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.

Excerpted with permission from “The Jewish Healing Tradition in Historical Perspective” in The Reconstructionist, Spring, 1999. The original article includes full footnotes and references.

The Mishnah [an early Jewish legal text], Talmud, and [works of] midrash [biblical interpretation] became normative sources for subsequent Jewish views of health and healing. The Talmud, in fact, prohibited Jews from living in a city without a physician. Yet rabbis also debated whether medicine represented inappropriate human intervention in God’s plan. While the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and subsequent talmudic authors did continue to depict God delivering illness as punishment for sin, the finality of such decrees was also challenged in every age.

The Talmud recorded the rabbinical consensus that God himself authorized–in fact required–medicine and healing, construing Exodus 21:19-20, which stipulated that the victim of injury must be “thoroughly healed,” to mean that God had granted the physician permission to cure. It also interpreted the command to restore lost property in Deuteronomy 22:2 to require restoration of another’s body as a form of personal property, thus indicating an obligation to assist another person in life-threatening situations. Rabbis also discerned sanctions to heal, and further grants of authority to physicians, in Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”), as well as in Leviticus 19:16 (“Nor shall you stand by the blood of your fellow”).

Rabbinic Views of the Body

The body, the rabbis taught, was created by God, and thus was both good and a source of intricate wonder. Unlike [gnostics and Greek philosophers], the rabbis did not believe that the body entrapped the soul, nor that it was a primary source of evil or sin. Legitimate worldly and physical pleasures, such as food and sex, were intended by God to be enjoyed rather than withheld.

As a result, [the rabbis] strongly condemned… ascetic[ism]…. While [they] recognized essential constraints to earthly pleasures, “any assumption of further limits on the part of human beings was an act of both pride and ingratitude” (Elliot N. Dorff, Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, p. 9).

Rabbinic law thus spelled out legal as well as practical obligations to one’s body regarding diet, exercise, sexual relations, hygiene, and sleep. Throughout the ages, rabbis also attempted to illuminate the link between ethical and psychological behavior in the cultivation of mental health. The tractate of the Mishnah comprising Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) focused upon those behaviors and values that fostered a balanced life….

Rabbinic interpretations, however varied throughout the ages, maintained that mental health was to be treated as seriously as physical health, given the intricate link between human body and soul. [Tractate] Yoma 82 [of the Babylonian Talmud], for instance, [might suggest] that a threat to mental health… is to be treated likea threat to one’s physical life” (David M. Feldman, Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition, p. 49). Both mental and physical illness, therefore, required that rabbi and physician summon all known powers of cure.

Definitions and precipitants of insanity and other incapacities became of primary rabbinic and communal concern, for such diagnoses could determine a Jew’s obligation to carry out the full range of mitzvot [commandments]. No less than physical illness, rabbis considered mental incapacity a condition requiring efforts at healing and cure, rather than punishment or repentance.

Healing in Law Codes

From the 10th to the mid-18th centuries, responsa literature [rabbinical responses to legal questions] and codes [of Jewish law], such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Joseph Caro’s Shulhan Arukh, became major sources of decision-making in Jewish communities…. Rabbis continued to consider the role of folk healing traditions seriously in their rulings, however, often arriving at compromises between them and the newly formulated codes.

Caro’s Shulhan Arukh explicitly stated that the Torah mandates the physician to heal, and decreed that withholding treatment was akin to shedding blood. The injunction to heal included non-Jews as well, based partly on interpretation of Leviticus 25:35, insisting upon fair treatment of strangers in one’s midst, and partly for pragmatic reasons, to encourage good relations with Christian or Arab neighbors.

Such rulings permitted Jewish physicians to treat non-Jews, a particular benefit for northern European Christians, who often sought out cures from Jewish doctors, despite church condemnation and subsequent castigation of Jews as either sorcerers or poisonous murderers–depending upon the outcome of the treatment.

The Jewish obligation to heal extended beyond physicians to the Jewish community at large, where all persons were required to visit the sick. This injunction was intended both to help the ill person, and to imitate God’s actions as healer; those who refused committed an infraction akin to bloodshed.

Praying for Healing

Since God had provided and sanctioned humans to heal others, the rabbis regarded the divine-human relationship in [effecting] recovery to be complementary. Yet God remained the sole healer; doctors, visitors, and hospitals could act as partners and agents of God, never substitutes. The rabbis considered God to reside directly above the invalid’s pillow, and one was healed only if ultimately it was God’s will.

As a result, petitionary prayers to heal the sick, acknowledging God as the ultimate physician, came to be recited from the siddur [prayer book] as part of the traditional liturgy three times per day. The Amidah [the “standing prayer”, central to Jewish daily liturgy] allows for the insertion of specific petitions for restoring health. So too Misheberakh prayers–recited during the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath–petition God to send “a healing of soul and a healing of body” to ill persons not present.

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.

The tzadikim [“righteous ones”, used to refer to leaders of particular streams of Hasidism] of the later Hasidic tradition were also considered great healing practitioners. Some relied upon the curing remedies of the Baal Shem Tov, while others focused primarily on prayer. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav was unusual, however, in banning the intervention of doctors and relying solely on prayer.

In addition to Hasidism, other developments enriched the connection between Judaism and mental healing. Musar [moral instruction], a 19th-century European-Russian Jewish movement stressing ethics and self-scrutiny, witnessed a proliferation of ethical-psychological texts that promoted the cultivation of certain behaviors and values in the quest for a balanced life. Such a balance, the proponents believed, could prevent and/or even cure mental illness.

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