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Medicinal Herbs

In ancient times herbs were the main source of remedies. According to the Book of *Jubilees (10:12), the angels revealed the various remedies to Noah, who wrote them down in a book. *Asaph the physician adds that Noah, having been taught by the angel Raphael the remedies obtainable from trees, plants, and roots, recorded them in a book which he gave to his son Shem and which was used by the ancient physicians (Asaph, ed. Venetianer, 6). Apparently in olden times books of remedies were common among the people. One of them, mentioned by Maimonides as having supposedly been written by Solomon (Maim., commentary on Pes. 4:9; cf. Jos., Ant. 8:45ff.), was suppressed by order of Hezekiah, king of Judah, for which action he was praised by the sages (Pes. 4:9); his purpose, so commentators explain, was that people should pray to the Almighty for mercy and not rely solely on remedies. Maimonides, however, rejects the legend. Except for צֳרִי (ẓori, "balm"), stated to be efficacious in curing wounds (Jer. 8:22, 46:11, 51:8), no medicinal herbs or prophylactics are mentioned in the Bible. It is suggested that the story of the *mandrake s (Gen. 30:14–17) alludes to this plant's properties in promoting pregnancy, but the passage seems specifically intended rather to point out that pregnancy is a gift of the Lord, for Leah, who handed over the mandrakes, became pregnant and not Rachel, who received them. The Bible several times mentions toxic plants from which poisons were extracted, such as רׂאשׁ or רוֹשׁ (rosh, " *hemlock "; AV, JPS, "gall") and לַעֲנָה (la'anah, "wormwood"), these having apparently also been used in minute quantities as remedies, as testified by Greek and Roman medical writings. Of the toxic plant פַֻּקּעוֹת (pakku'ot; AV, JPS, "gourds"), colocynth (see *cucumber ), it is told that during a famine in the days of Elisha one of the disciples, intending to gather אוֹרוֹת (orot; AV, JPS, "herbs"), that is, according to R. Meir, roquet, a medicinal herb especially efficacious in eye diseases, instead collected and boiled a dish of colocynth. After eating of it, the disciples cried out: "There is death in the pot," but by adding flour to the dish Elisha made it edible (II Kings 4:39–41), the flour having absorbed, some contend, the fruit's bitter toxic substance.

Whereas the Bible speaks very little about medicinal plants, talmudic literature mentions many herbs, some regarded as cures, others used as a prophylactic against various ailments. From time immemorial popular medicine has used numerous herbs, particularly wild plants, as remedies. The classical medical literature of Theophrastus, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and others shows that different remedial qualities were ascribed to the vast majority of herbs, some of which were used by many peoples. In talmudic literature close upon 70 plants are mentioned as having medicinal properties, including plants mainly used as food, such as olives, dates, pomegranates, quinces among fruit – and garlic, *beet , *hyssop , *cumin , and *fennel-flower among vegetables and spices. In addition wild plants are mentioned which were used principally for remedial purposes. The following are some of the medicinal plants enumerated in the Talmud: for a liver ailment, יוֹעֶזֶר (yo'ezer "maidenhair fern"; Adiantum capillus veneris; Shab. 14:3; Shab. 109b); as an antidote for snake poison, אַבּוּב רוֹעֶה (abbuv ro'eh, "knoodweed," Polygonum aviculare;ibid.); for eye ailments, scurvy, and intestinal worms, גַּרְגִּיר (gargir, "roquet"; Eruca sativa; Shab. 109a; Git. 69b); recommended for intestinal worms are the leaves of עָרָא (ara, "bay"; Laurus nobilis; Git. 69b) and אֵזוֹב (ezov, "hyssop"; Majorana syriaca; Shab. 109b); for intestinal ailments, שִׁחְלַיִים (shiḥlayim, "garden cress"; Lepidium sativum; Av. Zar. 29a; Git. 57a); for skin disease, תֶּרֶד (tered, "spinach beet"; Beta vulgarisvar. cicla; Shab. 133b f.), considered efficacious in many ailments, it having been said that "a broth of spinach beet is beneficial for the heart, good for eyes, and still more so for the bowels" (Ber. 39a); for דְּמָא דְּרֵישָׁא (dema de-reisha), apparently blood pressure in the head, הֲדַס (Hadas, "myrtle"), and the wild rose (Rosa canina; Git. 68b) are recommended; for stopping hemorrhage, כַּמּוֹן (kammon, "cumin"), תַּחֲלֵי (taḥalei; garden cress), and seeds of סְנֶה (seneh, "the raspberry"; Rubus sanctus) are suggested (Shab. 19:2; Av. Zar. 28 a–b). There is in addition a long list of medicinal plants, potions, and remedies from the plant world which are prescribed in the Talmud. A number of remedies were known for restoring virility, for increasing seed, for aphrodisiac purposes, for inducing temporary sterility, or for preventing conception. Several herbs are prescribed as cosmetics. Opium is mentioned once – as a plant dangerous to buy from gentiles (TJ, Av. Zar. 2:2, 40d).

The pharmaceutical importance of the herbs mentioned in the Talmud has hardly been investigated. Apparently the vast majority of them have a significance no greater than the potions and remedies that were used until the development of modern pharmaceuticals. Although Jacob b. Moses Moellin and others warned against the use of the remedies mentioned in the Talmud, some are apparently worth studying and examining by modern scientific methods.


Krauss, Tal Arch, 1 (1910), 256–61; J. Preuss, Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin (19233), 506–8; Loew, Flora, 4 (1934), 102–7; H.N. and A.L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (1952), 312 (index), S.V.; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (19682), 176–203.

[Jehuda Feliks]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.