Saturday, August 25, 2007

Jewish Herbology and Natural Healing

I recently returned from the National Havurah Institute, a very lively event held in deepest, darkest New Hampshire. Not only was there some fine high level learning going on, but also some innovative programs. One I participated in was a walking herbology lesson.

[Lovely lady offers potent potion. Bookplate by E.M. Lilien]

We wandered amidst the roadside flora of the N.H., discussing wildflower medicinals, poisons, all the while weaving rope from milkweed fiber.

As in most world cultures that pre-date modernity, Jews have used herbs for far more than dietary supplements and flavoring. Selected herbs are common ingredients in medicines, potions, and poultices (Pes. 42b; J.A.V. 2:2).

Mandrake, for example, has been an ingredient in love potions since Biblical times (Gen. 30). But it is Rabbinic literature that preserves many herbal and dietary remedies. Medicinal uses for herbs found in the Talmud include:

Asparagus: beer or broth made from it is beneficial to both heart and eyes.
Bitter vetch: good for the bowels.
Black cumin: eases chest pain.
Dates: for hemorrhoids and constipation.
Radishes and lettuce: aid digestion.
Small cucumbers: laxative.
Garlic: improves virility, increases circulation, and kills intestinal parasites.
Milt: for teeth.
Lentils: prevent croup.
Mustard and asparagus: general preventatives.
Beets and onions: good for general healing.

(Ber. 40b, 44b, 51a; AZ 11a; BK 82a

In addition to these, some herbs were thought to have influence over supernatural forces. Fennel, for example, was prized for driving away evil spirits. Hebrew magical texts of antiquity, like their Greco-Roman counterparts, also use herbs in magical formulae and rituals (Sefer ha-Razim).

While most modern Jews no longer look to the herbal healing methods of their ancestors (pharmaceuticals are purer and involve better dosage control, among other things), the class I took at NHI reveals there is a renewed interest in the topic, and some herbal treatments are enjoying a revival.

Zal g'mor /Go forth and learn - the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:


Blogger ravaj said...

last april i flew back to ny from london in a seat next to an interesting orthodox rabbi. he had just been to london to present his thesis to the dayanim there making a case that eastern medicine is not avodah zarah. his paper compared many practices with those of sages in the talmud. unfortunately, i only had time to read the first couple of chapters since he then decided to try and help me find myself.

how are you, geoff?!
love from waltham, mass

11:48 PM  
Blogger zeevveez said...

You are invited to see more E.M. Lilien works (connected to the Star of David) on

7:59 AM  
Blogger KateGladstone said...

What is "milt"? A typo for "mint"? In English, "milt" is another word for "spleen."

5:16 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home