i. Jewish Medical Ethics, Introduction (pp. xxxvi-xxxix):
To introduce our study of the Jewish sources, we may here also consider the position of the main rabbinic authorities cited in the present work in relation to the advances of medical knowledge and practice. To appreciate the historical significance of our principal sources, the important fact must be emphasised that the great medieval codes of Jewish law ae fundamentally codifications of talmudic law and practice, with relatively very few amendments. In their contents and largely in the illustration of their legal principles, therefore, they mirror the conditions of Jewish life and law at the time of the Talmud rather than those prevailing in their own days. This consideration applies in particular to the medical data contained in these codes. Even in the Shulhan Arukh, the last and most authoritative of them, most of the diseases, treatments, and medicaments mentioned had their origin in the Talmud over a thousand years earlier. Little or no account is taken of medical facts observed in the intervening millenium, relatively insignificant as these may have been. This does not imply that the codifiers of Jewish law ignored the changes around them or that they accepted the medical authority of the ancients as infallible. They simply limited the deposition and classification of their rulings to laws treated in the Talmud and some later masters, leaving the study of new precedents mainly to their many collections of responsa.
In some cases, however, the codes themselves (and particularly their commentaries), while still recording certain talmudic health rules and medico-religious laws, indicate that these were no longer operative in post-talmudic times. The rabbis, to justify such modification or invalidation of the original laws, argued that they had lost their validity owing to changes in time, local conditions or even nature since their enactment – a device also used by some 16th century physicians to explain discrepancies between the anatomical teachings of the ancients and the discoveries of later times.
This reasoning is already found in the Talmud itself. Thus, the School of HILLEL opposed reducing the legal minimum age at which males could beget children from nine to eight years – although such cases had (according to tradition) occurred in biblical times – because (they argued) "we do not make analogies with earlier generations". RAV likewise desired to cut from ten to two and a half years the period of childlessness (after marriage) which renders a divorce obligatory, since "the earlier generations lived long, whereas the years of the latter generations are short". But as a recognised legal principle this proposition was employed only by TOSAPHOTH and some subsequent masters of Jewish law. In this way, "changes in nature" were said to account for the ineffectiveness of talmudic medicaments, for the decrease in the minimum gestation period of a viable offspring from seven or nine complete months to seven or nine incomplete months in the case of human beings, and from three years to two in the case of cows, and for the abrogation of laws directed against the supposed danger of uncovered liquids, even numbers and evil spirits. Other authorities in the 15th and 16th centuries had recourse to the same principle to explain why, contrary to the Talmud, cows could produce milk before calving, and why fasts during a plague increased the danger to those afflicted. In the last century, the argument that nature had changed was also put forward to vindicate the omission of certain talmudic health regulations in the code of MAIMONIDES. Sometimes, again, the law would change, not with nature, but with local variations (climate?), a point mentioned by TOSAPHOTH and SOLOMON LURIA in connection with the safety "in our lands" from the hazards of even numbers and dangerous spirits, and by KARO in regard to the talmudic restrictions on blood-letting "which applied only in Babylonia".
The general limitations in the efficacy of remedies mentioned or recommended in the Talmud were already recognised at an earlier date. SHERIRA Gaon, in the 10th century, commenting on the popular cures listed in the seventh chapter of the tractate Gittin, gave the lead. "We must tell you," he wrote, "that our sages were no physicians; they only recommended that which experience had proved helpful. Their counsels in this field are by no means laws. You must not, therefore, rely on medicines mentioned in the Talmud. Only he may use them who has had them examined and confirmed by experienced physicians, and who has the assurance that at least they can do no harm. Thus our forefathers also teach us that one may employ only those remedies of which one is certain they produce no injurious effects".
This advice is very similar to thr attitude adopted, centuries later, by Arab teachers to "the Prophet's Medicine" – a systematic collection of the scanty medical material furnished by the Koran and other Mohammedan traditions. Thus the great Arab writer IBN KHALDUN (c. 1400) – referring to MOHAMMED's own withdrawal of his ban on the artificial fecundation of the date palm, in view of its disastrous effects on the fruit crop ("You know better than I what concerns your worldly interests") – asserts that the Prophet's medical rules need not be followed, because his "mission was to make known to us the prescriptions of the Divine Law, and not ot instruct us in medicine and in the common practices of ordinary life".
SHERIRA's views paved the way for even more radical opinions by later Jewish teachers. Accordingly, it was not only unnecessary or unwise, but positively wrong to rely on the medical prescriptions in the Talmud. Several sources mention that it was, in fact, forbidden, to put the application of talmudic remedies and medicines to the test, since their failure might be attributed, not to the changed conditions of time and place, but (possibly without justification) to the limited or erroneous knowledge of the talmudic sages. This consideration, it was suggested, explains the exclusion of these recommendations by MAIMONIDES and in the later codes; for the operation of such cures and treatments might lead people "to disparage our rabbis, of blessed memory". Some authorities, including SOLOMON LURIA, even refer to the imposition of a formal "ban by the ancient masters" on those who try out the remedies mentioned in the Talmud – other than certain specific cures. But others, confirming the prohibition as such, appear to have no knowledge of such a ban. Its origin, too, cannot be traced.
ii. Jewish Medical Ethics, Chap. 2 (pp. 29-31):
Jewish sources, and mor especially the Talmud, abound with references to the occult virtues both in legend and law. Those mentioned in the Talmud are almost all of Babylonian or Persian origin. Already HAI Gaon, the head of the Pumpaditha Academy, wrote at the end of the 10th century: "Sorcery and amulets sprang from the Sura Academy, because that lies near to Babylonia and to the house of NEBUCHADNEZZAR". But in general the Talmud largely retained the biblical hostility to superstition. The next great influx of demonological and magical ideas into Jewish writings occurred mainly in the 13th century. GUEDEMANN, who has subjected the superstitious practices among Jews at that period to a very thorough comparative study, has adduced various parallels from non-Jewish sources for every such practice found in Jewish literature. He has shown that the intrusion of these beliefs into Jewish works on such a large scale was an entirely new phenomenon for which no precedent could be found either in the Talmud or in rabbinic writings before the 13th century. He regards the exclusive use of Latin, French or German expressions – or their crude translation into an artificial Hebrew – to describe the different categories of demons in Hebrew sources as conclusive proof that "we are not dealing here with originally Jewish superstitions". It is also significant that the "epidemic of superstition" affected predominantly the Jewish communities in the Franco-German regions of the Rhineland, where the general level of enlightenment was very low, whereas the Jews of Spain and Southern France – and, to a lesser degree, of Northern France, too – were protected from the crudest excesses of such irrational beliefs by the superior standard of culture around them. The essentially foreign character of occult usages is again revealed by the fact that Jews evidently repaired to monks for the exorcising of evil spirits, as suggested by the refusal of AMATUS LUSITANUS to treat a Jewish boy in such circumstances.
Among medieval Jewish authors, there were especially two who distinguished themselves by their enlightened attitude in this sphere. ABRAHAM IBN EZRA denied in set terms the very existence of demons. This was indeed "a remarkable feat for the 12th century", making IBN EZRA "one of the first medieval theologians of church or synagogue to denounce the popular belief in the ubiquity of minor representations of the supernatural". The second, and in many ways even more radical, protagonist of this view was MAIMONIDES who even modified some halachic rulings through the re-interpretation of talmudic laws based on the existence of demons.
The chief medieval codes, in their outlook on superstitious practices, contain some elements of all these diverse currents. In the main, they faithfully and uncritically reflect the approach of the talmudic savants. The great majority of the irrational beliefs these codes recorded are drawn directly from the Talmud; so is their strong opposition to sorcery and the generally sober discretion with which they repeatedly sift the true from the dubious. While incorporating some of the occult usages which had intruded into Jewish life in the earlier Middle Ages, they also assimilated important features of the enlightened attitude of MAIMONIDES, particularly his belief in the futility of magic charms and incantations (Y.D., clxxix.6). Significant, too, is their complete silence on the many folkloristic prescriptions for strengthening one's memory and the warning against acts thought to impair it – based on popular beliefs found in the Talmud and medieval rabbinic writings, often strikingly similar to the views on aids and impediments to memory given in Mohammedan sources. There is, therefore, no complete uniformity in the general outlook on irrational practices in the classic formulations of Jewish law.