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“Everything which heals is not of the ways of the Amorites” – Doctors, Medicine and Healing Magic in Talmudic Texts and Adjacent Traditions in Late Antiquity

18.12.2016 - 20.12.2016

Session in the context of the Annual Meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS), San Diego

Chair/ Session organizer: Lennart Lehmhaus (Freie Universität Berlin, SFB 980)
Respondent: Charlotte Fonrobert (Stanford)

The session explored interrelated aspects of discourses on medical experts, healing and magic in Jewish Late Antiquity in the light of their different cultural and religious milieux. The ambiguous relationship of the Talmudic rabbis as religious experts to other fields of expertise will be discussed. Competing experts and approaches challenged the rabbis’ views, especially in delicate areas such as medicine, healing and magic. The comparison with non-rabbinic and non-Jewish healing cultures (magic bowls/ Christian texts/ Greco-Roman medicine) will help to figure out the particularities of the Talmudic approaches. All close readings will focus also on the literary or textual (re)presentations and the contextual integration of those discourses. Finally, the still strong dichotomy between religion and magic or (rationale) medicine and magic will be scrutinized.


Shulamit Shinnar (New York) will discuss the relationship between doctors, rabbis and patients as described in the Palestinian rabbinic traditions. The talk addresses the sometimes tension-filled process of knowledge exchange between those groups with a special focus on the rabbinic attitudes. What kind of expertise do rabbis seek from doctors and in what particular circumstances? Furthermore, the particular rabbinic knowledge about the body will be evaluated through close readings against the backdrop of medical practice in the Greco Roman world.

Monika Amsler (Zurich) revisits the rather puzzling question of the connections between medicine, magic and religion in Talmudic Judaism. Through a comparison with contemporary Christian attitudes to magic in the field of healing some of the distinct aspects of the pertinent discourse in the Babylonian Talmud will be fleshed out.

Jason Mokhtarian (Bloomington) complements this discussion with a comparative analysis of a shared discourse on magic and medicine in late ancient Mesopotamia. By contextualizing the Jewish incantation bowls within a broader Aramaic culture of healing as attested in the Bavli, Syriac-Christian and Mandaic traditions, such knowledge and practices might have been rooted in the realm of endemic ancient Mesopotamian culture.

The panel brings together fresh perspectives on complex interrelations between medicine and magic as cultural knowledge and practices in late ancient Judaism. All presenters provide innovative readings of rabbinic and other relevant sources equipped with a broad range of theoretical and methodological approaches. The presentations and the contribution of Charlotte Fonrobert, who will discuss the three papers in her response, intend to inspire lively discussions among the panelists as well as conversations with the audience interested in late ancient Jewish attitudes to medicine in Talmudic culture and beyond.


Individual paper abstracts of panelists

Shulamit Shinnar, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University: "Rabbis, Doctors and Patients: Conceptions of Medical Expertise and Knowledge in Rabbinic Literature"

Rabbinic literature describes various legal cases where doctors and other medical practitioners are consulted. These consultations sometimes impact rabbinic legal rulings. For example, famously, in Mishnah Yoma, the question of sick people fasting on Yom Kippur is raised. In the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds, the text describes that doctors are consulted in order to help determine if such a person may eat on the fast day. In the Tosefta and Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud Niddah, doctors are consulted to identify abnormal vaginal secretions. These and other such texts, from the perspective of the history of medicine, are fascinating. Historians of medicine note that in the modern period, perhaps even the early modern periods, due to the institutionalization and professionalization of medicine, the concept of medical expertise was transformed as the doctor-patient relationship became increasingly hierarchical with doctors gaining the authority as experts. Furthermore, the role of the sick person in the doctor-patient relationship slowly disappeared: doctors became less interested in the specific experiences of a sick individual and sought to identify and treat diseases carried by a seemingly abstract and faceless patient. In the pre-modern era, before this shift, it is important to consider the variety of models for doctor-patient interactions and the diverse types of expertise medical practitioners provided. In late antiquity, with the variety of medical professionals available and varying degrees of professionalization, the possible relationship between doctors and their patients were quite different than those in the modern world. In this paper, focusing on a series of texts from Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Palestinian Talmud Yoma and Niddah, I will examine the relationship between doctors, patients, and rabbis described. I will consider the way in which rabbis imagined the role and expertise of doctors and how this model fits into understandings of medical expertise in the broader Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. I argue that examining the described rabbinic consultations of doctors provides insight into how rabbinic literature understood knowledge and expertise about the body and health.

Monika Amsler, Universität Zürich: "Is it Magic at All? How to Come to Terms with the Rabbinic Attitude towards Magic"

When working on the subject matter of Talmudic medicine one is immediately confronted with the category of magic. But this category, so vital for Late Antique Christianity as a device to establish a dichotomy between legitimate and deviant practices, does not seem to have been of concern to the Babylonian rabbis. Indeed, it seems that Babylonian rabbinic Jewry was preoccupied to establish a distinct Jewish way of living by means of dichotomies with which Deuteronomy 18, 10-11, the scriptural basis for the Christian agitation against what they called Magic, had nothing to do. That way, rabbinic medicine could embrace whatever was beneficial to the body and became very diverse.

This paper aims to show that the results of an investigation into the rabbinic attitude towards magic are much more sound, if we do not presuppose a dichotomy between religion and magic but, instead, look for the rabbinic shaping of the Talmudic medicine according to their Halakha - and the shaping of the Halakha in accord with their medicine.

Jason Sion Mokhtarian, Indiana University, Department of Religious Studies: “Magic and Medicine in the Jewish Aramaic Incantation Bowls”

This paper explores the ways in which the Jewish Aramaic incantation texts can be productively contextualized vis-à-vis other medicinal discourses of Sasanian Mesopotamia, as found in the Babylonian Talmud, Christian/Syriac texts, and Mandaic literatures. Was there a shared discourse around magic and medicine between the various communities in late Sasanian Mesopotamia? And what is the relationship, if any, between the construction of religious, political, and ethnic identities of individuals and communities, on the one hand, and the medicinal systems that they used, on the other? By comparing the Jewish bowls with external sources, including the Syriac and Mandaic bowls and ancient Mesopotamian literature about exorcists and doctors, I hope to demonstrate how Jews, Christians, and Mandaeans circa the 5-7th centuries C.E. shared a cultural Aramaic heritage that was influenced by indigenous Mesopotamian culture in the practical and discursive aspects of medicine, disease, and health. Unlike Babylonian Talmudic Judaism, which often emerges in relation to the Palestinian Tannaitic and Amoraic traditions, the Aramaic bowls represent a more indigenous form of expression in the realm of medicine and the supernatural. This paper thus attempts to flesh out some of the broader contextual implications of scholarly definitions of the incantation bowls as medicinal texts.