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According to rabbinic lore, there was no aging process until Abraham and no disease until Jacob (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Sanhedrin 107b). According to legend, death came instantly through a sneeze, returning to God the “breath of life” breathed in through the nostrils at creation (Genesis 2:7). This is the origin of responding with expressions meaning “To your health!” when someone sneezes.
Apocryphal or not, disease and injury have accompanied humanity ever since, with the transition from life to death becoming increasingly long and complicated.
Jews’ close connection to healing, both as patients and physicians, is ancient and rooted in both theology and history. In many religions in ancient times, and still in some today, the idea of medical treatment was anathema, even heresy. Disease, accident and deformity were considered no less parts of God’s creation than human beings themselves. Medical treatment was considered meddling with God’s work and will.
Judaism generally views medical treatment positively, even as an obligation, based on verses such as Exodus 21:19, commanding a injuring party to “surely heal” the person he has hurt, and Deuteronomy 4:15: “Take very good care of yourselves.” Maimonides (the outstanding 12th-century philosopher and talmudist of Spain and North Africa) viewed the provision of medical care as part of the duty to return to a person “anything he has lost” (Deuteronomy 22:3). There were once dissident voices that claimed that verses like Exodus 15:26 (“I am the Lord, your healer”) meant that disease was to be left to God and that the duty to heal in Exodus 21:19 was limited to human-caused injury, but this approach was never widely accepted.
Jewish communities from early on accorded high status to the physician, and many leading rabbis and scholars–from the talmudic period through the Middle Ages and beyond–were physicians as well, including Maimonides. Also, in certain societies, particularly Europe in the Middle Ages and later, medicine was one of the few professions open to Jews.
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