One of The Talmud Blog’s goals is to create a forum for scholarly discussion. This guest post by Michael Satlow is an attempt to start a conversation. Readers are invited to engage in it by writing in the comments section below.
Have gum disease? Boils? Abscesses? Anal sores? An ear ache? A swollen eye? Insect stings? Check out the Bavli for a remedy.
The Babylonian Talmud is full of medical advice. Enough advice, in fact, for Julius Preuss to fill a fat tome entitled Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin that he published in 1911 (translated by Fred Rosner as Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Rosner has several other books on the topic as well). The advice frequently strikes us as suspect. Is it really true that burning a century old reed tube (hardly easy to come by as it is) filled with salt in one’s ear is the best and most efficient cure? Where can I get the fat of a goat that has never given birth? Will my insurance cover it?
Joking aside, I recently stumbled on one of the longer extended discussions of medicine in the Bavli, at Avodah Zarah 28a–29a (where all the examples cited above can be found). The passage is as fascinating as it is tedious, and despite Preuss’s magnum opus – itself also both fascinating and tedious – I am sure that there is much more scholarly work to be done on this passage and those like it. Where did they get this information? What was their understanding of medicine? What did they do when the cures failed to work?
On this reading of the passage, though, I was struck by a much more technical and abstruse question: How can it be reconciled with contemporary theories of the redaction of the Talmud? Nearly all scholars today agree that there was at least one – and perhaps more – stages of redaction of the Bavli. The redactors, the theory goes, worked from collections of tannatic and amoraic sayings, the latter usually conveyed in pithy sentences. The redactor(s) pieced these sayings together and connected them with the distinctive argumentative style known as stam. These redactors, the stammaim, added additional material as well, such as aggadah.
My question, in short, was how such a theory – and especially the theory of transmission – can account for a passage such as Avodah Zarah 28a-29a. Many of the cures are attributed to amoraim, predominantly Babylonian. Were these cures transmitted along with the amora’s short statements, to be reconstituted by a redactor in the form of this sugya? If so, what would these (hypothetical) transmission booklets have looked like?
To further complicate matters, there are two traditions in the sugya that record an amora saying, “I did all [of these cures], and I wasn’t healed until a certain merchant told me….” In the first case, Abaye seems to respond to cures reported in the names of Rav Aha the son of Rava and Mar bar Rav Ashi. In the second, Rav Pappa seems to respond to cures reported by Rav Aha the son of Rava (again) and Rav Ashi. Could Rav Pappa really be responding to Rav Ashi? The same literary form of the two comments suggests the work of a redactor, but how extensive was the intervention?
How might we explain the redaction history of the passage?
Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University. In addition to writing for his own blog, Then and Now, Prof. Satlow is an adviser to The Talmud Blog.