Jews and Medicine

Fact Paper 11

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

image of a page from a book
The title page of a definitive medical book of the Middle Ages, Avicenna’s Canon, depicting an apothecary’s shop and the application of various remedies. The work, translated from Arabic to Hebrew, incorporated the work of an earlier Judaic physician, Isaac Israeli. The Judaic translators added other Jewish medical knowledge of the times. Avicenna was probably of Jewish origin.

Science, especially the medical sciences, was made possible as a consequence of the revolutionary Judaic precept that the universe was created by a single, undefinable force. This concept was the most profound intellectual leap ever taken in human history. When accepted in full faith, the condition of illness or health, and life or death, can no longer be ascribed to the whims of anthropomorphic deities, to the malevolence of demons and devils, or to magical ministrations of witch doctors.

It can be said that pagan medical practice can be valid insofar as it derived from generations of experience. But medical science can truly flower only when it is divorced from superstition.

Faith in the healer is likewise a medical factor, which cannot be dismissed. The Jews placed their faith in a divine intelligence, and turned to Him in prayer and aspiration; but they had to turn to the doctor, learned and skilled in the natural sciences, for earthly remedies.

In ancient times, the magical practices of the Babylonians and Egyptians were biblically proscribed to the Jews. Such practices and superstitions impacted upon Judaic culture, as did the equivalent practices of all the diasporic cultures within which the Jews were obliged to exist. Nonetheless, the basic precepts of the Jews prevailed through the centuries.

The Jews esteemed physicians and the science to which they were committed. In apocryphal Ecclesiastes (180 bce), Joshua ben Sirach attributed the earthly role of the physician to the divine purpose. "Honor the physician," he wrote, "according to thy need of him with the honor due unto him because verily the Lord hath created him."

The Bible introduces three rudiments of healthful existence: rest, cleanliness, and prophylaxis. The weekly rest-day was unique to Judaic precepts. Cecil Roth quotes "the great medical historian, Karl Sudhoff: ‘Had Judaism given nothing more to mankind than the establishment of a weekly day of rest, we should still be forced to proclaim her one of the greatest benefactors of humanity.’"1

Physical purity (cleanliness) is placed on a par with spiritual purity. David’s supplication to God, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Ps. 51:4), is one of a myriad of references to the concept of washing to achieve purity. An admonition to the sinner is a Divine imperative. "For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me" (Jer. 2:22). A Jew could not enter the temple without bathing if he had done anything to render him impure. A bath had to be taken daily before reading the Law (Torah); both of which were prescribed for every Jew.

Cleanliness was but part of ancient Judaic prophylactic practices. The concept of contagion was likewise integral to biblical medical intelligence. Hygienic laws of impurity after touching a corpse, or of those affected with diseases like gonorrhea or leprosy, required a thorough washing with nitre or other caustic soaps.

The biblical term tsaraat, leprosy, was not confined to the disease now so identified, but to a range of illnesses from simple eczema and psoriasis to what is now diagnosed as leprosy. Segregation and quarantine were recognized social health requisites. Lepers were isolated temporarily or permanently according to the depth of their diagnosis.

Karl Sudhoff notes that, "it is a most interesting fact that despite the theory of natural causation, Greek medicine was blind to the fact of contagion." Cecil Roth adds that, "The idea of direct prophylaxis was first applied in Europe only in the fifteenth century, when, subsequent to the ravages of the Black Death, the public officials of Marseille and Venice first organized a system of sanitary control for incoming vessels."

The only extant work by the Latin physician, Aulus Cornelius Celsus (fl. 50 c.e.), De Medicina, quoted the formulas of Judaic physicians, thus attesting to the existence of unnamed Jewish scientists, and to the fact that Judaic medical remedies had been adopted by Roman practitioners.

The Mishnah (Bekorot 4:4) mentions that a worthy physician, Teudas, was well acquainted with medical conditions in Alexandria. The Talmud makes mention of Judaic therapeutics for rabies, and offers prescriptions for diseases of the liver. Josephus describes the cure of a possessed person by an Essene, Eleazar, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian (Antiquities, vii, 2:5).

Jewish medical erudition continued into the fourth century, when an Alexandrian Jew dedicated a work on physiognomy toEmperor Constantine. Thereafter, a time of trauma ensued in which Christian influence dominated Roman imperial policy. The Patriarch Rabbi Gamaliel, the Nasi or head of Palestinian Jewry, also a notable physician, "was cited as an authority worthy of respect." R. Gamaliel was the last Nasi; synagogues were burned, the Patriarchate was abolished, and four years after his death in 425 c.e., the Sanhedrins of the two Palestines had to hand over all moneys collected for the nasi to the imperial treasury.

In the East, Judaic universities flourished in Sassanian Babylonia. It was evidently from that region about the seventh century that Asar Judaeus compiled a medical treatise, which summarizes scientific knowledge of the times. The work has survived, and is the earliest extant literary text of this nature in the Hebrew language.

Asaf Judaeus appears to have been the first to recognize the hereditary nature of certain maladies. "Noteworthy too," notes Cecil Roth, "is Asaf’s treatise on the medicine of the poor, comprising remedies which required no outlay: for ‘he made his pupils take an oath that they would accept no fee for this work, but would attend the poor and needy free of charge, for the sake of charity" (p.168).

Much is made in our histories about Arabic science, but little note is taken from whom they derived that science, and the circumstances under which the Jews, scientists among them, were forced to convert to Islam.

There was no scientific tradition in the Arabian deserts from which mercenary Arab armies rampaged across the Near East, across Egypt and into Libya in 694. The Jews had been long established in North Africa. Eight Berber tribes converted to Judaism, and under their heroic Queen Kahena, liberated Libya. "Lions of Africa and Judah," the queen shouted to her troops, "show these Arabs that we will never be enslaved by Islam... Let our slogan be the cry of the Zealots of old: ‘Freedom or death!’"2

A greater force returned with 60,000 troops. Despite stubborn resistance, the Arab mercenaries prevailed. Queen Kahena died in battle, and 50,000 Jews and Berbers were massacred. Most Judeo/Berbers were forced to convert to Islam, including Kahena’s two sons. There can be little doubt that it was from among the convertees and their descendants, the inheritors of a two thousand year literate tradition, that the main body of "Arabic" philosophers and scientists stemmed, and not from the illiterate invaders.

The earliest of these savants were known as Jews. A great physician, Isaac Israeli of Kairouan, was an Egyptian Jew who had emigrated to West Africa, and brought his science with him. He was known to the European scholars as Isaac Judaeus (Isaac the Jew). His surviving works include a treatise on logic, On Definitions, and another treatise on Aristotelian physics, On the Elements. His great work on Pharmacology, translated into Latin under the title De Gradibus Simplicum, is of extraordinary importance for medical history. It became the standard work on the subject for a considerable time, and was the foundation for most of the subsequent medieval works on the subject.

"He was described by a contemporary as a man of the highest character, who, although much occupied about Court, was indifferent to wealth and personal advancement... To Israeli belongs the credit of having introduced scientific medicine into Northern Africa, and his writings... exercised no small influence on medieval western medicine." 2a

It was from Isaac Israeli that the greatest of "Arab" scientists, Avicenna (980-1037), drew inspiration. He is commonly regarded by historians as Arabic because he wrote only in Arabic, because he was a physician to several sultans, and because he became a vizier in Hamadan, Persia, where he died. Avicenna, referred to as the "Aristotle of the East," was born near Bokhara, then heavily populated by Jews, and was probably of Jewish origin.3

In any event, Avicenna’s works reached Europe through the translations of his works by Jewish scholars in Spain, Italy, and Provence. The great physician Maimonides was an admirer of Avicenna, and recommended the Jews study his works in The Guide to the Perplexed.

Avenzoar was likewise a Moslem scientist of Jewish origin, "and may thus be included among the great Jewish physicians of history" (Roth, 170). His great work, Taysir, was one of the most widely-read medical treatises of the century, not least because it was translated early on into Hebrew "the language of the author’s ancestors." Johannes of Capua, a converted Jew, in collaboration with another physician from Padua, translated it into Latin in 1280. It was likewise at Padua that the great work of Avicenna, the Colliget (General Rules of Health), was translated into Latin by the Jew Bonacosa. The book became a standard medical treatise; it continued to be published after the printing press was invented several centuries later.

So too was "the most popular of all medieval books of remedies," the Mesue. The book drew largely from Jewish sources. It was first translated into Hebrew by Samuel ben Jacob of Capua, and thereafter into Latin.

Most importantly, Judaic translators were largely responsible for making ancient and classical knowledge available in the West. Retained by the lords and kings of both Islam and Christendom, as well as working independently, ancient literature written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin were translated into Arabic, and Arabic was translated into the lingua franca of the times.

The physicians who attended the lords and kings of Islam and Christendom were largely Jews, a convincing indication of the major role that Jews continued to play in the science of medicine.

Among them was the giant figure of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), born at Cordoba. His monumental philosophical and scientific works include major medical works. The Treatise on Poisons and Antidotes was cited in the Johns Hopkins Bulletin of the History of Medicine (iii, 1935, p.571) as "so scientific... that one often feels in reading it that it is a modern book." Most popular in his time was his work for the use of European physicians, Aphorisms, of which five Latin editions were published.

Jewish doctors attended courts from England to Arabia, often despite the prohibitions by the hierarchy of the church against their employment. Jewish medical science remained continually significant into the present.

Bibliography and Notes

Julius Preuss, Biblish-Tamudisch Medezin, Berlin, 1911
Max Gruenwald, ed., Die Hygiene der Juden (with an extensive bibliography) Dresden, 1911.
Harry Friedenwald, The Jews and Medicine, Baltimore, 1944

1: Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, London, 1956, 167
2: Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson, Wars of the Jews, New York, 1990, 192-3
2a: Roth, Ibid., 169.
3: A Souberin, Avicenne, Prince de Medecins, Paris, 1935.