Gittin 69

Scorpion in the eye.

Yesterday’s daf introduced remedies for different types of headaches and today’s daf lists remedies for various eye, nose and mouth-related conditions. For example, the first malady is called beroketi, a cataract, for which the Talmud recommends as follows:

Bring a seven-colored scorpion, dry it in the shade and grind two portions of kohl and one portion from (the dried scorpion). One should place three eyebrushes full in this eye and three eyebrushes full in that eye. One should not place more than that, for if one is not careful the eye will burst.

Got cataracts? Put ground scorpion in your eye! Other remedies on today’s daf employ animal hair ropes, pottery shards, raw meat, vinegar, ashes, lentils, beets, clay, and the spleen of a firstborn animal (to name a few) as medicine. Thankfully, our medical knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds and no one relies on the scorpion cure for cataracts (or any of the others on today’s daf). Indeed, already in the time of the Geonim — the heads of the Babylonian academies in centuries following the redaction of the Talmud — Jews were explicitly warned not to heed talmudic medical advice. When asked about the remedies listed on our daf, Rav Sherira Gaon wrote:

“We need to say to you that our rabbis were not doctors, and what they recommended were the remedies accepted for their times and on a case-by-case basis; they are not commanded. Therefore, one should not rely on these medicines until they have been tested with certainty by knowledgeable doctors and known not to cause any harm and won’t put anyone in danger. And so our ancestors and their ancestors taught us not to use these medicines, except for the ones that are known to be harmless, such as an amulet …” (Otzar HaGeonim, Gittin 68b)

These remedies, Rav Sherira Gaon argues, worked for the rabbis, and so they recorded them for posterity. But given that we, and they, are not doctors, we should neither view them as having the force of divine commandment nor employ them without proper medical oversight. While these worked in a particular time and place, the differences between our context and theirs warrant different medical treatment. 

From a stronger perspective, coming a few hundred years later, the Maharil (14th-century Ashkenazi rabbi and scholar) says that “one is forbidden from trying any medicines or charms in all of the Talmud, for a person cannot comprehend their bases, and if they don’t work, the words of the sages will be ridiculed and laughed at.” Not only do we not know exactly what ingredients the Talmud may be referring to or understand the underpinnings of such treatments, but if such remedies are used and found not to work, people may disrespect or disregard the words of the sages. 

In other words, say later rabbinic authorities, we must keep in mind that the rabbis were simply recording medical treatments they found to be helpful, but scientific knowledge is continuously changing and developing and we can comfortably use what works best in our own time. At the same time, the Maharil reminds us not to deride the sages for the knowledge they recorded, based on their particular time and place. After all, as medicine continues to advance, what we do today may well look primitive to future generations. Divine commandments are eternal. The art of medicine constantly evolves.

Read all of Gittin 69 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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