IRRATIONAL MEDICAL BELIEFS.
SUPERSTITIOUS, OCCULT and
evolution of medicine from a primitive fight against evil spirits, demons,
witches and astrological omens into a rational science was a long and tedious
process. The modern outlook on disease and healing as the manifestation and
treatment of purely natural phenomena only dates from the 17th century. Popular
beliefs in the grossest superstitions even among civilised
peoples to the present day show how difficult it is to dislodge the deeply-rooted faith in supernatural and occult forces.
Throughout almost the length of human history, the disposition of the stars was considered a more potent cause of illness than
indifference to cleanliness. Amulets and magic formulae ranked equally with
herbs and minerals among the main materia medica, while impostors skilled in sorcery and
witchcraft competed successfully with the scholastically proficient alumni of
the medical schools as advisers of the sick.
were, of course, periods when some gleams of reason penetrated the clouds of
obscurantism. The medical systems of classic Egypt
in particular, had been remarkably free from the aberrations of sophistry and
intellectual blindness. Yet, among the often quite rational prescriptions in
the Egyptian papyri we also find
references to magic and exorcism.
In the opinion of one scholar, "there cannot be the slightest doubt that
Egyptian medicine is the direct offspring of Egyptian magic, and that it never
became really emancipated from its parent". In Greece,
Hippocratic medicine flourished side by side with the cult of AESCULAPIUS whose
popularity among the masses remained virtually unaffected by the early progress
of medical science.
GALEN himself is said to have sought healing in a temple of AESCULAPIUS
and to have recommended amulets and other charms for various diseases. The Greek assault on human credulity and
superstition met with a notable, even relatively lasting, success; but eventually,
with the decay of the civilisation born a thousand
years earlier, rational medicine also retreated before the wave of unreason and
mysticism in the first few centuries of the Current Era. The introduction of
magical elements into classical medicine was due mainly to the two Greek
writers, ALEXANDER of Tralles and AETIUS of Amida, both of the 6th century; thereafter the essential characteristics
of European medicine, with comparatively few exceptions, differed little from
what they had been for more than a millenium before
the emergence of Hellenistic thought and culture.
appreciate the historical background to the relevant Jewish literature, a
further consideration is necessary. Due to a variety of factors, historical and
especially perhaps religio-cultural, neither Egypt
nor Greece—the two homes of rational medicine in ancient times—appears to have
exerted any material influence on the scientific outlook of the Talmud. The
foremost historian of talmudic
medicine, PREUSS, regards it as significant that there is no trace in the
Talmud of the three chief factors in the Egyptian system of dietetics and
prophylactics: the use of enemas, sneezing-stimulants and emetics. Again, although scores of Greek names
occur in the Talmud, none (as has been observed) is of a man of science. It is perhaps
also not without significance that even the Zohar,
in discussing the religious attitude to healing, of all classical
physicians mentions only KRITO.
It is, therefore, apparent that whatever foreign influences were
brought to bear on the development
talmudic thought came from the East rather than the
West, particularly when it is remembered that it was the Babylonian Talmud, and
not its Palestinian counterpart, which became the accepted guide to Jewish
countries in and near Mesopotamia were not
merely the cradle of human civilisation; they also represented the original home of astrology and
the occult virtues. As a specialised study has shown, on the
basis of numerous sources, it was particularly in Babylonia and Assyria that the widespread "Volksmedizin"
still practised today had its origin. Their
ancient medical systems were, almost entirely, of an irrational character.
Among the Parsees, "those who cured diseases by prayer alone were looked
upon as the most excellent doctors; they were, so to speak, 'doctors of
doctors'. Then came those who ordered medicinal herbs,
and the lowest place was assigned to those who handled the knife". The very word "Chaldean" (Babylonian)
is used as a synonym with "soothsayer". Babylonia possessed no medical schools
did, and its system of medicine was mainly of a supernatural order in which it was "the task of the
priest-physician to discover and interpret the intention of the gods in order
to placate them".
Such, then, was the cultural background in which the foundations of rabbinic
law were laid; it was in this climate of magic and
superstition that the medical concepts of the Jewish people and its leaders
first took shape.
the middle ages, too, Jews found themselves mostly in an environment where the
popular form of medical thought and practice was of the crudest order. As an example
of the widespread belief in supernatural forces, reference might
be made to the extraordinary part played by astrology in medieval
medicine. As late as 1699, the Paris Faculty discussed the thesis:
"Whether comets were harbingers of disease". At Bologna University
astrology was one of the regular studies in the medical department. No less a scholar than ROGER BACON had stated: "If a doctor is ignorant of 'astronomy' [i.e.
astrology], his medical treatment will be dependent upon chance and
fortune", while another doctor had asserted early in the 14th century:
"Those doctors who are ignorant of astronomy kill many patients". The common belief in the effect of
heavenly bodies on illness is well illustrated by the
term "influenza", short for "influenza coelestia". To this
day, the long-lived association between medicine and astrology is still
symbolically indicated by the R-sign at the head of doctors'
prescriptions—probably a remnant of Jupiter's zodiac sign used on
medical prescriptions since shortly after the beginning of the Common Era. The irrational outlook on medicine,
therefore, was not peculiar to ignorant laymen alone;
its universality was virtually unchallenged in medieval times.
the human addiction to unreasoned beliefs has, in fact,
produced only negative effects in the wider sphere of social relations
is open to some doubt. In his learned "defence
of superstition", the leading authority in this field, FRAZER, has put
forward a convincing claim that "among certain races and at certain times,
superstition has strengthened the respect for government . . . , private
property . . . , marriage . . . , and human life . . . ". In any case, it is not, of course, the
task of theology or religious leadership to correct all human illusions and
errors of scientific judgment, and it would be illogical to hold the teachings
of religion responsible for the persistence of such fallacious beliefs as are
strictly outside its province. There is, therefore, nothing intrinsically
irreligious in the approbation of medical teachings which do
not correspond with the more enlightened outlook of our age, except in
so far as these teachings may involve idolatrous practices or resort to remedies causing greater
spiritual damage than physical benefits.
The reality of demons, magic and other occult virtues
has been acknowledged by religious guides of all faiths. In Christianity,
the tradition of exorcising people "possessed of devils" goes back to
the New Testament, where such cases are quite frequently found, though there is no mention of them in
the Hebrew Bible.
In the 5th century, St. AUGUSTINE declared: "All
diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to demons", and this belief was shared by ORIGEN,
TERTULLIAN and GREGORY of Nazianzus. Pope INNOCENT VIII issued a bull to
provide the faithful with an efficacious formula for exorcising incubuses who
assailed the chastity of women.
His bull "Summis Desiderantis"
of 1484, which regarded witches as a factor in disease, storms and various
human misfortunes, paved the way for what has been called
"one of the most fearful monuments of theological reasoning and human
massacre of witches, involving 100,000 victims in Germany alone, between the years
1550 and 1650. Much of early Arabian practice, too, was based
on amulets with a distinctly religious flavour.
Often they would consist, for example, of a phrase from the Koran
which had to be written by a priest on a Friday, shortly before
sunset, with ink containing certain drugs.
time to time we also hear more enlightened voices
raised against the prevailing superstitions in the name of theology. Already in the 7th century, St. ELIGIUS, or ELOY, Bishop of Noyon, declared in a sermon: "... you shall observe
none of the impious customs of the pagans, neither sorcerers, nor diviners, nor
soothsayers, nor enchanters; nor must you presume for any cause, or for
any sickness, to consult or enquire of them, for he who commits this sin loses
unavoidably the grace of baptism . . . Let none presume to hang amulets on the
neck of man or beast; even though they be made by clergy, and called holy things,
and contain the words of Scripture . . . , for they are fraught . . . with the
poison of the Devil. . . . Moreover, as often as any sickness occurs, do
not seek enchanters ... or make devilish amulets . . . , but let him who is
sick trust only in the mercy
of God .
. . and faithfully seek consecrated oil from the church . . . ". In general, the Church offered strong opposition
to witchcraft and astrology, even though the latter in
particular was widely tolerated and taught everywhere. But, on the
whole, neither Christianity nor Islam regulated the employment of occult
remedies in precise terms showing the border-line between lawful and unlawful
cures involving magic and the like, as was done by the masters of Jewish law.
sources, and more especially the Talmud, abound with references to the occult
virtues both in legend and law. Those mentioned in the
Talmud are almost all of Babylonian or Persian origin. Already HAI Gaon, the head of the Pumpaditha Academy,
wrote at the end of the 10th century: "Sorcery
and amulets sprang from the Sura
Academy, because that lies near to Babylonia and to the house of NEBUCHADNEZZAR". But in general
the Talmud largely retained the biblical hostility to superstition. The next
great influx of demonological and magical ideas into Jewish writings occurred mainly
in the 13th century. GUEDEMANN, who has subjected the superstitious practices
among Jews at that period to a very thorough comparative study, has adduced
various parallels from non-Jewish sources for every such practice found in
He has shown that the intrusion of these beliefs into Jewish works on such a
large scale was an entirely new phenomenon for which no precedent could be found either in the Talmud or in rabbinic writings
before the 13th century.
He regards the exclusive use of Latin, French or German expressions—-or their
crude translation into an artificial Hebrew—to describe the different
categories of demons in Hebrew sources as conclusive proof that "we are
not dealing here with originally Jewish superstitions". It is also significant that the
"epidemic of superstition" affected predominantly the Jewish
communities in the Franco-German regions of the Rhineland,
where the general level of enlightenment
low, whereas the Jews of Spain
and Southern France—and,
to a lesser degree, of Northern France, too —were protected from the crudest
excesses of such irrational beliefs by the superior standard of culture around
them. The essentially foreign character of occult usages is again revealed by
the fact that Jews evidently repaired to monks for the exorcising of evil
spirits, as suggested by the refusal of AMATUS LUSITANUS to treat a Jewish boy
in such circumstances.
Among medieval Jewish authors, there were especially
two who distinguished themselves by their enlightened attitude in this sphere. ABRAHAM IBN EZRA denied in set terms the very
existence of demons.
This was indeed "a remarkable feat for the 12th century", making IBN EZRA "one of the first
medieval theologians of church or synagogue to denounce the popular belief in
the ubiquity of minor representations of the supernatural". The second, and in many ways even more
radical, protagonist of this view was MAIMONIDES who even modified some halachic rulings through the re-interpretation of talmudic laws based on the existence of demons.
chief medieval codes, in their outlook on superstitious practices, contain
some elements of all these diverse currents. In the main, they faithfully and
uncritically reflect the approach of the talmudic
savants. The great majority of the irrational beliefs these codes recorded are drawn directly from the Talmud; so is their strong
opposition to sorcery and the generally sober discretion with which they
repeatedly sift the true from the dubious. While incorporating some of the
occult usages which had intruded into Jewish life in
the earlier Middle Ages, they also assimilated important features of the
enlightened attitude of MAIMONIDES, particularly his belief in the futility of
magic charms and incantations
(Y.D., clxxix.6). Significant, too, is their complete silence on the
many folkloristic prescriptions for strengthening one's memory and the warning
against acts thought to impair it—based on
popular beliefs found in the Talmud
and medieval rabbinic writings
often strikingly similar to the views on aids and impediments to memory given
in Mohammedan sources.
There is, therefore, no complete uniformity in the general outlook on
irrational practices in the classic formulations of Jewish law.
codes naturally reveal but few clues to the rabbinic theories of aetiology. But such hints as there
are betray a decidedly rational tendency and a pronounced aversion to assigning
the cause of all diseases to fortuitous chance or divine punishment. Thus the law distinguishes between "accidents" and
"negligence" as factors leading to illness; a person is
"negligent" if he falls ill through walking in the snow in the winter
or in the heat in the summer
(H.M., clxxvii.2). Similarly, it was recognised that a man's reproductive faculties
could be impaired by persistent immersion in water or snow (E.H., v.13) and
that disease could be aggravated by disobeying the doctor's orders (H.M., cdxx. 20). The limitation of fate and other
adventitious causes is also indicated by the
assumption that superior medical skill is likely to result in more effective
cures (ib., 22-24). Again, the widespread mystical
fear that dispositions made during life, and especially on the sickbed, for the
eventuality of death may portend evil is boldly challenged as unfounded; one
should advise a gravely sick person to settle his affairs in time, "and he
should not be afraid of death on this account" (Y.D., cccxxxv.7)—for
"words cause neither life nor death". In the same way, the dying should be encouraged
to recite the confessional prayer with the assurance that "many have confessed
and did not die, and many who did not confess died" (Y.D.,
most important factor determining the attitude of Jewish law to superstition
is, of course, its prohibition of sorcery and allied practices. The biblical
interdict under this heading expressly includes, apart from sorcery and
witchcraft, the practices of divination, soothsaying, the consulting of
auguries, magic spells and necromancy (Deut. xviii.10 and 11). Moreover,
the closely attached command "Thou shalt be
perfect with the Lord thy God" (ib., 13) is rabbinically
interpreted to extend the ban to prognostication by horoscope or the casting
of lots (Y.D., clxxix.1, and gloss).
the various superstitions, sorcery and witchcraft are the most severely condemned. The reality or possible efficacy of the
sorcerer's powers was not in question; even the Shulhan
'Arukh on two occasions still objects to certain
practices in the exercise of bodily functions "on account of sorcery"
(O.H., iii.3 and 11). On the other hand, the rabbis went so far as to
make some religious concessions in order to remove from Jews even the suspicion
of sorcery among their Gentile neighbors. Thus the talmudic law to lower the couch as a sign of mourning was no longer observed, "lest the
non-Jews will say they practise witchcraft" (Y.D.,
ccclxxxvii.2). Several more concessions for this purpose can be cited from various rabbinic works. It has been shown
that this fear of arousing the suspicion of Gentiles originated mainly in the
15th century, when the dreaded resort to witchcraft by the "heretics"
was popularly attributed to Jews, too.
the use of sorcery for medical ends was exempted from
the prohibition was a moot and much debated question raised by various medieval
According to some views, the appropriate usages in the Middle
Ages were no longer of the idolatrous type banned in the Bible as sorcery
proper; hence, the consideration of the precept to "be perfect with the
Lord" could be waived if such measures were adopted to effect cures. But others held
that the original ban continued to stand, and that it could be overridden only
in cases of grave danger to life; all agree that sorcery may then be resorted to. According to yet another view, such cures
may be used only to heal conditions believed to have
been likewise caused by witchcraft.
Rabbinic literature, in fact, mentions several instances of Jewish patients
invoking the aid of sorcerers.
But it is significant that the practitioners consulted
were nearly always non-Jews.
akin to sorcery are the idolatrous customs termed in rabbinic writings
"the ways of the Emorites"—the nearest
rabbinic equivalent to "superstitious practices" in general. Their identification with the cult of
another specified nation illustrates once again the Jewish consciousness that
such practices were essentially foreign in origin and character, and banned because of their heathen, if
not idolatrous, nature. A very long list of acts falling within this category is given in the Talmud, particularly in the Tosephta.
But the Talmud expressly excludes from this
category "anything done for the sake of healing". The codes, too, accept this ruling (O.H.,
ccci.27); hence, it is permitted (even on Sabbaths) to carry as
amulets the egg of a certain species of locust (against ear-ache),
the tooth of a fox (against insomnia or drowsiness), or a nail from the gallows
CHARMS AND INCANTATIONS
rabbis often discussed the question whether incantations and amulets were, in
principle, included among the general provisions regarding "the ways of
the Emorites". ADRETH, who dealt with this issue at great
length, inclines to the view that the ban extends only to the practices
expressly enumerated in the Talmud. ASHERI also rules that charms used for the
promotion of health are covered by the exemption of
"anything done for the sake of healing". But
holds that the exemption does not include
although even he appears to restrict the prohibition of magic therapy only to
acts not performed on the patient himself. KARO decides that all magic measures are
permitted, so long as their futility has not been conclusively exposed by
but he adds that there are some who object to any "untested" amulet
as belonging to "the ways of the Emorites" (ib.). In this latter view he follows MAIMONIDES, who permits only such
supernatural cures as have been found efficacious on the evidence of
physicians, particularly when their employment would violate any religious
KARO also agrees with MAIMONIDES that such charms as whispering an incantation
over a scorpion's bite "are of no avail whatever"; they are
permitted only in cases of grave danger, "so as not to distract the
patient's mind" (Y.D., clxxix.6)—that is, to calm him by suggestive
As with sorcery, the practices listed as belonging to "the ways of the Emorites" are likewise, in the opinion of various
authorities, to be treated as heathen beliefs only
"in the former times" when idolatry was rampant. The 13th century Sepher
Hasidim, for instance, mentions with approval several practices
which had been prohibited in the Talmud as "Emorite"
customs, because— as a commentator
explains—they were no longer peculiar to the pagan cult of the "Emorites" who had long ceased to be identified with
differentiated from sorcery are some supernatural aids to therapy, especially
incantations and amulets to which reference is made
most frequently in the codes. The general attitude to their employment, as far
as they border on sorcery or idolatry, has already been
considered. It now remains to collect and classify these distinct
beliefs and customs, largely on the basis of the many
quite incidental references to them in the codifications of Jewish law.
medical effectiveness of incantations was, as we have seen, never in doubt. But that such procedures were regarded as quite harmless is
shown by the permission to
heathens for cures by the whispering of charms, notwithstanding the general ban
on accepting medical treatment or drugs from them "because we are afraid
of bloodshed" (Y.D., clv.1), there being no danger to the
patient's life in this case.
Incantations to heal a scorpion's bite are permitted
even on the Sabbath (Y.D., clxxix.6), despite the rabbinic objection to
indulgences normally incompatible with the spirit of that holy day. Similarly, it is allowed to charm snakes
or scorpions to prevent injury by them (ib., 7), and such acts are not
deemed to violate the Sabbath law against hunting or capturing animals (O.H., cccxxviii.45).
But there are restrictions—detailed in the
—on the incantatory recitation of scriptural verses over wounds or stricken
children, unless life is in danger.
amulets mentioned in our sources usually were pendants containing some written
text—presumably a mystical formula or biblical verses. These were
generally worn by the user at all times to cure, or more often to
prevent, certain ailments.
Various other objects, too, are mentioned as
efficacious against specific complaints. We have already referred to some
talismans and their purpose.
To prevent or heal bruises, a coin tied to the sole of the foot was worn (O.H.,
ccci.28); it was suggested that the healing properties of this talmudic remedy were derived "from the moisture
exuded by the silver of the coin and also from the imprint stamped upon
Finally, mention is made of a "preserving stone" (O.H.,
ccciii.24.) which, as was widely believed in ancient times, was supposed to
guard the wearer against the danger of miscarriage.
Regarding the use of amulets in general, a distinction
is made between their prophylactic and therapeutic employment in the following
ruling: "It is permitted to make medical use of amulets, even if they
contain [divine] names; similarly, it is allowed to wear amulets containing
scriptural verses, provided they serve to protect the wearer from falling ill
and not to heal him when afflicted with a wound or a disease. But it is forbidden to write scriptural verses on
amulets" (Y.D., clxxix.12).
Most references to amulets, as to many other subjects of medical interest,
occur among the extensive Sabbath laws. The issue is whether, and on what
terms, it is permitted to carry them outside private
property, seeing that the removal of anything not strictly part of one's
wearing apparel constitutes a desecration of the Sabbath (O.H., ccci.7). In
the case of the above-listed charms and talismans, sanction for their wear on
the Sabbath is invariably given if medically indicated, but there are
reservations in regard to ordinary amulets. Only those
may be worn in public places on the Sabbath as are
"tested by experience". What constitutes such "experience"
is defined in very great detail (ib., 25).
Briefly stated, amulets are considered
"approved" if either the script or its writer has proved efficacious
in three separate cases where the same magic formula was used. A like
"test" is also applied to amulets consisting
of roots. All such "approved" charms may be taken
out on the Sabbath by persons who suffer from, or are genetically disposed to,
any ailment, however mild (ib.). Domestic animals, too, may carry
amulets on the Sabbath, but again only if they are "tested"; at the
same time, those "approved" for human beings are not necessarily
efficacious, and thus sanctioned, for animals (O.H., cccv.17, gloss). But the mere handling of any kind of amulet is permitted on
the Sabbath, even if it is "untested" (O.H., cccviii.
33). Whether amulets containing biblical verses may be
rescued from the flames on the Sabbath is the subject of a rabbinic
(O.H., cccxxxiv.14.). Amulets, if they bear sacred inscriptions, may not be taken into a privy unless they are enclosed in
leather (Y.D., cclxxxii.6).
contrast to amulets and incantations, demons and their exorcism are only very
rarely mentioned in Jewish law, although they constituted (as we have seen) an
important element in the medical theories of ancient and medieval times.
While the codes (apart from that of MAIMONIDES), following the Talmud, clearly affirm
the belief in the existence of demons, references to them occur almost
exclusively in entirely non-medical contexts. The marriage laws, for instance,
twice accept the possibility that certain unauthenticated statements heard to
come from a field, or a pit, or a ruin may have been made by a demon, thus invalidating
the alleged evidence (E.H., xvii.10, and cxli.19). In the 16th
century, faith in the power of these supernatural beings was so strong that a
leading rabbi seriously discussed the question whether a certain woman, alleged
to have had intercourse with "a spirit or demon called 'Tracht' ", should be separated from her husband as
It is all the more remarkable that the codes make no mention of demons as a
cause of illness. The only two relevant references to them
are (i) the rather cautious statement that "in
regard to the consultation of demons, whatever is permitted on weekdays is
also permitted on Sabbaths" (O.H., cccvii.18), and (ii) the
warning, first found in the Zohar that
"most people who engage in this [employment of demons, even for the sake
of the sick]
will not escape in peace from them; hence, he who wishes to guard himself
should keep away from them" (Y.D., clxxix.16, gloss). But outside the codes, some rabbis deal at length with the
legal relationship between demons and sorcery. KARO holds that the recourse to demons for
healing purposes need not generally be regarded as
common demons, some other supernatural beings and forces also appear occasionally.
A species of incubuses termed "destroyers" is
mentioned twice in connection with the laws of prayer (O.H., xc.6, and
cdlxxxi.2, gloss). Another spirit, known as "bitter
destruction", was believed to rule at certain hours during the three weeks
of national mourning ending on the Ninth of Av; hence, one should not walk alone during those hours or chastise
pupils on these days. (O.H., dli.18 and gloss).
The anxiety to put "the spirits of defilement" to flight, so that
they shall not enter into the grave with the dead, accounts for the custom
recorded by ISSERLES of setting down the bier every four cubits as it passes
through the cemetery
(Y.D., ccclviii.3)) gloss).
THE "EVIL SPIRIT" AND THE "EVIL
Reference is made somewhat
more frequently to "the evil spirit". It finds its way
into Jewish law in two entirely distinct forms. Firstly
it is to be found on one's hands or food. Thus, one should be
careful to pour water on one's hands three times every morning "in order
to remove the evil spirit resting on
(O.H., iv.2, et pass.; cf. dcxiii.2, gloss).
A similar spirit attaches to food or drinks under a bed (Y.D., cxvi.5) and to
water used for the washing of hands after
(O.H., clxxxi.2). The second manifestation of "the
evil spirit" may well be of a more rational type. In these
cases "the evil spirit", by possessing or "pursuing" human
beings, causes a condition which, as the context suggests and as MAIMONIDES and others assume, corresponds to any, or possibly
some specific, form of mental disease. The matrimonial regulations
refer to a husband, wishing to divorce his wife, who "is seized by the
evil spirit and turned insane" (E.H., cxxi.I).
Again, "an individual pursued by the evil spirit" is regarded as
being in immediate danger
(O.H., cclxxxviii. 10), and one may cry for
him even on the Sabbath when expressions of grief should normally be avoided (ib.,
9; and dlxxvi.13). Such a person should
also refrain from fasting "so as not to break his strength" (O.H.,
dlxxi.3). It was popularly believed that a person "in
whom the evil spirit had breathed" could be cured
by milk squirted on him by a nursing
but in the absence of danger this procedure must not be carried out on the
Sabbath (O.H., cccxxviii.35 gloss). Among other examples of folklore and
superstition which have crept into the codes, the
following should be mentioned. The "evil eye" has haunted men
since immemorial times,
and Jewish law refers to two remedies against its harmful effects.
For humans there was a special charm, which might be worn even on the Sabbath
(O.H., ccciii.15), whilst horses could be protected against the
"evil eye" by a fox-tail suspended between
their eyes—a charm with which they must not go out on the Sabbath (O.H.,
cccv.11). Following an old talmudic belief, for which the New Testament
also furnish parallels, the saliva of a man's first-born son served to heal
eye-diseases; in fact, the efficacy of such a cure could legally be
relied upon to support the claim for a double portion of inheritance which is
due only to a first-born son on the father's side (H.M., cclxxvii.13).
Other irrational remedies included the measuring of a sick
person's girdle to restore his health —an act also permitted on the Sabbath
(O.H., cccvi.7) —and the preservation, or perhaps interment, of the placenta
to keep a new-born child warm—an ancient practice which, again, does not
contravene the Sabbath laws
(O.H., cccxxx.7). ISSERLES records the advice of some
authorities to draw water every Saturday night, "since the well of MIRIAM
travels around all wells every Saturday night, and he who strikes upon it and
drinks from it is healed of all his ills" (O.H., ccxcix.10, gloss).
Among the few bad omens mentioned is a "tradition
that there is a certain hour during the months of Teveth
and Shevat, and that a slaughterer will die if he kills a goose at that hour
without eating of the bird" (Y.D., xi.4, gloss). Into a
similar category belongs the law that distant visitors should not call on the
sick before the lapse of three days (Y.D., cccxxxv.1), because a premature visit may
"shake his luck" by attaching the name of "patient" to him
Another portent of ill-fate was to submit to
blood-letting on the eve of festivals, particularly of Pentecost
(O.H., cdlxviii. 10, gloss). The custom to
respond "health!" to a sneeze—derived from popular fears which
survived for very long—also finds legal expression (O.H., clxx.I).
In the only codified reference to spiritualism, KARO permits one "to
abjure a sick person to return to the petitioner after death and to tell
whatever asked" (Y.D., clxxix.14); ISSERLES adds that this request
may be made even after the death of the medium, "so long as one abjures
not his corpse, but his spirit (ib., gloss).
The old belief—evidently also supported by modern
the cries of a foetus could be heard in the mother's
womb appears in the codes, although the Talmud did not consider this feasible
except if the head of the child had actually emerged from the birth-canal.
Such "vagitus uterinus"
determines a child's birth-day for fixing, eight days later, the date for
the circumcision, even if the birth was delayed by several days (Y.D.,
cclxii.4), unless the mother testified that the position of the foetus was entirely normal and that she felt no labour pains at the time (ib., gloss). As already noted, Jewish law also accepted the popular notion —
which infiltrated into the Talmud from non-Jewish sources, lasted among the
medical profession until the 18th century and still persists as a common
a child born in the eighth month of gestation is not likely to survive and is
to be treated as a non-viable birth (Y.D., cclxvi.
11); if such child nevertheless showed no signs of prematurity (i.e. the
absence of hair and nails), it is to be regarded as a seven-months' baby which
had "tarried" in the womb for another month.
We may conclude this list of folkloristic beliefs
scattered in the codes of Jewish law by two examples indicating that
concessions to superstitious fears were not always tolerated.
It is forbidden to say: "Slaughter the cock that
crows like a raven, or this hen that crows like a cock" (Y.D., clxxix.3); but others
permit this, provided one did not state why one wished the bird to be killed (ib.,
gloss). Again, an animal "slaughtered in the name of mountains ... or
heavenly bodies" is ritually unfit for consumption, "even if the intention
was not to perform an idolatrous act, but to serve medical ends ... on heathen
advice" (Y.D., iv.5).
Finally, we have to consider a closely related group
of beliefs which enjoyed a curiously widespread
popularity. So universal was the faith in the healing powers of repugnant
substances that this strange department of pharmacology was
given the special name "Dreckapotheke".
The prescription of drugs compounded of various offensive human and animal
excretions was as popular in the Ebers
Papyrus of ancient Egypt
as it still was in 1862 when Dr. JOHN HASTINGS wrote the pamphlet entitled: "Value of the Excreta of Reptiles in
Phthisis and some other Diseases". Trust
in such odd concoctions was not limited to quacks and
wonder-healers. GALEN, who had averred that he would "not
mention the abominable and detestable as XENOCRATES and others had done",
himself later included in his materia medica such items as dung of dogs, goats and doves, and
burnt human bones in drink.
PARACELSUS used human excrements for his drug "Zebethum
other repulsive medicines.
A hundred years later, MOSES CHARRAS's The Royal Pharmacopoeia (published
in 1678)—claimed as "the most scientific work of
again full of scatological directions.
On the whole, Jewish sources are surprisingly free from this evident
desire to repel the carriers of disease with the most nauseous weapons. We have
the evidence of a Christian scholar that "the 'Dreckapotheke'
which could be assembled from the talmudic
literature is greatly surpassed in unsavouriness by
what is to be read in the Ebers Papyrus, PLINY
PREUSS, too, collecting all the relevant talmudic
passages in a few lines, regards this group as "strikingly
small in comparison with the Greek
and Roman 'Dreckapotheke' ".
But his judgment that "this is manifestly connected with the general
disgust of oriental people for anything unclean and vile" is open to doubt
if one consults the Index to BUDGE's edition of the
Syrian Book of Medicines under such entries as "dung",
"excrements" and "urine". One will discover that an important
medical work of an oriental country situated between Palestine
and Babylonia—where the two parts of the
Talmud were produced a little later—was not at all
averse to recommending a wide variety of obnoxious compounds. The
reason for the paucity of such repulsive elements in Jewish sources must rather be sought in a different direction.
Judaism may well be the only
religion which invested the abhorrence of filthy food with the authority of a
legal enactment or which, indeed, offered any direct opposition to the
consumption of coprolitic substances: "It is
prohibited to consume food or drink containing an admixture of dirt or
excrements . . . Similarly, it is unlawful to eat or drink from filthy vessels
for which the human soul feels an aversion, such as vessels of a privy or
glass-receptacles used for bloodletting and the like; nor may one eat with
soiled hands . . . , for all this is included in the law: 'You shall not make
yourselves abominable' (Lev. xx.25)" (Y.D., cxvi.6). For the
same reason, it is forbidden to eat fish and edible
locust in a live state (Y.D., xiii.I, gloss).
The codes refer only twice to specific scatological
foods. While the authorities differ on the permissibility of the urine from
unclean animals, they agree that human urine is not forbidden
(Y.D., lxxxi.I). But this ruling is concerned
only with the ritual aspect of the question—that is, to indicate whether the
biblical ban on consuming certain animals covers
their urinary excretions; moreover, such
sanction as is given can be utilised for sick people
The second reference permits the consumption of "a burnt unclean
reptile" (including probably the carbonised
remains of any ritually impure substance) for medical purposes, but only
"because it is like mere
dust" (Y.D., lxxxiv.17). ISSERLES adds that the
sanction extends even to mildly ill persons, but in all such cases
the drug must be "known or prescribed by an approved physician"
(Y.D., clv.3, gloss). MORDECAI JAFFE and
generally exempt articles taken for medical reasons from the law "You
shall not make yourselves abominable". In some rabbinical responsa we find further references to some
offensive preparations, items such as snake broth, mummies' flesh and the pulverised ashes of human skulls. But
the refining influence of Judaism must have been strong indeed to explain the
absence from any code of Jewish law of references to the medicinal use of human
bones, menstrual blood,
animal faeces or other "nasty
recipes" which featured so prominently in the pharmaceutical armoury of the medieval practitioner.
The small segment of the cultural history of man surveyed
in this chapter may not be very edifying, nor can it be said
that the role played by religion in freeing the human mind from its mystical
encumbrances has been particularly conspicuous. Theology and superstition were only too often more in league than in conflict with each
other. But the deeper causes for this strange alliance
lay, perhaps, not so much in the fallibility of ecclesiastical leadership as in
man's innate psychology. Fear of the unknown, especially when accentuated by
acute physical or mental suffering, has always encouraged human recourse to
the supposed forces beyond man's limited comprehension. The hiatus created by
lack of knowledge must be filled by some belief. Creed
and credulity, though at opposite poles, spring largely from the same human
quest for security. Their relationship is, therefore, essentially
natural. But religion and superstition meet only at
their lowest level where the element of fear is their common denominator; their
association grows more tenuous in proportion to the degree to which the worship
of God is sublimated and divested of its primitive urges and emotional origins.
Judged by this standard, there can be little doubt as
to the place occupied by Judaism right up to the end of the Middle
Ages. Many of the above illustrations make it clear that, by
and large, Jewish law, where it did not altogether proscribe
superstitious practices, at best tolerated them as a concession to human
It found very little space for the faith-healer and
none at all for the professional quack — the favourite
character in the medical legislation of the past millenium
and more. It knew nothing of healing shrines or relics, and next to nothing of
the exorcism of demons. On the other hand, Jewish law treasured the protection
of human life so intensely that it was prepared, as a general rule, to give
the accepted claims of magic and the occult virtues, however questionable, the
benefit of the doubt, often even at the expense of its own religious
injunctions. For, whenever law and life are in conflict, Judaism usually shows
a strong bias in favour of life. The problems created
by such clashes, and their solution, will engage our attention in the
'Arukh evidently held that the child's sounds
could be heard in exceptional cases before the delivery of its head; for
it declares the 8-day period to commence "from the day its head emerged or
from the day it was heard to cry". Elsewhere, however, Karo (Y.D., cxciv. 12)
states expressly that "it is impossible to hear the child's voice if it
did not bring out the head outside the birth-canal"; but cf. P.T., a.l., 9. Maimonides, therefore, follows the Talmud
more accurately in omitting the reference to the child's crying altogether and
in dealing only with the emergence of the head as determining the birth-day (Hil. Milah, i.15). According to Isserles (E.H., iv.14, gloss),
incidentally, it was possible that an embryo aborted after
less than five month's gestation could be heard to cry at birth before its
death; see He.M., a.l.,