Medicine – mummies and mesmerism

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.

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.

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://

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