Bava Kamma 85

A good doctor is hard to find.

Finding a good doctor can be hard. Finding a good doctor who is accepting new patients can be even harder. And those difficulties are further compounded when you’re trying to find a doctor to treat a specific injury caused by violence, and the assailant is required to pay the medical expenses. 

Today’s daf recognizes that these difficulties can lead the assailant to try to intervene in their victim’s medical care in inappropriate ways. So today’s daf does something that we don’t often see in our journey through the Talmud: It gives us some simple and clear answers. These answers come in the form of scripts that the injured party can, or maybe must, use to respond to these attempted interventions. 

And if he says: “I will heal you,” say to him: “You are to me as a predatory lion.”

According to the American Medical Association’s code of ethics, physicians should generally avoid treating members of their immediate family since that could compromise their professional objectivity. The Talmud here notes that professional objectivity is also compromised when treating someone you injured. 

While it’s certainly possible that a doctor treating their own victim might be incentivized to let them die (after all, it’s cheaper to pay a one-time fine than a lifetime of medical expenses related to an injury), it’s also true that their objectivity might be compromised in the other direction: Feelings of guilt over causing the injury might lead a doctor to try more extreme interventions than appropriate, or take greater risks to try to undo the harm they caused. 

And if he says: “I will bring a doctor who heals for no cost,” say to him: “A doctor who heals for no cost is worth nothing.”

Medicine is a profession. Like all professions, it requires — and deserves — financial compensation. And like all professions, it has its own professional standards — of care, ethics and excellence. This script recognizes that someone who doesn’t see medicine as a profession may not be held by others — or hold themselves — to the appropriate standards.

Thus far, the scripts the Talmud offers align neatly with modern attitudes toward medicine. But the last script is a little different. 

And if he says: I will bring you a doctor from a distant place, say to him: A doctor from a distant place blinds the eye. 

Today, people might travel far distances to find a doctor who specializes in a particular kind of injury, but in the days before boards of accreditation, personal reputation and communal connections were all a doctor had to prove their qualifications. A medical professional from a distant place might not have been qualified and there would be no way to know. Or even if they were qualified, they might not be bringing their A-game to a patient far away who wouldn’t affect how they were perceived in their home community. And even if they did bring their A-game, what if some kind of complication from treatment arose once they had returned home and were no longer available? Better to stick to a local doctor who is accountable to their community and relies on positive outcomes to build their reputation and clientele. 

In both talmudic times and today, then, a good doctor may be hard to find, but finding the right doctor is ultimately worth it.

Read all of Bava Kamma 85 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 26th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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