Religious Life

Jews & Medicine – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – March 13, 2020

Shalom Chaverim

The following story is told in the Talmud (AZ 55a):

A man named Zunin said to Rabbi Akiva, “How is that sick men enter a shrine full of idols and leave cured? Perhaps idols have the power of healing?” Rabbi Akiva rejected this notion explaining, “When someone gets sick, the disease takes an oath to afflict the person at such and such a time and to leave him at such and such a time.” Once, the time arrived for an illness to depart just as a person entered a shrine. What happened? The disease pleaded, “It would be better that I not depart now and make the man think that the idol cured him. But just because the man is a fool, should I break my oath?”

Idols don’t heal people. People heal people. With God’s help.

From early days until modern times, Jews have had a special relationship with medicine. By one estimation, in the Arabic period approximately half of the doctors were rabbis. Is it any wonder then, that 213 of the 613 mitzvot have to do with care of the body in one way or another? Indeed, healing is considered a commandment that overrides all others. As author, Dr Sherwin Nuland writes in his biography, Maimonides: “…the rabbis of the Talmud taught with the conviction that the preservation of life is a basic teaching to be carried out by human action and existing as an instrument of Divine will… God is not to be used by mankind as medicine. When sickness occurs, a doctor is to be sought out, a dictum clearly articulated by Maimonides in his Commentary on the Mishna, ‘One who is ill has not only a right but also the duty to seek medical aid.’”

Admiration for doctors long preceded Rambam. Ben Sira was a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who lived during Second Temple times (2nd C BCE) likely in Egypt. His is an early, important statement on Jews and medicine. It reflects the theology that humans are partners with God.

Make friends with the physician, for he is essential to you;
Him also God has established in his profession.
From God the doctor has wisdom,
And from the king he receives sustenance.
God makes the earth yield healing herbs,
Which the prudent should not neglect.
God endows humans with the knowledge
To glory in his mighty works,
Through which the doctor eases pain
And the druggist prepares his medicines;
Thus, God’s creative work continues without cease
In its efficacy on the surface of the earth.

We shouldn’t think of doctors as God. But we should be grateful for all those involved in the healing process- doctors, nurses, pharmacists, administrators, researchers, regulators and more. These men and women, endowed by God with wisdom, are dedicated to bringing healing to our world.

May they be blessed with success speedily in our day.

Rabbi Alexander Davis