Ancient Jewish text preserves real-world remedies

People usually turn to rabbis for spiritual guidance, but the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of traditions produced by Jews living in ancient Persia, 224-651 CE, also contains a lot of medical knowledge, according to a new book by a Cornell author.

In “Medicine in the Talmud: Natural and Supernatural Therapies Between Magic and Science”, Jason Mokhtarian argues that the rabbis subscribed to a common medical culture that they shared with pagans, Christians, Mandaeans, and other schools of thought therapies, while at the same time making it their own.

“Therapies are strange and inherently interesting texts, and always lead to the best discussions in class,” said Mokhtarian, associate professor of Near Eastern studies and holder of the Herbert and Stephanie Neuman Chair of Jewish Studies and Iranian studies. He came to appreciate the intricacy of the medical material in the Babylonian Talmud, also known as the Bavli, while teaching the text to undergraduate students.

“Compared to other Jewish cultures, the Babylonian Talmud downplays the role of God and sin in human disease and health, and instead promotes the idea that God permitted humans to heal themselves using the natural world that ‘he created, like plants and animals,’ Mokhtarian wrote.

He spoke with the College of Arts and Sciences about the book.

Question: What is your favorite remedy in the Bavli?

A: There are many interesting ones, but one of my favorites is the following (magical) therapy for a daylong fever, which involves trapping an ant in a tube and reciting a phrase that transfers the fever to the ant:

Abaye said: Mom told me, For a fever of a day, take a money zuz coin and go to a salt pit and weigh its weight in salt, and [then] tie [the salt] to the empty space of the neck with a yellow string. Otherwise, you have to sit at a crossroads and when you see a big ant carrying something, you have to take [the ant] and insert it into a tube of bronze, and close it with lead and seal it with sixty seals, and shake it and scatter it, and say to [the ant]”My burden on you, your burden on me.”

Q: Your book often mentions nearby medicine and magic, including in the title. What is the connection in the Bavli?

A: Magic and medicine were intertwined phenomena in Late Antiquity, and the ancient Jews did not always distinguish between the two categories, as we often do today. There has of course been a long debate among researchers from various disciplines regarding the right definitions and the issues of using the category “magic” to study ancient cultures. Magic is a large category that includes amulets, spells, voodoo dolls, astrology, exorcisms, among others – including healing and medicine.

For the most part, scholars of rabbinic literature research medicine as a subcategory of magick. On the one hand, there is a logic to this choice, since healing was certainly one of the fundamental purposes of ancient magical texts and artifacts. The ancient Jews believed in the power and efficacy of sympathetic rituals and powerful words and objects to control harmful supernatural demons and bodily diseases.

Yet, as I argue in the book, it is equally important to remember that in the Talmud, not all magic is medicine, and not all medicine is magic. In other words, scholars who classify Talmudic medicine in the category of magick tend to ignore therapies that have little or no identifiable magical elements, such as those that use natural ingredients to be consumed or applied to the body. body. It is these latter therapies—the most empirical, so to speak—that actually make up the bulk of the Talmudic medical tradition.

Q: Today, in the age of advanced medicine, is there good practical medical advice in the Babylonian Talmud? Or anything particularly off-base or downright dangerous?

A: Historically, rabbis had different criteria and ideas on how to determine whether a certain therapy was effective or not. Presumably, the rabbis believed the therapies worked, otherwise they would not have preserved them in the Talmud. There is no reason to dismiss out of hand that some of the more empirical therapies (e.g., potions, medicines, salves, etc.), based on detailed knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and plant parts specific animals, may have been effective in treating certain ailments.

That said, for the most part today it must be assumed that most (but not all) of the archaic therapies of the Talmud would not be deemed effective by contemporary scientific standards. In fact, it is this perception that therapies are magical, superstitious, and ineffective that has led to a long marginalization of therapies throughout Jewish history, beginning shortly after the writing of the Talmud and continuing until today. today. We see this skeptical attitude towards Talmudic medicine already in the writings of Rav Sherira Gaon, the head of the Pumbedita academy in the 10th century, who simply says that “our sages were not doctors”.

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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