|Vol. I, No. 10
Tebeth 5604, January 1844
History of the Jewish Physicians, from the French of E. Carmoly, by John R. W. Dunbar, M. D. &c. Baltimore, 8 vo. pp. 94.
We have frequently said that the inferiority for the last few centuries chargeable upon the Jews in a literary point of view was not owing to any inherent defect for literary development among our people, but to the grinding oppression which every nation thought it a species of duty to inflict upon our race. The idea of allowing a Jew to enter a workshop to learn a useful trade was considered preposterous; and it was of course out of the question to permit him to frequent the collegiate halls, whence he might carry away a knowledge of the sciences. No wonder, then, that by degrees the Jew learnt to hate mechanical occupations, which were beyond his reach, and to neglect sciences which he could acquire only with immense labour and the most patient self-instruction. That notwithstanding this some few became eminent in sciences, is but another evidence of the elasticity of the Jewish mind, which under all the hardships to which it was exposed would not permit itself to sink into barbarism, or moral debasement. When, however, it was permitted to us to devote ourselves to the acquisition of learning, as was the case before the dark period commencing in Spain with the era of Ferdinand and Isabella, and in other countries a little earlier or later, we took a stand among the men of science which placed us in the front ranks of civilization. Of this the fragmentary little volume before us gives ample proof, and we thank Dr. Dunbar that he has rendered the information, imperfect as it is, accessible to the English reader.
The book opens with tracing the first dawning of medical knowledge in the book of Genesis where we find "that Egypt, the ancient cradle of wisdom, was in possession of the art of embalming the body at the time of Joseph.—(Gen. 1.1, 2.) This custom would imply in the Egyptians some idea of anatomy, and would early give them knowledge in reference to the seat of diseases, and the derangement produced by them. The question has often been discussed, whether the Hebrews taught the healing art to the Egyptians, or learnt it from them. On this point it will be sufficient to remark, that the two nations having dwelt a long time together, would necessarily interchange their science and knowledge."
The author places Moses high among scientific medical men, and supports his claim by the part of the law which contains hygienic directions, the signs of the white leprosy, and the means to cure it; and he asserts that his exactness of the description of this terrible disease has been corroborated by the researches of modern physicians.
Mr. Carmoly thinks that in the first period of the Jewish state the priests were the physicians of the people, and that the practice of medicine remained associated with them even after they became masters of Palestine. Diseases were always considered as occasioned directly by the Most High, and it was his direct agency which cured them.
Solomon, however, is considered as having taught how to cure diseases by natural means, and tradition ascribes to him "the Sepher Refuoth," or book of healing diseases, which Hezekiah is said to have destroyed; and the medical works attributed to him bore his fame even to the Arabians. After the death of Solomon, the healing art is said to have fallen in the hands of the prophets, who by their prayers were enabled to cure diseases. But it seems to us that the prophetic interference was only upon occasions where human skill had been invoked in vain, or when it was necessary to punish or bless signally in a miraculous manner. Certain it is, that the word "physician" occurs frequently in the prophetic writings; a memorable instance in Jeremiah will no doubt recur to the reader's mind: "Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there?"
Mr. Carmoly says in continuation:
"On the other hand there is no doubt that this science was cultivated by the doctors of the law, of whom Ezra, the scribe, may be considered the chief. The doctors of the law have always been the depositaries of it and esteemed it as appertaining exclusively to their province. Seeing the influence and consideration that their knowledge gave them with the public they shrouded it in mystery, and took all possible precaution to prevent the admission of other classes of the community.
"But did they cultivate this science in a methodical manner, and is it evident that what they have done gave it a perceptible progress? We think not; at least they have handed down to us nothing by which we could judge. Nevertheless, according to tradition, Ezra and Nehemiah were very well versed in the virtues of herbs and the qualities of roots."
We have only to object to one sentence in the above, that the doctors of the law shrouded their knowledge in mystery. Certainly the open treatises of the Talmud afford no evidence of the fact; for there is recorded whatever the doctors themselves knew. There can be no doubt that the unlearned were held in but little esteem. Does not this rather argue that ignorance was held unpardonable, because knowledge was within reach of all?
Of the Essenians we are presented with the following notice:
"Finally, at this time, an entire sect of the Jews were celebrated for their skill in the treatment of diseases. They were called indiscriminately by the name of Essenians, or by that of Therapeutists, signifying healers—physicians. The most remarkable man among them was Theodore, the physician, a man of great merit, who flourished at Alexandria.*
"The Essenians, distinguished for their pure and amiable morality, cultivated medicine not only to make themselves more acceptable, but to discover the means of perfecting the mental qualities, by rendering the body most healthy. Apostles of their doctrines, they confirmed them by a great number of remarkable cures.
"The members of this sect were esteemed as saints and physicians, who could by faith and words alone, heal diseases. This plan of driving unclean spirits from the body of the diseased by their conjurations, was also pursued at that time by the Pharisees. Josephus* relates a case of which he was an eye-witness, of the cure of one possessed with an unclean spirit, produced by a certain Eleazer, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian. The physician introduced into the nose of the sick person, a root recommended in similar cases by King Solomon, which God had endowed with this property: he pronounced, besides, the name of this ancient kind of Israel, and the magical formula which he had laid down."
The destruction of Jerusalem, as our author affirms, did not affect learning among the Jews, and the medical art particularly was taught with great care. The Talmud, indeed, is full of medical notices, and matters relating to natural history. Incidentally Mr. Carmoly asserts in this connexion "that the book of Zohar, (a cabalistic work of great repute) has been falsely attributed to Simeon Ben Jochai, a doctor of the second century; but that, it is in fact the work of Moses, of Leon, a Rabbi of the third century, which we have proved elsewhere." We are somewhat curious to see the proofs which Mr. C. has adduced to establish that the Zohar is not the work of Rabbi Simeon, to whom it is generally ascribed, especially by the numerous adherents of the work, with which we regret we have but a slight acquaintance.
Concerning the medical acquirements of the Jews in the third century, Mr. Carmoly says:
"However limited and imperfect the medical knowledge of the Jews at the third century may appear to us, if we compare it with the actual condition of medicine, we cannot deny the tribute of admiration to the discoveries which they have made, and the great eminence to which they had carried the healing art, notwithstanding the state of ignorance which prevailed in reference to the science. We shall only speak of three physicians of that period. Hannina is the first of all the physicians of his nation. He placed upon his seal a branch of the palm tree, a symbol of true medicine.* He became the physician of Yehuda, son of Simeon, called by distinction, Rabbi, Hanassi, Hakadosh, that is to say, master, prince and saint, who died in the year 205. The Talmud refers to our physician as distinguished at that period.†
"The second, Samuel, rendered himself remarkable among the most celebrated physicians of his time. He is generally styled Yarchinai the astronomer, on account of his great knowledge in the science of the stars. Samuel, after having practised medicine in Palestine, established himself at Neharda, (Hardith) a city of Lower Mesopotamia, which he rendered famous by his miraculous cures. He was a good accoucheur, an excellent oculist, and cured the celebrated Yehuda, the prince, with a certain remedy which bears his name, the collyrium of Samuel.* His medical aphorisms are well known to the Talmudists.† Samuel appears in the sandy plains of medicine like that bountiful river which causes fertility through a part of the fields of Egypt. With what friendship does he hold the hand of Rabbi Samuel and Rab were always closely united. A sympathy of disposition and character, an unalterable attachment, the same fondness for study, the same love for the sciences, distinguished these two friends. Whilst the first rendered himself immortal by the theory as well as the practice of medicine, the other devoted himself to the study of anatomy, so much neglected up to that period. He devoted a considerable sum for the purchase of subjects, in order that he. might prosecute his anatomical researches.‡ But notwithstanding his researches, he described at that period only two hundred and forty-eight parts in man; but so little did they understand the true value of his science that they made use after his death, in 243, of the earth of his tomb to cure a fever." §
The progress of the sciences of medicine kept pace with the other studies which occupied the Jewish schools during the time that the Talmudic doctors flourished, and these left a large fund of sound aphorisms and their acquired experience in anatomy and practice of medicine, although some of what they have asserted is not founded upon observation, and is only owing to the prejudices of the age in which they lived, as our author justly remarks. We will merely add in this connexion, that to sit down to the perusal of the Talmud, to find there all the results and discoveries of modern science, or otherwise to pronounce its authors as unlearned, would be equally as absurd as to blame Socrates for not entertaining the doctrines of monotheistic systems, with which his age and country were entirely unacquainted.
After the close of the Talmud, "the fall of the Persian Empire, the conquest of the Arabians, and the numerous revolutions of which these events were either the cause or the consequence, disturbed the quiet of the Oriental academies, and produced a decline in medicine as well as all the other sciences cultivated in those schools." And with the decline of true science, empiricism, as usual in other cases, raised its head, and a miraculous cabbala was resorted to effect what simple applications of natural means can alone effect. It was thus, that from the fifth to the seventh century of the common era, true medicine found but few votaries, as far as the records, which are doubtlessly very imperfect, will permit us to judge. But, "though the number of learned Israelites had much diminished during the conquest of Persia by the Saracens, and notwithstanding their books, equally with those of the Persians, had been destroyed by the order of the Caliph Omar, the taste for study was not entirely destroyed, but it soon revived and medicine resumed its ancient splendour."
"Maser Djawah Ebn Djeldjal, of Basra, appeared. This celebrated physician was one of those remarkable geniuses that nature appears to raise up from time to time to revolutionize the sciences. This able physician, who at the same time was a good poet, judicious critic, and profound philosopher, taught the Arabians the arts and sciences; he prevailed on the Caliph Moawia, the first, whose physician he was, to cause works which were written in foreign languages to be translated, to put them in the power of the whole world.
In the work which he translated from the Greek into the Syriac language, there is a disquisition on the small-pox. The first description of which is not due to Mohamed ben Zazaria Razi, as is generally supposed.
"At the period that Maser Djawah rendered such great services to his art, some other Hebrew physicians established among the Nestorians a celebrated school of medicine at Djondisabour, in Khusistan.* Students flocked there from all parts to listen to the most celebrated masters of that epoch. In an hospital situated near that celebrated school, the young students were initiated into the practices of the art, and received clinical lessons; their pupils obtained the greatest success, so much so that on leaving this school they were deemed qualified to fill the place of professors in medical and other institutions."
The second caliph of the line of the Abassides, Abou Giaffir Almanzor, having been restored from a dangerous illness by the skill of a physician from the Nestorian school, established a college at Baghdad, which through the translation of those Greek works which had been before neglected, powerfully contributed to give to the young Israelites the desire for instruction. Our author continues:
"The school of Baghdad soon became celebrated. From it arose Isaac Ben Emran, a celebrated physician and philosopher. Born at Damascus, he came at an early period to Baghdad to study medicine, and there made such progress, that Zaid, an African Emir of Kairouan, the chief city of the Arabs in Barbary, gave him his full confidence and appointed him his physician. Zaid having fallen sick, a Christian physician condemned so obstinately all that had been directed by the Jewish physician that he could not but perceive that the sole object of the Christian was to deprive him of the good-will of the Emir.
"Isaac could not submit to such treatment. He declined attending upon the case of Zaid, not so much from anger as on account of attachment for him. When the Emir demanded the reason of his conduct, he replied in these remarkable words: 'The disagreement of two physicians is more deadly than a Tertian fever.' This was apparently the year 183 of the Hegira (799 of the common era)."