Illness & Healing

The Bible sees folk healing as idolatrous.

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A Long Transition From Magical to Scientific Healing

Although rabbinic texts record some stories of magical healers, the rabbis generally downplayed their role because they represented a challenge to rabbinic authority. The rabbis did not make the kinds of distinctions we do today between magical and nonmagical practices; although they denounced magic, they sometimes sanctioned the use of charms and incantations.

The association of magical healing practices with idolatry and the injunctions against contact with blood and corpses limited the development of the medical profession. Only with the influence of Hellenistic views on "scientific" medicine was there an increasing acceptance of physicians as healers; the Talmud, for example, actually prohibited Jews from living in a city without a physician. The rabbis also maintained that God himself authorized and, in fact, required medicine and healing.

The medieval law codes continued to accept folk healing remedies, but also stated explicitly that the Torah mandates the physician to heal both Jews and non-Jews. However, commentators also emphasized the connection between health and following the commandments.

Even as the attitude towards physicians became more positive, God was still considered the primary healer, and prayers for healing became part of Jewish daily liturgy, recited three times a day. Also, special Misheberakh prayers were recited during the Sabbath Torah service seeking healing for ill persons not present.

Despite the general trend away from folk healing traditions, mystics practiced them until the modern period. The 18th-century Hasidim, who were inheritors of the mystic tradition, saw illness as a punishment for not following the commandments; they believed that healing was a consequence of putting one's relationship to God back in balance--by praying, reading psalms, fasting, and giving charity.

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