The ancient Jewish text preserves real-world remedies

Rabbis are typically turned to for spiritual advice, but the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of traditions written by Jews living in ancient Persia from AD 224-651, also has much medical content, according to a new book by a Cornell author Knowledge .

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

“The therapies are odd and inherently interesting texts and always make for the best class discussions,” said Mokhtarian, associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Herbert and Stephanie Neuman Chair in Jewish and Iranian Studies. He came to appreciate the complexity of the medical material in the Babylonian Talmud, also known as Bavli, while teaching the text to students.

“Compared to other Jewish cultures, the Babylonian Talmud downplays the role of God and sin in human sickness and health, instead promoting the idea that God authorized man to heal himself by using the natural world He created like plants and animals.” Mokhtarian wrote.

He spoke to 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 day-long fever, which involves trapping an ant in a tube and reciting a phrase that transmits the fever to the ant:

Abaye said: Mother said to me, take a silver for a daytime fever add coin and go to a salt pit and weigh its weight in salt, and [then] tie [the salt] at the vacant part of the neck with a yellow cord. If not, you should sit at an intersection and if you see a big ant carrying something, you should take it [the ant] and put it in a bronze tube and close it with lead and seal it with sixty seals and shake it and scatter it and say yes [the ant]: “My burden on you, your burden on me.”

Q: Your book often mentions medicine and magic in close proximity, 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. Of course, there has been a long debate among scholars of various disciplines about the proper definitions and uses in using the category of magic to study ancient cultures. Magic is a large category that includes amulets, spells, voodoo dolls, astrology, exorcisms – including healing and medicine, among others.

Most scholars of rabbinic literature study medicine as a subcategory of magic. On the one hand, this choice is logical since healing was certainly one of the core goals of ancient magical texts and artifacts. The ancient Jews believed in the power and effectiveness of compassionate rituals and powerful words and objects to control harmful supernatural demons and physical illnesses.

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 subsume Talmudic medicine under the category of magic tend to ignore therapies that have few, if any, identifiable magical elements, such as those that use natural ingredients to consume them or apply to the body. It is these latter therapies – the more empirical ones, so to speak – that actually make up the bulk of the Talmudic medical tradition.

Q: Is there good practical medical advice in the Babylonian Talmud today, in the age of advanced medicine? Or any that are particularly offbeat or downright dangerous?

A: Historically, rabbis had different criteria and ideas about how to determine whether a particular therapy was effective or not. The rabbis probably believed that the therapies worked, otherwise they would not have recorded them in the Talmud. There is no reason to deny that some of the more empirical therapies (e.g. potions, medicines, ointments, etc.) that rely on detailed knowledge of the medicinal properties of certain plant and animal parts may have been effective treatment of certain ailments.

However, it is largely assumed today that most (though not all) of the archaic therapies in the Talmud would not be considered effective by today’s scientific standards. Indeed, it is this impression that the therapies are magical, superstitious, and ineffective that led to a longstanding marginalization of therapies throughout Jewish history, beginning soon after the publication of the Talmud and continuing to this day. One sees this skeptical attitude towards Talmudic medicine as early as the writings of Rav Sherira Gaon, the head of the Pumbedita Academy in the 10th century, who simply says that “our sages were not physicians”.

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

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