A Passover Health Care D'var Torah

The Torah reading this week is from Exodus, and begins with God telling Moses that the Israelites have made the golden calf, and that Moses had better get down and deal with them before God gets really mad.  And deal with it he does - he makes the Israelites drink water containing the ashes of the golden calf, the Levites kill thousands, and when Moses ascends the mountain to intervene on the people's behalf,

The Lord sent a plague upon the people for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.  Exodus 32:35

Plagues abound in the Passover story.  There are ten plagues in Egypt before Pharaoh will let the Israelites leave, culminating with the plague of the first born.  At the seder we remember the plagues by taking a drop of wine out of our wine glass as we name each one, because our joy is diminished by the suffering of others.

The Israelites obviously believed that the plague was a punishment.  Where did this idea come from?  What did people at that time believe about disease?

Medicine in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was advanced in many ways.  The Egyptians, due to their embalming practices, had a very good knowledge of anatomy and of the functions of most organs.  They reversed the functions of heart and brain however, setting the emotions in the brain and reason in the heart, a discrepancy carried into the Bible by the Israelites.  We sometimes forget that when the Bible speaks of loving God with all your heart, it means with all your reason.  To me, that seems even stronger than the usual interpretation.

The Egyptians practiced surgery and over centuries developed a large pharmacological knowledge of herbs and mineral and animal remedies.  The link below lists substances used in Egyptian medical practice.  Another site that I could not link to actually gave some recipes.  The doctors were for the most part priests, and amulets and rituals were a large part of medical practice.  Incantations were given with herbs, and gave them their power.  Illness was the result of an adversary, which could be a demon or a dead person.  Dream interpretation might help identify the source. A healthy way of life was recommended, including avoiding foods likely to be dangerous such as raw fish.

It was in Mesopotamia, however, that the idea of the Gods causing illness really began.  The existance of illness and death was explained as a way to keep people from becoming too numerous, since their noise disturbed the gods.  People were created to be servants to the gods, after all, not to bother them.

The Assyrians and later the Babylonians believed that illness was caused by demons that were invisible.  Religious ritual was part of any cure, but surgery was also used.  Dream interpretation played a large part of diagnosis.  Both the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians used signs to assist in diagnosis.  They had some knowledge of anatomy, but gave ultimate importance to the liver, possible because of its size and concentration of blood - emotions and reason were located there.  The importance of the liver was also recognized in Egypt but it shared primacy with the heart and brain.

Back to Exodus.  The story of this plague after the golden calf shows that infectious diseases were God-given, and were the result of sin.  Other, individual illnesses were also brought on by sin - think of the story of Miriam developing leprosy for rebelling against Moses in Numbers.  Treatment was entrusted to the priests, and took place outside of the camp.  Physical disease was a sign of spiritual disease, and therefore the priests were the appropriate people to intervene between the patient and God.  

I find it fascinating that the idea of displeasing the gods (sin) originated in Mesopotamia, since that is where Abraham came from.  How much more powerful would this be when there was only one God, and no others to plead for one.  We can also remember that for the ancient Israelites sin was the cause of disease and death, embodied in the story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden.

The Hebrews interacted with both cultures.  The patriarchs traveled between Canaan and Egypt and Mesopotamia.  The area was united by trade so the relationship between medicine in these countries and the medicine we see in the Bible is not surprising.

Have a healthy spring holiday, whatever spring holiday you celebrate.  This is a season of renewal and hope.  Next year peace in Jerusalem, and universal health care here.


I have been unable to link to the article that was most helpful to me about Assyrian medicine.  If you search under Assyrian medicine, it's the article from the University of Virginia.  They are changing from one etext system to another.  It is called Assyrian and Babylonian medicine, and the header is here:

Osler, Sir William . The Evolution of Modern Medicine
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library


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The TOC - http://etext.virginia.edu/...
which has links to separate sections and chapters.

The entire work - http://etext.virginia.edu/...

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson

Seems that quite a contemporary message. God punishes those who worship the Golden Calf!


Feiler has written several boks taking a historical look at the Biblical stories held in common by all three Biblical faiths. Here he writes for Gourmet magazine. The title of his piece  Who Invited This Guy? is a riff on how he shares his expertise with folks during the Passover seder -- whether they like it or not!