Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Haimishe [home] Remedies - Shabbat 66

The first half today’s page is consumed with the debate of whether an individual with a prosthetic leg or arm can wear them out of the house on Shabbat. The fact that the discussion takes that long is one problem; its conclusions are still another. What is more interesting to us is the later discussion of what kinds of cures and treatments are permissible to use on Shabbat – not for what it teaches us about Shabbat observance, but for what it demonstrates about the treatment of illness in rabbinic times. And even back then, there was suspicion of how effective the cures were: wearing 3 garlands can stop an illness, 5 can cure it, and 7 can protect against witchcraft! But like every good magical cure, there are enough conditions to make disproving it impossible: according to Rabbi Aha ben Jacob, these garlands only work if they have not been seen by sun, moon or rain, nor has it heard iron, chickens, or footsteps. Thus another one says, in effect, very helpful since that’s basically impossible to do!

Other cures permitted on Shabbat: putting a hot cup on the stomach for stomachache, swaddling a baby, or wearing a “preserving stone” (to prevent miscarriage). We also learn that one may rub oil or salt into the skin. In fact, three famous Rabbis would rub oil and salt into their hands and their insteps to sober up! Once they were feeling tipsy, they would rub in these materials and recite: “just as this oil becomes clear, so may the wine become clear.” Or, if this didn’t work, they’d soak clay from a wine vessel in water, asking for the same result. We still have “home remedies” today, but it’s interesting to see what they were centuries ago.

Abaye even shares some tricks he learned from his mother: all incantations that must be repeated many times should include the name of the sick person’s mother, and whenever the number of repetitions is not specified, it should be 41. And if you have a daily fever, you take a new coin and equivalent weight in salt, and tie both to your neck with a twisted cord. Or sit a crossroads and catch an ant with a large burden in a brass tube that you seal with lead, then shake it and magically transfer your burden to the ant. Or go to a river, take a pitcher of water, swing it around your head 7 times, then throw it over your back, all while asking the river to borrow some water and then announcing its return. Since I don’t believe the river is really listening these days, I think I prefer ibuprofen.

Rabbi Adam Chalom