Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud

From today’s lecture on Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud, by Prof. Mark Geller of University College, London, I derived one big idea and one delicious vocabulary item:

The big idea: Despite the Alexandrian conquest and the centuries of rule by the Greek-speaking descendants of Alexander’s generals, Greek thought never really penetrated Babylon (or Persia).

In particular, though Greek thought made a big impact on Jewish thought in Jerusalem in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it made virtually no impact on Babylonian Judaism. Evidence: the discussion of medicine in the Babylonian Talmud largely follows Akkadian rather than Greek principles and forms of analysis. Disease is something that comes from outside the body rather than the product of humoral imbalance within the body. The small number of Talmudic references to Greek-style medicine reflect misunderstandings and misapplications of loan-works, suggesting that the redactors didn’t know what to make of those passages.

The vocabulary item is Dreckapotheke (lit. “sh*t pharmacy), which means “the use of disgusting items, especially excrement, in medicine.” According to Geller, all the “dog turds” and “bat guano” that appear in the various pharmacopeias were originally code-words for various plants, used to ensure that esoteric knowledge remained esoteric. (That isn’t fundamentally surprising; some of the odd elements in the grimoires [handbooks of magic], such as “eye of newt” and “toe of frog” are well known to be mnemonics for the true ingredients, knowledge of which was passed down orally.)

However, as the original traditions were lost but the texts were preserved, the result was that medieval physicians wound up prescribing some fairly appalling mixtures, which no doubt many of their patients dutifully accepted.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: