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Friday, May 8, 2015

1-650 A.D.: A Jewish girl with asthma

Leah knew her uncomfortable breathing was caused by God. The idea that this was so was not even raised as the physician placed a palm upon her head and said, "May the Lord heal you with the milk of this goat." She lowered herself to her hands and knees, placed her head hesitantly under the goat, and began sucking milk from the teat.

The animal squirmed, and the girl jumped back, only to be caught by the physician. Her father and uncle had their arms wrapped around the beast, which was standing tensely, trying to escape. "Do not be afraid," the physician said, as though unfazed, "drink the milk and you shall be healed."

Tears dribbled down her cheeks as she tried to inhale, yet little air entered. She didn't want to be like this anymore, and she didn't want to do what the physician said either. Yet she prayed that what the physician said would help. So she got down on her knees, and did as she was instructed. The warm milk entered her mouth. She swallowed. Most of it dribbled down her chin, as she gasped. 

Later that night she sat hunched on her knees a blanket near the river, her shoulders high and stiff, her arms braced on the ground as though bracing the shoulders. The flowing of the water, the crisp breeze upon her cheek, seemed to allow more air into her chest. She took slow, purposeful breaths as the physician had said. She tried to allow her shoulders to relax, although she struggled with this. Her chest was stiff, shoulders high, and she pressed her palms to the ground to get them even higher. Her entire body shook as she inhaled.  

On the blanket next to her were figs. It was a fasting time, although the physician said the Rabbi gave special permission for her to eat anything she desired so she could get well. Her stomach grumbled, although she had no urge to eat. The only urge she had was a hunger for air. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the flow of water, hoping, praying, the words of God would help the air in.  

The words of Deuteronomy (28:21-23) rained through her mind:
"The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed the from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. And thy Heaven that is overhead shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron."
She could not help but think that the air she inhaled was iron, and that was why it was so hard to suck it in.  Yet a more reasonable place settled in her mind, the place where the sounds of the river flowed, chimed in a more soothing thought: "It is not the end. You were like this last week, and the world did not end, and your breath came back.  It will come back again."  The voice was that of God. "Be patient."

She closed her eyes and set down her shoulders, allowing her arms to hang listlessly.  She inhaled, feeling her stomach move outward as she did so.  The air that came in was stiff, as though a horse were resting on her chest.  She exhaled, as the doctor prescribed, through pursed lips twice as long as she inhaled, her stomach going in as she did so.

As she did this, over and over, her mind heard soothing swooshing of the sea, the rustling of leaves through the trees, the soft touch of the Lord's breeze across her face, sending a tingle down her spine.  A smile stretched across her cheeks as she could feel the gentle hug of her Father, the Lord, holding her.  She heard birds chirping, the voice of the Lord telling her she is blessed.  She felt at peace. 

Yet her breathing did not come back.  It was now sun down, and her mother and father were pacing around her bed, and they were arguing.  "We need to get the physician here," she heard her mother say.  She was sitting all hunched up on the bed, and it shook with each breath.  Her eyes were shut, and she envisioned she was flying with the birds.

"You know, my love," her mother's voice pulled her from her fantasy, "that God does not allow for him to work in the early hours of the morning, and in the late hours of the day."

"I'm fine," the girl gasped, feigning a smile.  She hugged her mother back as though to sooth the soother.

This was how life was for anyone with breathing trouble among the Jewish community from the time of Jesus to the time when the Arab physicians revived medicine in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.  The Jews were nomads, and came into contact with many societies along the way, including Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman.  Absorbed into Jewish wisdom was the best wisdom of all these cultures, including knowledge of medicine.  

What is stunning is that even while many of these cultures valued herbal remedies that might have provided relief for Leah, the Jewish community had no pharmacology.  This is also stunning considering they would have had knowledge of a vast number of herbs and plants that would have made good remedies.  If such remedies were used, knowledge of them must have been assumed, because they were not mentioned in the Bible nor the Talmud.  What is mentioned, though, are simple remedies such as figs, liver, heart, gall of fishes, bathing in Jordan to treat Leprosy, and sucking milk from the teat of a goat to treat dyspnea. 

Of interest is even though there was no mention of a pharmacology, and little use of natural remedies, members of the Jewish Community lived just as long as eople of other societies that made great use of such remedies.  Perhaps this is proof that few of these remedies were of any use, or that that hope provided by God was equally effective as any medicine, if not more effective.  

There were a few diseases that were known, and a few simple therapies (such as the ones mentioned above), although for the most part the best remedy was prevention.  Simple prayers were said every day, and there was an emphasis on a healthy diet that emphasized more food than drink before the age of 40, and more drink than food after the age of 40.  

After meals it was recommended to eat salt, and then to drink water freely.  It was recommended for all people to concentrate on the Lord, thanking him often for good health, happiness and healing.  It was recommended that people take regular breaks at work, relax on the Sabbath day, not walk more than necessary, not sleep too much, nor indulge in wine.  Perhaps of equal importance was to bathe daily, and to anoint and wash freely.  These were simple ways to prevent illness.  

The father stepped outside into the darkness, and the mother sat next to the suffering girl, whose fingers were pressed hard on the straw. She rubbed the girl's shoulders and back. The mother read from the scribe Joseph ben Sira (Sirach) who lived and taught in Jerusalem sometime around 200-175 before Christ. 
Honor a physician according to your need of him with the honors due to him: For verily the Lord has created him. For from the Most High comes healing; And from the king he shall receive a gift. The skill of the physician shall lift up his head; And in the sighn of great men he shall be admired. The Lord created medicine out of the earth; And a prudent man will have no disgust at them. Was not water made sweet with wood, That the virtue thereof might be known? And he gave men skill, That they might be glorified in his marvelous works. With them does he heal a man, And takes away his pain. (Sirach 38: 1-7)(Ecclesiastes 38: 1-4)*: 
The girl allowed her body to fall against her mother's body, and she inhaled a full breath.  A smile crept upon her face, and she fell asleep. In her dreams she walked with angels over the river.

* The book was written by Joshua ben Sira (pronounced sairaek) or Jerusalem. It is generally referred to as the wisdom of Sirach, or simply Sirach. He is also referred to as Ecclesiastes, or Ecclesiasticus, son of Sirach, or grandson to the prophet Jesus. His writings is a book of ethical teachings from the 2nd century after the birth of Christ. It generally shows that early Jews, as well as Christians, had great respect for physicians. The book was ultimately not accepted as part of the Hebrew Bible, although there are references to Sirach in the Talmud and other Jewish writings. It is, however, included as part of most Christian Bibles, including the Catholic and Protestant Bibles. It was, however, originally written in Hebrew. As with most ancient works, there are various translations of this work. Some believe Sirach set up a school in Alexandria, Egypt around 200-175 A.D., and it is from there that he wrote the texts (although some assume he compiled the texts). 

  1. Baas, John Herman, writer, Handerson, Henry Ebenezer, translator, "Outlines in the history of medicine and the medical profession," 1869, New York, J.H. Vail and Co.., pages 32-36
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