“The Jewish Attitude Toward Healing and Medicine”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, opens with the laws concerning purification of a woman after childbirth. This is followed by an extensive description of the symptoms and treatment of the ancient disease, צָרָעַת Tzara’at.

Although Tzara’at appears to be a dermatological malady, our rabbis have attributed its manifestation to evil speech (see Tazria 5760-2000 & Tazria 5763-2003).

The Torah lists the various forms of the disease and the areas where the disease may appear, such as on the head and face. Scripture also describes the early symptoms of the disease and its proper diagnosis. Tzara’at may appear as a swelling, a scab, as a bright spot on the skin or in a boil or a burn, as an infection on the hair of the head or beard, or as baldness at the front or back of the head.

Those who are diagnosed with Tzara’at are quarantined and sent out of the entire camp of Israel for seven days. Only after healing, is the infected person permitted to return to camp and undergo a cleansing ritual. The parasha concludes with the rules regarding another form of Tzara’at that afflicts garments.

The discussion of Tzara’at continues in next week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, with the rituals of cleansing and purification of the afflicted person, and concludes with the regulations regarding the form of Tzara’at that manifests itself in the structure of Jewish homes.

The two parashiot, Tazria and Metzorah are the closest things to a medical treatise that is to be found in the Biblical text.

Although Jews have always played a prominent role in medicine and in the development of healing, the Bible’s attitude toward medicine and healing appears to be somewhat restrained, perhaps even ambivalent.

Despite its great length and breadth, the Bible says little about medical practice. The earliest reference to illness in the Bible, goes back to Genesis 20:17 and the times of Abimelech, the king of Grar. Abimelech was punished, together with his household, with the closing of their bodily orifices, because the king had taken Abram’s wife, Sarai (their names had not yet been changed to Abraham and Sarah), to his palace. Abram prays to G-d for healing, and they are healed.

Other instances of medical-related references include Isaac, who prays opposite his wife, Rebecca, because she is barren. Later, in Genesis 25:22, when Rebecca conceives and experiences terrible labor pains because the children are fighting inside her, she goes to ask G-d what will be her fate. In Numbers 12:63, Moses prays for his sister, Miriam, who is stricken with Tzara’at, by reciting the very beautiful prayer, “Please G-d, heal her please.” In this week’s parasha, it should be noted that the person who is stricken with the Tzara’at disease is only diagnosed by the priest, but is not treated medically. Instead, he is excluded from the camp, and is expected to heal naturally.

In Exodus 15:25, Moses heals the bitter water at Marah, sweetening it by throwing a branch into the water. In the following verse, Exodus 15:26, G-d promises the Jewish people that all the illnesses and diseases with which the Egyptians were stricken, will not afflict the Jewish people, after all, declares the Al-mighty: “I am the L-rd, your Healer.” In Numbers 21:9, Moses is commanded to make a copper serpent, so that all those who are bitten by the snakes will look up at Heaven and be healed. The prophet, Elisha, sweetens the bitter water of Jericho with salt (Kings II, 2:20-22). He also heals the son of the Shunammite, by praying to G-d and reviving the child, by giving what appears to be artificial respiration (Kings II, 4:34). Naaman, the Aramean general, is healed from his Tzara’at by the prophet Elisha, by bathing in the waters of the Jordan (Kings II, 5:14). Isaiah heals king Hezekiah, through the application of a cake of figs (Isaiah 38:21).

There are a number of other subtle references to medicinal applications and healing. In Genesis 50:2, the healers of Egypt embalm the deceased Jacob. In Chronicles 2, 16:2, there is a reference to King Assah, who, when he was ill, instead of seeking G-d, summoned help only from doctors, implying that King Assah was sinful for not praying to G-d.

Ben Sirah is probably the first major Jewish source to pay warm tribute to physicians. While he urges the sick to pray for Divine help, he encourages them strongly to seek medical advice. He concludes that G-d has indeed appointed the physician for this beneficent task.

Many prominent medieval rabbis were also distinguished practicing physicians, among them the poet and philosopher, Rabbi Judah HaLevi, the philosopher and Halachist, Moses Maimonides, as well as Nachmanides.

In his commentary, Mishna Nidarim 4, Maimonides concludes that the mitzvah of healing another person falls under the rubric of restoring a lost object to its proper owner. His conclusion is based on the Talmudic statement found in Sanhedrin 73a that a person who loses his physical well-being needs to be “restored.” All the members of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Supreme Court of Israel, were expected to be knowledgeable in the art of medicine. Rabbi Joseph Karo concludes in The Code that, today, to heal oneself one must not rely on miracles, but rather engage in the common practices of medicine.

The Taz notes that, although true healing comes only through G-d’s mercy, not every person merits that mercy, unless they are engaged as well in the natural medical practices. Based on the verse in Exodus 21:19, רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, the Talmud in Baba Kamma 85a concludes that a person who harms another person must pay the victim’s loss of income and medical expenses. Rabbi Yishmael deduces from the words, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, that a physician is permitted to heal.

The men of the Great Assembly established a prayer for healing in the Amidah (central daily prayer). The eighth benediction, states: “Heal us, Oh L-rd, that we shall be healed. Save us, that we shall be saved. For You, art our praise, grant a perfect healing to all our wounds. For You, Al-mighty King, our faithful and merciful Physician. Blessed art You, oh L-rd, who heals the sick of Thy people, Israel.”

May healing to all those who are in need come swiftly and completely.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nisan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20.  This year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Monday evening and Tuesday, March 31st and April 1st, 2014.