Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Ancient Medical Secrets of the Cairo Genizah

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

Thanks to medieval Egyptian packrats and one modern Israeli researcher, we’re tapping in to ancient medical secrets

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

 Mishpacha image

 

What do you do when you have a headache? What about a cut that won’t heal, or an itch that won’t go away?

A thousand years ago, there were no drugstores to buy pills and creams. How did people treat their aches and pains? And how were doctors able to help them?

Thanks to medieval Egyptian packrats and one modern Israeli researcher, we are learning the answers to these questions. That’s because the Jewish community of Fustat, an old Egyptian capital close to Cairo, saved its written records in the attic of the historic Ben Ezra Synagogue, a collection now called the “Cairo Genizah.”

 

Holy Words

Used siddurim, Chumashim, and other sifrei kodesh are never thrown away, since they contain the name of Hashem. Seforim are either buried or stored in a repository called a genizah (ge-NEEZ-a).

For unknown reasons, the Jews of Fustat — where the Rambam spent the last 40 years of his life — extended this practice to include poetry, marriage and divorce documents, business contracts, and more, including medical prescriptions. All these documents are preserved in the Cairo Genizah.

That makes the Cairo Genizah a treasury of medieval medical information. Professor Efraim Lev of the University of Haifa rummages daily through digital copies of the documents from the attic, uncovering lost prescriptions and studying ancient medical practices. Lev first encountered the Genizah while studying medieval medicine and realized that there was lots it could teach us, even a thousand years later.

 

Becoming a Doctor

For most of us, what comes to mind when we think about medieval medicine are plagues, leeches, and bleeding treatments. These were all common in Europe even into the 18th century. But farther south, as Lev and others have discovered in the Genizah records, things were more enlightened. Although science was crude by today’s standards, between the years 900 CE and 1200 CE, when most Genizah documents were written, medicine was a very respected profession in the area around the Mediterranean.

 

There were no medical schools in those days. Instead, doctors learned from older doctors, as well as from books giving advice about how to treat patients, including what herbs and other ingredients they recommended for prescriptions. Much knowledge came from older Greek books that were translated into Arabic and occasionally updated. The Rambam himself wrote at least ten books about medicine, demonstrating his vast knowledge of ancient and medieval medical medicine. When doctors finished their studies, the older doctor would give them a medical license. Just like today, however, governments would keep an eye on who was giving out medical licenses and not allow a doctor to practice unless they approved.

Unfortunately, little is known about how and where the Rambam himself studied medicine. Most people assume he learned most of what he knew from Greek and Arabic traditions while he lived in Spain. Although he wasn’t in Fustat for long, his practice grew quickly. He served as the personal physician of the Sultan, a full-time job, and also saw other patients for hours every day. At one point, he wrote to a friend, “I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.” His reputation was so great that during his lifetime, he is thought to have received an invitation from Richard the Lionheart, king of England, to become his personal physician. He declined the offer. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 711

Related Stories

The Tzaddik of Tunisia: Chapter 1

Y. Bromberg

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the tzaddik repeated over the sound of the fierce storm. “I’m searching ...

Teen Fiction: Flexible Friendship

Bassy Goldhirsch

The decision is mine: to go to camp and enjoy myself, or stay in the city, in the sweltering heat, t...

Bricks and Ladders: Chapter 8

Ariella Schiller

And yet here I am, expected to walk away from it all, expected to leave with grace and poise and bar...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
Not a Newspaper
Shoshana Friedman A deeper difference between newspapers and magazines
Services in Shards
Rabbi Moshe Grylak “Such a painful, malicious lie!”
The Pittsburgh Protests: All Politics All the Time
Yonoson Rosenblum The old rule — “no enemies on the left” — still applies
Danger: School Crossing
Eytan Kobre The hypocrisy of YAFFED’s assertion is breathtaking
Real Laughter and Real Tears
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger The two sides of a life lived with emunah
Work/Life Solutions with Eli Langer
Moe Mernick I was proud to be “that guy with the yarmulke”
Is Ktchong! a Mitzvah? When Prayer and Charity Collide
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman These cannot both be done effectively at the same time
An Honest Shidduch
Jacob L. Freedman “Baruch Hashem I’m cured, and this will be my secret”
A Blessing in Disguise
Riki Goldstein “I never thought the song would catch on as it has”
Ishay and Motti Strike a Common Chord
Riki Goldstein Bringing together two worlds of Jewish music
What’s your favorite Motzaei Shabbos niggun?
Riki Goldstein From the holy and separate back to the mundane
Rightfully Mine
Faigy Peritzman Don’t regret the job you didn’t land; it was never yours
Growing Greener Grass
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Nurture your blessings and watch them blossom
My Way or the High Way
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt We know what we want — but do we know what He wants?