Rabbinic, Medieval, and Early Modern History of Healing

The evolution of attitudes towards physicians, beliefs connecting illness and sin, prayers for healing, and the use of folk healing traditions.

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Rabbinic interpretations, however varied throughout the ages, maintained that mental health was to be treated as seriously as physical health, given the intricate link between human body and soul. [Tractate] Yoma 82 [of the Babylonian Talmud], for instance, [might suggest] that a threat to mental health… is to be treated likea threat to one's physical life" (David M. Feldman, Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition, p. 49). Both mental and physical illness, therefore, required that rabbi and physician summon all known powers of cure.

Definitions and precipitants of insanity and other incapacities became of primary rabbinic and communal concern, for such diagnoses could determine a Jew's obligation to carry out the full range of mitzvot [commandments]. No less than physical illness, rabbis considered mental incapacity a condition requiring efforts at healing and cure, rather than punishment or repentance.

Healing in Law Codes

From the 10th to the mid-18th centuries, responsa literature [rabbinical responses to legal questions] and codes [of Jewish law], such as Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and Joseph Caro's Shulhan Arukh, became major sources of decision-making in Jewish communities…. Rabbis continued to consider the role of folk healing traditions seriously in their rulings, however, often arriving at compromises between them and the newly formulated codes.

Caro's Shulhan Arukh explicitly stated that the Torah mandates the physician to heal, and decreed that withholding treatment was akin to shedding blood. The injunction to heal included non-Jews as well, based partly on interpretation of Leviticus 25:35, insisting upon fair treatment of strangers in one's midst, and partly for pragmatic reasons, to encourage good relations with Christian or Arab neighbors.

Such rulings permitted Jewish physicians to treat non-Jews, a particular benefit for northern European Christians, who often sought out cures from Jewish doctors, despite church condemnation and subsequent castigation of Jews as either sorcerers or poisonous murderers--depending upon the outcome of the treatment.

The Jewish obligation to heal extended beyond physicians to the Jewish community at large, where all persons were required to visit the sick. This injunction was intended both to help the ill person, and to imitate God's actions as healer; those who refused committed an infraction akin to bloodshed.

Praying for Healing

Since God had provided and sanctioned humans to heal others, the rabbis regarded the divine-human relationship in [effecting] recovery to be complementary. Yet God remained the sole healer; doctors, visitors, and hospitals could act as partners and agents of God, never substitutes. The rabbis considered God to reside directly above the invalid's pillow, and one was healed only if ultimately it was God's will.

As a result, petitionary prayers to heal the sick, acknowledging God as the ultimate physician, came to be recited from the siddur [prayer book] as part of the traditional liturgy three times per day. The Amidah [the "standing prayer", central to Jewish daily liturgy] allows for the insertion of specific petitions for restoring health. So too Misheberakh prayers--recited during the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath--petition God to send "a healing of soul and a healing of body" to ill persons not present.

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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.