Jewish Healing & Magic

"Whatever is effective as a remedy is not witchcraft (Shabbat 67a)"--is that really the case?

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Mishnah Yoma 8 sets the precedent that non-kosher food may be consumed if it has a medicinal purpose. Examples are given in the commentary to that Mishnah (Yoma 84a) of treatments that include donkey flesh (for jaundice) or dog liver (for rabies).

Like Curing Like

In the talmudic age, remedies were mostly based on the principle of similia similibus curantur, using natural materials and treatments that seemed to have some analogous/symbolic association with an illness. An example of this homeopathic approach would be using parts of a bush--think of "burning" bush--to obtain a cure for a fever (Ketubot 50a; Gittin 69a; Shabbat 67a).

This use of material chosen for its "logical" suitability as a treatment dominates in both early Jewish medicinal and magical texts. Occasionally, rabbinic literature will describe a medicinal recipe containing noxious ingredients, such as animal excrement, earth from a grave, or gall. Poultices, curative broths, and topical mixtures, again frequently crafted from the most unlikely materials, were also common (Gittin 68b-69a).

Cupping and bloodletting, well-established traditional treatments of antiquity, continued to enjoy favor, even though the Talmud itself expresses serious doubts about the efficacy of the former.

Faith healing--the belief that certain people had the power to heal residing in their touch--also appears in a famous passage in Tractate Berakhot. Two Rabbis in particular, Hiyya and Yohanan, were famous for having this healing power (Berakhot 5b).

The synagogue of antiquity was not only a place of sacred assembly, but also a center for healing. Some early Church Fathers railed bitterly because their congregants were entering Jewish places of worship in search of treatment for their ailments. These complaints were often accompanied by accusations of Jewish sorcery, which suggests that various forms of spiritual and/or magical healing were common practice.

Jewish Healing Post-Antiquity

By the medieval period, Jewish medicine was increasingly based on naturalistic premises, which is to say that Jews were educated in the Galenic principles of the "four humors" as etiological theory and as a diagnostic tool. Treatments that were more empirically grounded, as opposed to magical and homeopathic, were becoming a larger part of medical practice. In fact, Jews became famous and sought-after as practitioners of scholarly Greek-style healing.

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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.