Open Yeshiva: Healing and Medicine in Jewish Thought
Kol Ami Events
About The Events
From the beginning of their history until modern times Jews have exercised a tremendous influence on the development of medical science. They have always been solicitous in their care for the sick and held the medical profession in great esteem. In ancient times medicine and religion were closely connected. The priests were the custodians of public health. The dispute as to the propriety of human interference in sickness – regarded as divine retribution – ceased to trouble the Jews, because they came to regard the physician as the instrument through whom God could effect the cure. Jewish physicians therefore considered their vocation as spiritually endowed and not merely an ordinary profession. By the same token, great demands were made of them, and the ethical standards have always been very high.
The importance of medicine and physicians among the Jews is best seen in the long line of rabbi-physicians, that started during the talmudic period and continued until comparatively recently. Various factors were responsible for this combination of professions. Medicine was sanctioned by biblical and talmudic law and had an important bearing upon religious matters. Since teaching or studying the word of God for reward was not considered ethical, the practice of medicine was most often chosen as a means of livelihood. This trend was further strengthened by the fact that during the greater part of the Middle Ages the Jews were excluded from almost all other occupations, including public office, and medicine was left as one of the few dignified occupations by which they could earn their living.
Jews have contributed to medicine both by the creation of new medical concepts and by the transmission of medical knowledge. It was through the medieval Jewish physician-translators that the medical knowledge of the East and much of ancient Greek medical lore was preserved and transmitted to the West. A general survey of Jews in medicine may be divided into three broad periods:
(a) biblical and talmudic times, which covers the period from antiquity until roughly the fourth to fifth centuries C.E.;
(b) a middle period from approximately the sixth century C.E. to the beginning of the 19th century; and
(c) the 19th and 20th centuries, during which Jews throughout the world have excelled not only in the practice of medicine but in all fields of medical research and teaching. It is significant that over 20% of all winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine up to the end of the 1960s were Jewish.
The high standard of medical science in Israel must be mentioned. Not only have Israeli physicians successfully met the challenge of medical problems in a developing country with a mixed population, but they have continued the ancient Jewish medical tradition by teaching and giving practical aid to those developing countries striving to attain the scientific levels of the 20th and 21st century.