Demons & Medieval Jewish Medicine

Jewish physicians in the Middle Ages were also considered superior magicians.

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Many of the anti-demoniacal charms and physical agents were really medicinal and therapeutic. In order for the magician to be successful, it was necessary for him to have a broad knowledge and understanding of medical and astrological as well as religious remedies.

Originally, demons were held responsible for all disease, as they were believed to disturb the harmony of the humors. Demons were particularly prone to cause a strained neck, epilepsy, lunacy, incurable diseases, and plica polonica, or koltenes (knots in the hair, tangled and interwoven, which according to some doctors was considered dangerous).

Until very recently, the most feared disease was the plague, which struck without warning. Since physicians were admittedly powerless before the plague, it was no wonder that people utilized any available sympathetic remedies. In such cases Jews frequently called upon the assistance of Rabbi Meir Baal ha-Nes.

Magic & Healing

Preventive measures against cholera included the hanging of a loaf of bread and a bottle of rose water in the house while reciting Psalm 27:5:
"For He conceals me in His pavilion in the day of evil;

He hides me in the covert of His tent;

He lifts me up upon a rock."

These and other remedies were listed in Taame Haminhagim (IV:87). It is apparent that the anti-demonic measures were frequently not any more effective than the medical remedies of the time, with lack of success attributed either to inappropriate time or inaccurate performance of the magical act.

Since demons were held responsible for disease, medicine became the legitimate province of the sorcerer. Jewish physicians, though not completely free from the general superstitious attitude, were among the foremost practitioners of scientific medicine in medieval times. This was due to the Jewish physician's knowledge of various languages, the availability of Judeo-Arabic and Greek medical works in Hebrew, and the Jewish physician's freedom from the church and its belief in miraculous cures.

Since drugs and poisons were synonymous terms to the medieval mind, the doctor was also considered a superior magician. The early association of medicine with spirits may be seen in the Septuagint, or Greek translation of Isaiah 26:14, where refaim

("shades") is translated as rofim ("physicians").

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