This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Healthy Advice from the Top Authorities*

As you browse through the shelves of your neighborhood book shop, you will undoubtedly be confronted by numerous volumes devoted to alternative medicine, herbal remedies and the pursuit of healthy life-styles.

Chances are that the covers of those books will include attestations that the advice contained between the covers is more than mere quackery. You will probably find impressive resumés of the authors’ credentials (medical or otherwise), accompanied by enthusiastic testimonials from healthy and satisfied readers.

Although guides to health and medicine are not a recent invention, earlier generations tended to look for different kinds of endorsements for the reliability of their contents. The traditionally minded folk of pre-modern times were more concerned that their prescriptions could claim an ancient pedigree– and most popular of all were those fortunate tomes that could be traced back to a supernatural origin.

This was true in most prescientific cultures, and the Jews were no exceptions to the pattern.

The upshot of this was that health guides would often include flowery introductions relating how the secret lore had come to the knowledge of the current author.

One venerable Hebrew medical compendium claimed to be the original "Book of Noah"–that is, a collection of teachings that were revealed to Noah in the aftermath of the flood, while he was still anchored in the vicinity of Mount Ararat. At that time (so the author avows), Noah’s family approached him with numerous complaints about plagues and diseases that were being inflicted upon them by malevolent demons. In response to Noah’s prayers and sacrifices, he was visited by the angel Raphael (whose name is derived from the Hebrew root meaning "to heal"), who quickly incarcerated most of the demons, but left some of them at liberty, apparently to serve as instruments of chastisement for sinful humans. However in order to even the playing field, the remaining demons were also ordered to instruct Noah in the preparation of cures for the afflictions. They showed him how to identify the trees, herbs, roots and seeds that could be used for medicinal purposes.

This invaluable lore was written down by Noah and handed down to his children. Its mysteries thereby came to be known to the sages of India, Macedonia and Egypt, enriching the wisdom of the ancient celebrated medical authorities.

As desirable as it might appear to have access to a health manual that was revealed by an actual angel, there are indications that such works were not always valued by the Jewish sages.

The Mishnah informs us that King Hezekiah ordered that a "book of remedies" be hidden, and that the rabbis of the time approved of his action.

Most commentators explain that the convenience of sure-fire medical relief was discouraging people from turning to God in contrition. The Medieval scholar Rabbi Eleazar of Worms cited a tradition that Hezekiah’s "book of remedies" had been in use since the time of Noah, and that it consisted of a directory of springs whose waters possessed healing abilities.

To be sure, other commentators preferred to believe that its author had been King Solomon, wisest of mortals.

If you are skeptical about the medical expertise of angels, then how about a giant frog?

Yes, such was the source of the pharmaceutical expertise of a certain pious scholar named Rabbi Hanina, according to an exotic tale preserved in the medieval Mayse Bukh. The last instruction given to Rabbi Hanina by his dying father was to go to the market and purchase the first item he saw, whatever its cost. The article he found was a silver plate, exorbitantly priced, which he obediently bought and took home; as it happened, it was just in time for the Passover seder. Appropriately, he discovered that the dish housed a precocious frog, which he dutifully continued to feed and care for.

The amphibian kept eating and growing, even as Rabbi Hanina’s finances dropped alarmingly below the poverty level. At this point the frog, now of human proportions, addressed him with the modest request that he teach him the entire Torah! Again, with his father’s deathbed wish in mind, the beleaguered Rabbi Hanina patiently obeyed (by literally feeding him the teachings on scraps of paper).

At length, Kermit (who now revealed himself as Adam’s illegitimate offspring) decided that the time had come to recompense his unselfish benefactors. He led Rabbi and Mrs. Hanina into the forest and summoned all the birds and the beasts, commanding them to fetch the kindly couple an ample selection of herbs and roots, whose curative potentialities he diligently disclosed to them. Needless to say, the Rabbi and his wife lived happily ever after in wealth and honour.

Esteemed readers, I shall leave it to you to decide into whose hands you prefer to entrust your health: to a sagacious frog, an angel, a wise king --or for that matter, to an M.D. The most important thing is that you should all be healthy.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past

by

University of Calgary Press


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

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

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 21, 1998, p. 14.

  • Bibliography:
    • Ginzberg, Louis. 1909-39. The Legends of the Jews. Translated by H. Szold. 7 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.
    • Jellinek, Adolph, ed. 1967. Bet ha-Midrasch. Reprint ed. 6 vols. Jerusalem: Wahrmann.