By: Joseph Jacobs
The ideas and remedies common among uncultured people with regard to the prevention and cure of diseases. They are found among the Jews of all ages. Even in the Old Testament the use of the mandrake to produce fertility is referred to as being efficacious (Gen. xxx. 14). In Tobit vi. 78 the smoked liver, heart, and gall of a fish are recommended for casting out a demon or evil spirit.
In the Talmud there is ample evidence of the spread of folk-medicine in Babylonia. Probably as a protest against this, it is stated that Hezekiah had hidden away a book of medical remedies (Ber. 10b). The tertian fever was to be cured by an amulet consisting of seven sets of seven things hung around the neck (Shab. 67a). Amulets were used also against epilepsy (Shab. 61a). The idea of transferring a disease to animals, found so frequently in folk-medicine (see Frazer, "Golden Bough," iii. 13-15), is found also in the Talmud. In fever the patient was recommended to go to a cross-road and seize the first ant with a burden that he saw crawling along. He was to seize it and place it in a copper tube, which was to be covered with lead and then sealed. Then he was to shake the tube and say: "What thou carriest on me, that I carry on thee" (Shab. 66b; see
In the Middle Ages there is evidence of a much wider spread of folk-medicine among Jews. Güdemann ("Geschichte," i. 316 et seq.) gives a number of folk-recipes that occur in the "Book of the Pious" of the thirteenth century. Grunwald also gives a long collection from manuscripts of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in "Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde," v. 44-65. A number of these recipes were derived by the Jews from their Christian neighbors. Thus, against premature birth the wife was recommended to carry a portion of her husband's stockings or girdle, a method which is recommended by German folk-medicine also. (Wuttke, "Deutsche Aberglaube," p. 195).Epilepsy and Fever.
When it is declared that a remedy against toothache is to carry an amulet with the word ωφελε on it ("Mitteilungen," v. 47), it is clear that this is not of Jewish origin, though found among Jews. Against epilepsy, which, owing to its mysterious character, seems to have attracted the attention of the folk-doctors, the following is one of many remedies. Put several crabs in a pot, pour some good wine over them, and bury them for three days and three nights; then give some of the sauce thus made to the patient morning and night for nine days. ("Mitteilungen," v. 52). In modern times the following recommendations have been given against this disease: Let the patient carry a golden peacock's feather under his shirt ("Urquell," v. 290); or let him drink the blood of a black cat (Kovno); or let his shirt, after having been pulled over his head and taken out through the chimney, be buried at two cross-roads (Minsk).
Fever is also a favorite subject of modern Jewish folk-medicine. The remedies are sometimes simple; as, to spill a can of water suddenly on the patient ("Urquell," v. 223), or to let him eat something he does not like, or to lay a kreuzer on the bank of a stream at sunset; whoever finds it will take the fever away with him. Curiously enough, the Christian peasants of Galicia seem to trust for the removal of fever to water in which a mezuzah which has been stolen from a Jewish house has been placed ("Urquell," v. 226). Similarly, the Polish peasants believe that the hand of a dead Jew is effective against typhus, and a case occurred in which some peasants exhumed a Jewish corpse for this purpose near Cracow in 1892 ("Urquell," iii. 126-128). Dust from the grave of a saint is also recommended, and may have some Talmudic authority (Perles, in "Monatsschrift," x. 389).
Jaundice is another disease with regard to which many remedies, probably derived from their neighbors, are current among the Jewish folk. Drinking water in which something yellow has been cooked is an obvious method, on the principle of sympathetic magic; another remedy is to swing a dove around the patient's head twice, saying at the same time: "Dove, take this illness from N. ben N.," and then letting the dove fly ("Urquell," v. 290).
Strangely enough, blood, which is so frequently used in general folk-medicine, is rarely, if ever, used among Jews (compare Strack, "Das Blut," p. 127), except in cases of nose-bleeding, when the actualblood thus lost is sometimes used, baked into a cake, and, on the well-known sympathetic principle, given to a pig ("Sefer Refu'ot," 14b).
Of Jewish popular views as to the cause of disease it is difficult to speak. There are three current views among the folk in general (W. G. Black "Folk Medicine," p. 4, London, 1883): the anger of an evil spirit, the supernatural powers of an enemy, and the ill will of the dead, of which only the first can be definitely traced in Jewish folk-thought, and then only through the power attributed to spells and exorcisms. See Amulet; Ba'al Shem; Bibliomancy; Exorcism; Medicine;
- Grunwald, Aus Hausapotheke und Hexenküche, in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde, v. 1-70.