It’s frightening enough to become severely ill, but it can be even more terrifying when there’s no clear cause of the illness. For this reason, I’m sympathetic to the rabbis and their attempts to come up with causative trails that explain how (if not exactly why, in a more philosophical vein) illnesses come to afflict individuals. Picking up from yesterday, today’s daf jumps from ailment to disease to condition, meanders through suggestions on how people might prevent certain outcomes and presents remedies that can relieve suffering. Some of the Talmud’s epidemiological explanations are oddly specific, for example:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: If one ate ox meat with a turnip, and slept by the light of the moon on the night of the 14th or 15th of the month in the season of Tammuz (i.e., summer) he will be afflicted with ahilu (severe fever).
There’s a whole lot that has to align to come down with ahilu, which you’d think would make it easy to avoid. However, the next passage indicates that simply overeating can bring it on as well.
If you’re a budding sommelier, you’ll appreciate this rabbinic advice:
Mar Ukva said: One who drinks inferior white wine will be afflicted with weakness.
Rav Hisda said: There are 60 types of wine. The best of them all is red, fragrant wine. The worst of them all is inferior white wine.
This leaves me wondering what Rav Hisda would have thought about boxed wine, but I’ll leave that to contemporary oenologists to ponder.
Next up, some advice on ensuring healthy newborns:
The sages taught: A man who let blood and afterward engaged in sexual intercourse has weak children conceived from those acts of intercourse. If both of them, husband and wife, let blood and engaged in sexual intercourse they will have children afflicted with ra’atan (a skin disease accompanied by fatigue).
Rav Pappa said: We said this only if he did not taste anything after letting blood. But if he tasted something then we have no problem with it.
Rav Pappa’s recommendation brings to mind the snacks available at a Red Cross blood donation. If you’ve lost some blood, it might be a good idea to at least bring up your blood sugar to maintain your strength and, apparently, virility.
Finally, we have rabbinic guidance on preventing epilepsy in future children:
The sages taught: With regard to one who comes in from the bathroom, he should not engage in sexual intercourse until he waits the measure of time it takes to walk half a mil (about a quarter mile) because the demon of the bathroom accompanies him. And if he engaged in sexual intercourse without waiting this measure of time, he has children who are epileptic.
This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the demon of the bathroom. Back on Berakhot 62a, we learned its name (Se’ir) — perhaps because it resembles a goat (se’ir) — and that Abaye’s mother would send a lamb into the bathroom with him in order to ward the demon off.
We might be inclined to chuckle, or shake our heads in disbelief, but there’s a colorful beauty to the rabbis’ efforts to make sense of the world around them. For all of its greater accuracy and relevance, modern pathology seems bland and boring compared to these ancient medical analyses. And one thing that is particularly interesting about these pages, full of (to us) bizarre medical advice, is that we find not only have the rabbis deviated from the topic of divorce, but we see them rely particularly heavily not on Torah but on received medical knowledge from the wider culture (many of these remedies have parallels in ancient medical texts produced by other cultures) as well as on their own observations of the world. We know that following God’s law is of utmost importance to the rabbis. But the human body is a divine gift, created in the divine image, and any and all knowledge that can be deployed to heal it is welcomed.
And while we no longer follow the rabbis’ specific medical advice, I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget the demon of the bathroom.
Read all of Gittin 70 on Sefaria.