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Medicine and the Redaction of the Talmud- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

Ancient forms of pain "relief".

One of The Talmud Blog’s goals is to create a forum for scholarly discussion. This guest post by Michael Satlow is an attempt to start a conversation. Readers are invited to engage in it by writing in the comments section below.

Have gum disease? Boils? Abscesses? Anal  sores? An ear ache? A swollen eye? Insect stings? Check out the Bavli for a remedy.

The Babylonian Talmud is full of medical advice. Enough advice, in fact, for Julius Preuss to fill a fat tome entitled Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin that he published in 1911 (translated by Fred Rosner as Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Rosner has several other books on the topic as well). The advice frequently strikes us as suspect. Is it really true that burning a century old reed tube (hardly easy to come by as it is) filled with salt in one’s ear is the best and most efficient cure? Where can I get the fat of a goat that has never given birth? Will my insurance cover it?

Joking aside, I recently stumbled on one of the longer extended discussions of medicine in the Bavli, at Avodah Zarah 28a29a (where all the examples cited above can be found). The passage is as fascinating as it is tedious, and despite Preuss’s magnum opus – itself also both fascinating and tedious – I am sure that there is much more scholarly work to be done on this passage and those like it. Where did they get this information? What was their understanding of medicine? What did they do when the cures failed to work?

On this reading of the passage, though, I was struck by a much more technical and abstruse question: How can it be reconciled with contemporary theories of the redaction of the Talmud? Nearly all scholars today agree that there was at least one – and perhaps more – stages of redaction of the Bavli. The redactors, the theory goes, worked from collections of tannatic and amoraic sayings, the latter usually conveyed in pithy sentences.  The redactor(s) pieced these sayings together and connected them with the distinctive argumentative style known as stam. These redactors, the stammaim, added additional material as well, such as aggadah.

My question, in short, was how such a theory – and especially the theory of transmission – can account for a passage such as Avodah Zarah 28a-29a. Many of the cures are attributed to amoraim, predominantly Babylonian. Were these cures transmitted along with the amora’s short statements, to be reconstituted by a redactor in the form of this sugya? If so, what would these (hypothetical) transmission booklets have looked like?

To further complicate matters, there are two traditions in the sugya that record an amora saying, “I did all [of these cures], and I wasn’t healed until a certain merchant told me….”  In the first case, Abaye seems to respond to cures reported in the names of Rav Aha the son of Rava and Mar bar Rav Ashi. In the second, Rav Pappa seems to respond to cures reported by Rav Aha the son of Rava (again) and Rav Ashi. Could Rav Pappa really be responding to Rav Ashi? The same literary form of the two comments suggests the work of a redactor, but how extensive was the intervention?

How might we explain the redaction history of the passage?

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University. In addition to writing for his own blog, Then and Now, Prof. Satlow is an adviser to The Talmud Blog. 


16 thoughts on “Medicine and the Redaction of the Talmud- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

  1. Pingback: Medicine and the Redaction of the Talmud | Michael L. Satlow

  2. Zohar says:

    You should take all of the attributions of the Bavli with a grain of salt. Legal traditions expressed in Hebrew are the most likely to be actually Tannaitic or Amoraic.


  4. In general, Zohar, I agree with this. However, in this particular case your comment suggests that the stammaim simply made up these attributions to the medical formulas. Possible, I guess, but if so, why would they do such a thing?

    • Zohar says:

      Good question. It could simply be an adherence to standard literary protocol. If they are authentic, I’d guess that there were no booklets, but that it was transmitted orally with who knows how many changes introduced on the way, in both the content and the attributions themselves. In other words, we learn from shadows on the wall, and we don’t even know if they’re only hand-puppets.

  5. AS says:

    Comparing the BT Sugya with the Yerushalmi it shows characteristic differences one often finds between the two, so I would guess that there is really not much out of the ordinary in the sugya’s redaction.

    The particular cures mentioned in the Yerushalmi differ from the Bavli – even when attributed to a PT source, the central story of R. Yochanan is conserved but with expected differences. The PT is concerned about when one can violate the Sabbath while the Bavli is concerned primarily about whether one can be healed by a heathen – though the BT makes the two fall under the same parameters. The BT contains an anecdote that seems to mock the Palestinian protagonists (does it really take two fellow rabbis to lick the poisonous salve off their colleague?).

    Finally, an interesting clue (that may be red herring) is that both the PT and BT record that R. Yochanan revealed the cure for Zafdina during a regular lecture. A further statement in the Bavli records R. Abahu either being told of a cure for his ear pain by R. Yochanan or having heard it in the study hall. Perhaps evidence that there really was a tradition of sharing medical advice in the context of Torah study (or near whatever was the equivalent of the water cooler in the study hall) making it more likely that these cures would be recorded and collected.

    The Sugya seems to have roughly two collections, 1) cures tied to memrot concerning the status of a given disease, 2) cures grouped by the relation to an organ.

    Perhaps 1) the specific cures for specific ailments were transmitted right along with memrot with the formula: “X says that disease Y is life threatening. What is its Cure? Z.” While 2) were collected and grouped along with related braitot by organ – ear, eye, heart. It’s also interesting to note how the braitot generally list single ingredient cures or activities but the Babylonian Rabbis’ cures tend to be complicated. The PT’s story of R. Yochanan similarly offers two very different possibilities for the cure he was told for Zafduna: one is a simple food, the other is a complex concoction involving, among other things, dried dung from a child (for a mouth ailment!)

    • I think that this is a particularly helpful approach to the problem. I wonder if it can be extended in two significant ways.

      First, if I understand you correctly, it implies (at least) a two stage redaction process. Disciple circles produce “notes”; these may be either written (which is, I think, assumed in most modern redaction theories) or oral. Medical knowledge in particular may have been transmitted orally, but (again, we are to assume) here attached to a particular Sage. Then these “notes” receive a redaction by topic – all the cures from the notes of the various disciple circles are grouped together into an independent (presumably written) compilation. It is this latter document from which the final editors of our sugya either included whole cloth or selected from. That is, maybe the redactor here did not know of Rav Pappa’s statement from a collection of sayings about Rav Pappa, but rather from an independent composition of medical cures.

      The second extension follows on this model. There are, of course, many passages in the
      Bavli that look like independent compositions based on subject matter. It now makes me wonder if there were many such “subject” scrolls of amoraic (and perhaps tannaitic as well) that the final redactor used.

  6. Mark Geller’s work on the connections between Babylonian rabbinic medicine (especially the seventh chapter of tractate Gittin) and (super)late Babylonian scribal culture should be useful for conceiving of the way these texts were put together and how they traveled as units between cultures. I would also think that the research on “mini” talmudic tractates (like the dream-book in tractate Berakhot) by A. Weiss and others should help us think this through.

    • Zohar says:

      Good point Shai. Geller’s articles would be an important starting point. If these were medical texts which traveled cross-culturally, there may have been an impetus to “adjust” the attributions somewhat. A response to allegations by rationalists that the Rabbis were behind on science?

  7. “I am sure that there is much more scholarly work to be done on this passage and those like it. Where did they get this information? What was their understanding of medicine? What did they do when the cures failed to work?”

    Though I can’t comment on the issue of the redaction of the Talmud, I am reminded of a discussion in Lekutai Sichot (Vol. 27, pages 33-41) by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, which sheds some light on these more general issues. The central problem he seeks to address is that Maimonides included some (but certainly not all) of these Talmudic cures in his Mishnah Torah, codifying them as a part of Jewish Law, despite the fact that he only includes laws that are pertinent for all generations in that work (see Lechem Mishnah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1, Sdei Chemed Vol. 9, Klolei Haposkim 5:11). At the same time he is clearly acknowledging that they are not eternally relevant by only including some Talmudic cures.

    Since none of this is directly relevant to the issue at hand, I won’t bore you with the details, but invite interested parties to view my synopsis of the discussion here:


    • Zohar says:

      I’m guessing that RIF and others are eliminating these sugyas as they are not practical halakha, but RAMBAM includes them in MT bc he views halakha itself as a component of the transmission of “hochma” whether it is practical or not. What may be relevant to us is asking how far back RAMBAM’s view goes and to what extent it may have been shared by the editors of the Bavli (and to an extent Yerushalmi) who previously decided to include this hochma material. RAMBAM’s view was not accepted by subsequent poskim (TUR) and hochma was banished to another department forevermore.

  8. john says:

    As a scientist, I have learned to be patient with scientific or medical statements make in the Bavli. While I cannot explain many of them, I have learned that as scientific knowledge increases, some of the claims that 5 years ago I would have never understood, now I have a scientific explanation. We have a lot to learn about in science and medicine and we shouldnt be too quick to criticize. Rather we should approach this whole issue with an open mind.

    • Zohar says:

      John, I don’t think anyone here is particularly concerned in this study with whether the science is good or not. The question is: why was it discussed in the Talmud and where did it come from?

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