Constantly applying the Torah’s eternal principles to the transient present, old responsa seforim are a window into days gone by, revealing how people thought and acted in days when iron ships sailing through the air were an impossible dream. Two such responsa works discuss the strangest therapies ever cooked up in a human’s brain and deliberate whether one can benefit from them or not.
PREPARING FOR THE HEREAFTER
For thousands of years, the Egyptians were great believers in the world to come. To guarantee that their beloved ones should enjoy eternal bliss, they preserved their bodies through the mummification process that involved drying out the body with natron, a type of salt, and adding preservative spices. In addition, those who could afford it were interred with all sorts of worldly goods to ensure they would lack for nothing in their future abode. Even large items such as ships were substituted by lifelike models. This practice persisted for so long that an estimated 500 to 700 million mummies were buried in the hot sands of Egypt over the millennia.
With so much raw material lying around, it was only a matter of time before someone thought of how to utilize it to commercial advantage. Sure enough, during medieval times, a strange idea arose that mummies had valuable medicinal qualities. There were two rationales for this theory. First, a kal vachomer. If mummies survived intact for so many thousands of years, surely they could help live people to hang on for a few decades. Second, the mummies included a number of supposedly benefi cial embalming spices such as balsam, cassia, cedar oil, myrrh, and natron. Over the years, hundreds-of-thousands of mummies were shipped to Europe to be ground into medicine.
At the height of the craze, about 500 years ago, someone asked the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Rav David ben Zimra (the Radbaz), whether it was permitted to use this medical ingredient. Would this not infringe on the prohibition against benefiting from the dead?
In his reply, the Radbaz divides the question into two parts. “You asked for my opinion on what people rely when they heal themselves with flesh of mummies, even when there is no danger and even when it is used derech hana’aso, in a normal way of benefit. Furthermore, they trade in this product even though it is forbidden to benefit from, because we rule that the flesh of a corpse is forbidden to benefit from as it says, Miriam died [and was buried there].’”
Regarding the first question, the Radbaz was lenient since during the drying process, mummies became hard, dry like bitumen (tar), and inedible. Concerning the second question, he ruled that using mummies as medicine was not considered derech hanaaso, since no one was interested in the mummy itself. What doctors were utilizing were the various medicinal spices utilized in the preservation process. After further discussion, the Radbaz concluded that this unusual nostrum could be sold and used as medicine even if there was no danger to a patient’s life. Another Egyptian gadol, Rav Avraham ben Mordechai HaLevi (Ginas Veradim, Yoreh Deah 1:4), disagreed with the Radbaz, arguing that one is not permitted to gain any benefit from a corpse.
That this strange medicine was still being used as late as the nineteenth century is evident from a ruling of the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Ish Chai, chelek hahalachos, second year, p. Emor, halacha vav): “The mummy, which is human fl esh, is permitted for healing purposes even for a sick person who is not in danger, since it is mere dust.” Even though this gruesome medicine has fallen out of favor, the past discussion about mummies remains relevant to modern questions of organ transplants.
PROBING THE HIDDEN MIND
Another, less grotesque therapy developed during the eighteenth century, when the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer promoted a new science known as mesmerism. The idea behind it was to heal patients by infusing them with “Animal Magnetism,” a mysterious energy found in the planets, stars, and people. Health, Mesmer believed, was the result of life fl owing freely through thousands of channels in a person’s body. If one of them became blocked, someone with animal energy could free the blockage and restore the victim to perfect health. Mesmer was so confident of his healing ability that he accepted the ultimate challenge, to restore sight to a blind man. When this foolhardy experiment failed, he left Vienna for Paris where he soon became so wildly popular among its aristocratic class that he had more patients than he could handle and began treating them en masse.
As an English physician described it, “In the middle of the room is placed a vessel of about a foot and a half high which is called here a ‘baquet.’ It is so large that twenty people can easily sit round it; near the edge of the lid which covers it, there are holes pierced corresponding to the number of persons who are to surround it; into these holes are introduced iron rods, bent at right angles outwards, and of different heights, so as to answer to the part of the body to which they are to be applied. Besides these rods, there is a rope which communicates between the baquet and one of the patients, and from him is carried to another, and so on the whole round. The most sensible effects are produced on the approach of Mesmer, who is said to convey the fluid by certain motions of his hands or eyes, without touching the person. I have talked with several who have witnessed these effects, who have convulsions occasioned and removed by a movement of the hand…”
At the height of Mesmer’s fame, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (1808-1871), a Rebbe of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, was asked whether Mesmerism was permitted or whether it should be forbidden as magic. In his sefer Binyan Tziyon (67), Rav Ettlinger sums up the query as follows:
“The question: A righteous, prominent man became ill and was advised to seek healing through the method known as Magnetizern (Magnetism). Through this method, the patient becomes as if asleep with no feeling. In addition, it is related that a great change comes over the patient. He becomes a different person and speaks wonders, as from his sleep he knows what happened very far from him, and he relates what happened in private places and suchlike. Therefore, the righteous person is hesitant whether to have dealings with this, as it seems to the eye as if unnatural spiritual forces are doing this and one should be concerned that it might involve impure forces, heaven forefend that every person concerned for his soul should distance himself from.”
Before answering this question, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger inquired about the nature of Magnetism and came up with conflicting information. “I asked wise non-Jews how they think Magnetism works, whether it is really supernatural, as people say, or not. I found differing opinions. Some say that it is all nonsense and falsehood. Nothing happens at all, except that the patient’s imagination heightens so that he thinks he sees wonders. Others say that it is true that wonderful visions actually occur. However, their source is certainly natural even though we know nothing about it how it works and it can only be rationalized to a small extent how such visions occur naturally.”
Ultimately, Rav Ettlinger was lenient, explaining that there were no grounds to be concerned that the person was being cured through powers of impurity. “Rather, we assume that there are many natural processes still hidden from us, so why should we be concerned about Magnetism more [than other things], since those who deal in it, at any rate, believe that it is natural and not through spiritual means… And this is not surprising as regarding other things too, after all their investigations they do not know of the greatness of nature’s deeds like a drop from the ocean.” After mentioning further rationales for leniency he concludes, “Therefore, in my humble opinion it is permitted even for a sick person who is not in danger to be cured through Magnetism.”
In 5544/1784, King Louis XVI of France determined to get to the bottom of Mesmerism and appointed a distinguished panel of scientists to investigate its claims. Some of the panelists are famous till this day, including the chemist Antoine Lavoisier who discovered that oxygen is involved in rust, breathing, and plant photosynthesis, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin inventor of the guillotine, and the American Ambassador Benjamin Franklin. In their report, the panelists gave a vivid description of the therapy:
“The patients present a very varied picture. Some are calm, tranquil and experience no effect. Others cough and spit, feel pains, heat or perspiration. Others, again, are convulsed. As soon as one begins to be convulsed, it is remarkable that others are immediately affected… Some of these convulsions last more than three hours… marked with involuntary motions of the throat, limbs, and sometimes the whole body, by dimness of the eyes, shrieks, sobs, laughter, and the wildest hysteria… All are under the power of the magnetizer; it matters not what state of drowsiness they may be in, the sound of his voice, a look, a motion of his hands, spasmodically affects them.”
Despite these spectacular histrionics, the panel concluded that Mesmer’s Magnetic fluid was nonexistent and that all the wondrous effects of his therapy could be ascribed to the patients’ imagination. After this verdict, the public lost interest in Mesmer and he spent the last twenty years of his life in obscurity. This was actually unfair since Mesmer was on the right track and had hit on a real psychological phenomenon. Mesmer was actually subjecting his patients to hypnotism, a therapy commonly used in our time. He had buried a kernel of truth under a mountain of showmanship.
(See original responsa at: https:// sites.google.com/site/jewpedia/home)