

administer them.

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

Posted on: כ״ו בטבת תשפ״א (January 10, 2021)admin

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