Medicine, Healing and the Jewish Tradition

Despite early theological objections, Jewish law views the practice of medicine as a mitzvah.

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The Torah, it is true, does not explicitly command us to practice medicine. On the other hand, it does instruct that one who causes a bodily injury to another must see to it that the injured person receives medical treatment (Exodus 21:19). From this verse, rabbinic tradition derives that a physician is permitted to practice medicine in the first place. This permission is essentially a "license" which allows the physician to engage in his craft without fear that he thereby frustrates the will of God.

Medical Practice as Mitzvah

Jewish law, however, understands the permission to practice medicine as a mitzvah, a requirement to do so. Some authorities derive this requirement from the general rule concerning the preservation of life, or pikuah nefesh. This rule itself is based upon Leviticus 18:5: "These are the mitzvot which one shall do and live by them," to which the Rabbis add: "and not die by them."

By this, they meant two things: that the performance of virtually any other mitzvah may be set aside if it is found to endanger life; and that the Torah itself sees the preservation of life as its highest goal, so that we are commanded to take all reasonable action, including the practice of medicine, necessary to protect our lives.

Others see medicine as an aspect of the duty to rescue those in danger: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Lev. 19:16).

Whatever its textual source, the status of medicine as mitzvah is unquestioned in Jewish religious thought; "whoever delays its performance is guilty of shedding blood."

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.