Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Did the Amoraim rely on Divine knowledge of medicine, or on contemporary gentile medicine?

Here is what I would consider to be a good source. Both Rabbi Yochanan and Abaye lacked knowledge of how to treat scurvy on the gums. And they turned to non-Jewish people who told them of the cure. Thus, in Avodah Zarah 28a and elsewhere:
R. Johanan was troubled with scurvy [on his gums] and he went to a certain [heathen] lady who attended to him on the Thursday and the Friday. Said he: What about to morrow? She replied: You will not need [the treatment]. But what if I do need it? he asked. She replied: Swear unto me that you will not reveal [the remedy]. Said he: I swear, to the God of Israel I will not reveal it. She then divulged it to him and on the morrow he referred to it in the course of lecturing. But did he not swear unto her? — He swore: 'To the God of Israel I will not reveal it,' [implying that] I may reveal it to His people Israel. But is this not a profanation of the Name? He mentioned [that proviso] to her originally.
What did she apply to it? — Said R. Aha the son of Raba: Leaven-water with olive oil and salt. Mar son of R. Ashi said: Geese-fat smeared with a goose-quill. Said Abaye: I did all this but was not cured, until a certain Arab told me to get seeds of an olive not one third ripe and burn them on a new spade and spread [the ashes] on the gums; which I did and was cured.
Not only that, but Rav Acha bar Rava and Mar bar Rav Ashi argue what that cure was. How could they argue about this metzius? Should they not know it beruach hakodesh? And then it does not even work! This would imply that Chazal can be wrong in science!

If Rabbi Yochanan mystically knew how to treat scurvy on the gums, why did he have to mislead the gentile woman with a false vow? (Though the gemara makes it into a provision she knew before.) But even with all this, why should he have to seek this knowledge from her? He should have known it already! And the same with Abaye, who tried ineffective treatments first. What happened to sod Hashem liyreav?

Furthermore, are you going to grant the Chazon Ish ruach hakodesh to know this sort of stuff but restrict it from Rabbi Yochanan and Abaye?!

I am sure that some of these questions can be answered without too much of a kvetch. But I don't think all of them can. Rather, pashut peshat in this gemara is that Chazal, at times, relied on contemporary science from the gentiles. (I would add, this is a good thing, and an additional reason to should respect Chazal.)


michael said...

does olive seed have high vitamin c content? Wouldn't burning them damage the ascorbic acid?
Maybe the Arab had ruach hakodesh?

joshwaxman said...

i don't know. but how could the Arab have ruach hakodesh where Abaye did not? more likely, they simply tried different things out and saw what worked.


Michael said...

Sorry. I was being sarcastic. I should have added a :).

joshwaxman said...

ah. whoops! sorry for the misinterpretation.


Chaim B. said...

Can you please provide a mareh makom to a gadol b'yisrael who has said that when the gemara says that gentile doctors were consulted it is not to be taken b'pshuto, or is this just a silly strawman that no one believes in but is easy to knock down?

joshwaxman said...

though i am sure that an intelligent gadol could come up with a false yet convincing "pnimiyus" interpretation of this and other gemaras, no, i do not know of any gadol beyisrael who suggested otherwise.

but neither was it intended as a silly strawman. my point is that there are clearly instances in which Chazal's knowledge in terms of science are not absolute, and they are not omniscient. (unlike the Chazon Ish who *certainly* would be able to cure cancer, as some of the hamon am maintain.) That is, sod Hashem liyreav is NOT absolute, as is almost explicit from this gemara. and no one thought that it is apikorsus, or denigrating Chazal, to say it here.

so why the difference? why should saying in other instances that they relied on contemporary scientists, who could be wrong, be something against our "masorah"? it is up to the non-rationalists to explain. please do so. ;)

kol tuv,

Chaim B. said...

>>>That is, sod Hashem liyreav is NOT absolute, as is almost explicit from this gemara.

Yes, where Chazal tell us they relied on gentiles instead of sod Hashem, then sod Hashem is not applicable. No gedolei yisrael say this is kefira, so pshita, mai kah mashma lan?

>>>why should saying in other instances that they relied on contemporary scientists, who could be wrong, be something against our "masorah"?

Where the gemara explicitly tells us non-Jews were consulted for something like refu'ah, that's what it means. Where the gemara does not make such an explicit declaration and there is a mesorah of gedolei yisrael who interpret otherwise, then that's the approach we should take to read the gemara. Where is the confusion?

It's like asking why in some cases we read a braysa k'pshuto and other cases the gemara sets up an ukimta and says the braysa is only talking about a very specific case. How did they know? What's the difference? In a word: mesorah.

joshwaxman said...

"Yes, where Chazal tell us they relied on gentiles instead of sod Hashem, then sod Hashem is not applicable. No gedolei yisrael say this is kefira, so pshita, mai kah mashma lan?"

how many times did the gemara say sod Hashem liyreav in terms of medical knowledge? two times! and these were not the only options in these cases! and how many times do we find that they consulted non-Jews? i don't know all of them, but let us say they are few.

so both are options. why prefer X over Y? you may or may not deny it, but i strongly suspect you would *prefer* X over Y. and not because of "masorah". (i put it in quotes because this is debatable, where rishonim differ from acharonim.) rather, i think you prefer it because as you wrote elsewhere (I am paraphrasing), if Chazal are not superhuman in possessing secret scientific knowledge from On High, how can we look up to them and trust them for Torah? and i think that rather than looking for truth, you are looking for the most flattering explanation (based on your post giving the three alternatives and asking why a rationalist would "prefer" the one which made a conflict, with Chazal being wrong).

i look at these rationalizations and apologetics as bull, but bull which certain segments of frum society train themselves in until they convince themselves that it is convincing. ("masorah" is then the consensus which has developed for sociological reasons to adopt the farfetched apologetics.)

one of the two sod Hashems is for ben Azzai, where the gemara previously asserted that it was across the board based on experience. that prompted a Sod Hashem liyreav.

but in the general case, where it is not explicit that they got it from gentile sources, and it is not explicit that it was a secret from on high, and where we KNOW (and as you admit) that Chazal were willing to ask the gentile scientists, why would you assert that in all those cases the answer is certainly sod Hashem liyreav?! This is BEFORE we get to any problems with the fact that the science is false.

But when we ADD to it that the science is now (in the 21st century, but often not to the rishonim) known to be false; and where again we know they were willing to consult scientists, and in matters where you admit these scientists were wrong; and where when we look at the science of the times, it was the same as what Chazal were saying, how can you say with a straight face that Chazal were not relying on the science of their times (which was the same), but were saying some "Sod" from On High; or meant it as some secret message?

i know: "masorah".

(i would add: as a thinking human being, if you did not have to listen to chareidi consensus or "masorah," which do you think is more likely in why medicine or science does not appear to accord to reality? nishtaneh hateva? or that in many cases they match faulty gentile science of their day, and Chazal were passing on established medical knowledge?

when the gemara states that a man's spine turns into a snake after seven years, would you claim this is Sod Hashem Liyreav? Would you say that the reason it does not nowadays is nishtaneh hateva? Would you assert that there is a "pnimiyus" explanation? Great. Now I show you in black on white that this was the medical belief of Pliny, and thus was the established medical belief of the time, as if Einstein in our days had asserted it. Do you still maintain that Chazal meant it as pnimiyus? Did Pliny mean it as such?)

regardless, i think that the idea that Chazal asked gentile scientists in certain explicit cases in the gemara is not in the forefront of the Chareidi mind. or else why would Rav Chaim Kanievsky assert that anyone disagreeing with the geocentric model of the earth is an apikores. Bringing up these counterexamples is a good reminder that "sod Hashem liyreav" is not necessarily the rule.

kol tuv,

Shades of Gray said...


You might want to look at the Chazon Ish in Emunah Ubitachon Perek 5, where the general thrust, IIRC, is that ancient science was at least as accurate in *principal* as current science, but they didn't use it for practical purposes(applied science). To the contrary, according to the Chazon Ish, contemporary science is built on the principles of the science of the previous generations, some of which was forgotten.

This is also partially based on IIRC sefer Chochmas Shlomo, quoted in the preface to Ramban on Chumash which holds that Shlomo Hamelech knew all contemporary wisdom. Also, I've heard the Kuzari quoted that science came from Jews.

The Charedi worldview is therefore based on the Chazon Ish cited above, on the Ramban(and kabbalah) of all science being in the Torah and on the fact that falsities can not be in the Torah, as R. Aharon Feldman writes on the Slifkin issue.

One question I have is that this is adding an ikkar to Judaism: ie, the historicty of the development of science. It is not enough to believe that Torah S'hbal Peh was passed down and lived from generation to generation, but there is also the seemingly anachronistic belief that ancients knew more than the moderns(see Chazon Ish, above at length--perhaps you understand it differently). Seemingly, however, the development of science, in general would not be an ikkar in Yahadus.

I don't know the Rambam's shittah regarding the development of science and what Chazal knew(it might have to do with how he understands Maaseh Merkavah), but in Kiddush Hachodesh he mentions seforim of Bnei Yissachar, so that might be one example of the minimum which the Rambam holds one must believe was written B'ruach Hakodesh. There is also the gemera with the Sefer Harefuos which was hidden(also quoted in Emunah Ubitachon).

There are those who go further and say that Rishonim and the Vilna Gaon could have invented modern day technology if they wanted to but didn't because it could be misued(see link below from the Yated). It's interesting on that note, that Di Vinci had plans for a flying machine!


See also Maharatz Chiyus opinion quoted here by R. Chaim B.(interesting as he was a partial Maskil according to Rebbetzin Beruriah David !)


I am not paskening regarding any of the above, just laying out the source of the shittos, and possible difficulties.

Anonymous said...


What does Rabbi yochanan and Abaye's education and or level of knowledge have to do with the Chazon Ish and whether or nòt he was familiar with the workings of the brain on a neurosurgical level.

In order to determine the intellectúal IQ of a given sage you need to do it on a case by case in the original context basis.

Have you ever done a textual analysis of all the references to brain surgery in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian talmuds. I once came across a brilliant paper that dealt with brain surgery in the talmud , actúal sources included.

I forgot the name of the author.

Anyway once youre done compiling all of the references to brain surgery , crude and òr òtherwise in both the babylonian and Jerusalem talmuds the sources then need to be analyzed and compared to the pûrported knowledge of the chazon ish and what precisely the brain surgery claims are.

Ánd then óne can determine whether its possible to have an indepth understanding of the brain , by spraining a brain over the talmud.

jaded topaz

Anonymous said...


I forgot my main point. There are two different questions that need to be asked. Firstly, regarding the chazon ish, the question is is it possible to attain a Deep understanding of the complicated intricate workings of the brain, , circuitry system and brain , surgery , using the talmud as a basis for that knowledge.

Im nòt sure where the whole "ruach hakodesh" concept comes from òr how everyone is defining that term in this context. Are you questioning whether òr nòt "yiras shamayim" can actúally enhance onès understanding of a given talmudic concept ?
And the knowledge between the lines ?

And the second question is why would learning from the talmud, and òr learning torah, by definition, exclude important knowledge , from any source ?

According to ethics of the fathers, the Wise person is the óne that learns from everyone.

jaded topaz

Chaim B. said...

as a thinking human being, if you >>>did not have to listen to chareidi consensus or "masorah," which do you think is more likely in why medicine or science does not appear to accord to reality? nishtaneh hateva? or that in many cases they match faulty gentile science of their day, and Chazal were passing on established medical knowledge?

How many gedolei yisrael are not "thinking human beings" in your view? The GR"A? The Maharal?

The reason gedolim reject this approach and find it to be harmful is because it engenders exactly the attitude towards chachamei hamesorah which you have expressed.

joshwaxman said...

do the Gra and Maharal say that in general, medicine in the Talmud is the result of sod Hashem liyreav as opposed to consulting scientists? (I don't know, I'm asking, because you seemed to imply this.)

Don't hide behind Gra and Maharal. What do *you* maintain? They lived in different times, in different environments. The Gra was able to believe that the world was still flat. And much like Rav Shmueli (see my post from about 10 minutes ago) and Rav Kanievsky who believe that Jews have more teeth than goyim, this does not make him a moron. It makes human, and a product of his limited environment.

You are much more with it, in terms of modern science, I would guess. Such that you stated that you could not believe that any chareidi would believe in a geocentric model. As such, my "thinking human being" was addressed to you. Knowing what you know about science, do you honestly believe nishtaneh hateva is reality? It was a plausible answer at the time of Tosafot, and Rosh's variant can be worked out with Galenic science, but not nowadays for anyone who is intellectually honest and somewhat knowledgeable in modern science, IMHO.

I apologize if I was intemperate in the previous response to you. It was a reaction of frustration.

The Gedolim of today, of the chareidi world, do indeed reflect the limitations of the chareidi world in general. And so it is very circular. And no, I do not think that because Gadol X says something that I may not divert yemin usmol. If you tell me that I must, or else I am a heretic, then so be it. If Judaism by definition is falsehood, then I want no part in it. (Of course, I believe in a Torah that is true, and a Judaism that is true, but we are dealing with a counterfactual.) The end game of persuading me that one *must* believe bovine excrement will not be to make me believe bovine excrement. It would be to convince be that Judaism and our masorah is false.

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

"The reason gedolim reject this approach and find it to be harmful is because it engenders exactly the attitude towards chachamei hamesorah which you have expressed."

you mean that the reason the gedolim reject this approach is not because the approach is false? they are making a decision of convenience? truth is truth, and damn the consequences. and their rejecting of the approach and labeling it heretical, and telling people that that cannot think, is IMHO what undermines trust in gedolim. it is all rather circular. Chazal were not like these particular Gedolim, then. Chazal heard the truth from he who said it, were willing to say the gentiles' cosmology was more accurate than theirs, were open to scientific inquiry and results. (i would add that it is likely that the reason they reject the particular apologetic is that they are often not well-versed enough in science to see the strength of the question prompting the apologetic.)

luckily, i have my own rabbeim, within a more intellectually honest Judaism, who do maintain otherwise, and who i look up to. rabbi tendler, for example, has said that the only error Chazal made was in saying "yesh chachma bagoyim, taamin." in matters such as this, in a conflict with certain chareidi Gedolim, it is no contest.

kol tuv,


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