Biblical Healing

Although the Bible frowns upon magical healing practices, a clear distinction between medicine and magical healing developed only gradually.

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Healing in Rabbinic Literature

During the codification of the Mishnah, beginning in the third century C.E., the healer posed an inherently dangerous challenge to the emerging institutional and spiritual authority of the… developing rabbinical academies. Tales of individual healing magicians were thus downplayed and few healing stories were actually written down.

Nevertheless, the genre of the magical healer has survived in the rabbinic literature. The Mishnah mentions the stone of Abraham, which cured all who looked at it. It also depicts one sage healing another through prayer and the laying on of hands.

The sages' detailed discussions and frequent denunciations of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery also serve to underscore evidence of widespread popular reliance upon magical healing practices during the period of the codification of the Talmud and [works of] Midrash. The Talmud frequently mentions the use of charms for healing, and the rabbis themselves often sanctioned a wide range of magical cures by physicians, including incantations involving God's name and the recitation of Biblical passages. The sages even ruled that any practice actually producing a cure was not to be considered superstition.

Such rabbinic rulings resulted from the lack of a clear distinction between science and magic in medical practice in late antiquity, as well as a necessary compromise with popular culture. While some insist that the rabbis themselves were not superstitious or involved in magical cures, it is likely that they as well were not fully exempt from involvement in magical and mystical aspects of the healing arts, despite their official condemnation.

It is likely, however, that later rabbis assigned the title of Hasid to some early magicians in order to include these popular tales in the later canon. They made certain, however, to interject these famous stories with injunctions concerning the importance of prayer and the observance of the law.

The Emergence of Respect for Healers

As mentioned above, biblical views of the physician were primarily negative, given ancient Israel's concern over the link between healing and idolatry through magic and sorcery. This factor, in addition to halakhic [Jewish legal] injunctions against uncleanness, which forbade contact with blood and corpses, seriously limited the development and practice of a profession of medicine. True respect for the profession, as well as the specific obligation to heal--so critical to later Jewish views of health--may be traced to the Hellenistic period, where contact with the Stoic concept of natural law and Greek forms of non-magical, "scientific" medicine removed Jewish objections to cures by physicians.

The apocryphal book of Ben Sira, in the early second century B.C.E., thus diverged from the attitudes of Exodus or Chronicles, praising the art of medicine and its healers as instruments of God's will. Nevertheless, this new respect did not render physicians all-powerful or independent of divine intercession. Ben Sira, for instance, stressed that God could also be appealed to directly through prayer, sacrifice, and adherence to the commandments.

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Laura J. Praglin received her Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She holds master's degrees from Chicago and Yale in religion and social work, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.