Rabbinic, Medieval, and Early Modern History of Healing

The evolution of attitudes towards physicians, beliefs connecting illness and sin, prayers for healing, and the use of folk healing traditions.

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In this vein, European Jews of the 16th through 18th centuries compiled extensive prayer manuals for healing the sick, which included elements of petition, confession, and gematria [in which the numerical value of Hebrew letters is used to evoke additional meaning associated with particular words]. They also developed extensive community curing rituals, formed brotherhoods to visit the sick, established inns for the infirm, and encouraged the founding of Jewish hospitals in many European cities.

Folk Traditions

Other than prayer and visiting the sick, the Talmud repeatedly cautioned against cures involving heretical books, idolatrous foods, or immoral actions. Nevertheless, Jewish mystics continued to practice numerous folk healing traditions until the modern period. This was especially true when authoritative texts failed to address particular situations, allowing popular practices to supplant or even contradict rabbinical sanctions.

Torah scrolls were at times placed on sick bodies to encourage healing, while kiddush wine [used in prayers sanctifying Sabbath and festivals] was applied to the eyes. Astrology and amulets were also widely used well into the 16th century. Rabbi Solomon Luria, in fact, even condoned consulting non-Jewish magicians for cures for illnesses caused by magic or evil spirits.

While the Talmud prescribed a variety of specific medical remedies, some rabbis decreed that certain of these cures, including talmudic exorcisms, were anachronistic, potentially dangerous, and could possibly expose rabbis to ridicule. In lieu of talmudic therapies, Jewish physicians employed accepted contemporary medical practices…..

In addition to prayer, medieval commentators such as Rashi and Maimonides suggested the close connection between health and obedience to God through following the commandments. For the rabbi-physician Maimonides, one was obliged to care for the body since the soul's well-being depended on it. One had to be physically healthy to follow God's commandments, for it was "impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator" (Maimonides,Mishneh Torah, Hilhot Deot 4:1).

Advocating Aristotle's golden mean in balancing personality characteristics, Maimonides also wrote extensively about insanity and its link to legal and moral responsibility, since those deemed insane were exempt from the expectations of halakhic [Jewish legal] observance….

Healing in the Hasidic Tradition

The Hasidic tradition, emerging in the 18th century, brought with it intense interest in the role of sin, illness, magic, and spiritual and physical healing. The founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov, often suggested healing methods at odds with those of Jewish physicians.

Hasidism generally maintained the link between sin and disease, viewing divine punishment to result from one's failure to follow the commandments. Physical and mental healing thus involved reestablishing a right relationship with God through such acts as prayer, devotional reading of psalms, fasting, and secret acts of charity.

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Laura J. Praglin received her Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She holds master's degrees from Chicago and Yale in religion and social work, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.