This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

He Didn't Have a Prayer*

One of the more wholesome of my guilty pleasures is my fascination with the genre that is known to the cognoscenti as "OTR," old-time radio. During my daily commutes my iPod is likely to be flooding my ears with downloaded episodes from the "golden age of radio," an era of broadcasting that produced some remarkably entertaining programs in the realms of comedy, detective stories, variety shows and other areas that would eventually be eclipsed by the emergence of television.

One little-known show that caught my attention was entitled "Encore Theatre." This short-lived series was presented on CBS as a summer replacement in 1946 and ran for thirteen weeks. It was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, Schenley Labs Inc., a major producer of penicillin, and consisted of half-hour dramas whose unifying theme was their focus on the medical profession. The plots including straightforward fiction as well as dramatized biographies of historical figures like Louis Pasteur and Walter Reed.

What particularly captured my attention about this anthology was its standard closing formula, in which the episode's star was invited to read out a passage from the "physician's prayer" composed by Maimonides. The lines of the prayer that were chosen for the recitation were: "The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and death of all thy creatures. May I always see in the patient a fellow creature in pain. Grant me strength and opportunity always to extend the domain of my craft."

As an admirer of the great medieval Jewish scholar and physician, I was understandably thrilled to hear his words given a public airing by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Colman, Hume Cronin, Franchot Tone or Robert Young (who would of course go on to become Dr. Marcus Welby MD!).

All this was very satisfying until I started investigating the matter a bit more thoroughly. In spite of its popularity and its frequent use at medical school graduations, it is very unlikely that Maimonides ever composed this prayer or anything resembling it.

The earliest known record of the "physician's prayer" is in a 1783 German literary journal Das Deutsches Museum, one of whose editors was Christian Wilhelm Dohm, a German political writer who enjoyed a warm friendship with Moses Mendelssohn and, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, campaigned actively for the granting of equal rights for the Jews. In this publication, the text appeared in German and was labeled as "the daily prayer of a physician before he visits his patient--from the Hebrew manuscript of a famous Jewish physician in Egypt in the twelfth century."

Given the nature of the periodical, it was likely being presented to its readership as a work of creative writing. The name of Maimonides was not mentioned explicitly, though it is reasonable to suppose that the anonymous author intended to allude to that most renowned of twelfth-century Jewish Egyptian doctors.

The next important step in the evolution of the puzzle occurred in 1790 when a Hebrew version of the prayer appeared in Ha-Me'assef, a Hebrew periodical published by disciples of the Jewish Enlightenment movement. The introduction indicated that the prayer's author was Markus Herz, and that it was being translated into Hebrew at his request by the journal's editor Isaac Abraham Euchel, a student of Immanuel Kant and a fervent champion of the Hebrew language and literature. In this version, the text was poignantly introduced as a "prayer for the physician as he pours out his anxieties before God prior to visiting the sick."

Markus Herz was one of the more impressive figures of the German Jewish Enlightenment. A promising scholar who initially had to abandon his university studies because of his poverty, Herz nonetheless succeeded in impressing Kant, and a deep and respectful friendship developed between the two men. After joining Moses Mendelssohn's circle in Berlin, Herz found sponsors for his medical studies, and went on to acquire a reputation as one of the finest physicians of his generation. There is no evidence that he was proficient in Hebrew, so if he was the first to publish the physician's prayer, then his role was probably as the author, not as the translator of an older Hebrew manuscript.

Indeed, there are passages in the prayer that strike me as more appropriate to a modern medical practitioner than to a medieval. Much of the text consists of imploring the Almighty to grant assistance in fulfilling the doctor's sacred calling in the face of assorted obstacles, moral failings and distractions. In this spirit, he entreats God to remove from the patients' midst "all charlatans and the whole host of officious relatives and know-it-all nurses, cruel people who arrogantly frustrate the wisest purposes of our craft and often lead thy creatures to their death." The author proceeds to invoke divine help in accepting instruction from those who are truly wiser than himself, while remaining impervious to the scorn or criticisms of self-important idiots.

While there may once have been some justification for upholding the thesis that the 1783 German version had been translated from a lost Hebrew original, the likelihood of such a scenario now seems infinitesimal, since the last century of scholarship has enriched us with an exhaustive knowledge of Maimonides' writings, many of which have been saved from oblivion by the Cairo Genizah. Our expanded bibliography of Maimonides' oeuvre includes no Physician's Prayer.

At any rate, notwithstanding the absence of any credible early attribution of the prayer to Maimonides, and in spite of Euchel's explicit statement that Herz was the author, it did not take long before it came to be referred to as "the physician's prayer by Maimonides." Evidently, the first writer to make that claim in print was William W. Golden, Superintendent of the Davis Memorial Hospital in Elkins, West Virginia, in an article he contributed to the Transactions of the Medical Society of the State of West Virginia in 1900.

By 1914, Golden himself addressed a query about the prayer's authorship to the American Israelite, to which he received a learned response that Marcus Herz was the prayer's real creator; but by then it was too late for subsequent writers to let go of the alluring attribution to the celebrated savant, even though there was no dearth of authors who were publishing notes debunking that claim, which some of them dismissed as a "hoax."

In one interesting instance in 1935, the Canadian Jewish Chronicle printed a letter by Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, responding to a question by Sir William Osler and informing him that Herz was the true author.

As is too frequently the case in scholarship, once the error managed to creep into a few "respectable" publications, there was no longer anything to prevent subsequent writers from copying it repeatedly until it acquired the status of incontrovertible fact.

Perhaps the record will eventually be cleared up and people will finally stop making inaccurate references about the authorship of the Physician's Prayer.

That is a worthy objective that even Maimonides himself might have prayed for.


This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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