Talmud Tips

For the week ending 23 February 2019 / 18 Adar I 5779

Chullin 72-78

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
Become a Supporter Library Library

The Torah of Life

Abayei and Rava both said: “Anything that is for healing is not considered as violating the prohibition of acting in the ways of the Emorites, but if it is not for healing it violates the prohibition of acting in the way of the Emorites.”

This statement is taught on our daf since the adjoining Mishna taught an act prohibited due to its being “the way of the Emorites”. Rashi explains that they would bury a miscarried fetus on the crossroads as an omen so that the mother cow should not miscarry again. Such an act of nichush (divination), says Rashi, is forbidden by the Torah verse to “not do like their deeds.” (Shemot 23:24)

What exactly is meant by Abayei and Rava in our gemara by the words “anything which is for healing”? Rashi describes this as “giving the person a (non-medicinal) liquid or a potion, or chanting an incantation over the wound.” These actions are permitted for healing, and are not considered similar to the ways of the Emorites. What is not necessarily clear, however, is what is permitted to chant over the wound?

One commentary likens this chant to the one mentioned in a mishna in masechet Sanhedrin: “One who chants the verse in Shemot 15:26 — everyillness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I, G-d, am your healer— has no share in the World-to-Come.” How could Rashi mean that this chant is permitted according to Abayei and Rava, given the dire consequences taught in Sanhedrin? In addition, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states in masechet Shavuot (15b), “It is forbidden to use words of Torah to heal.” Once again, how could Abayei and Rava possibly permit in on our daf?

The simplest and perhaps the most elegant answer is that Abayei and Rava did not permit chanting words of Torah to heal. They referred only to other incantations that were “special sounds,” but were not words of Torah.

Perhaps one might suggest that the following teaching is a source that permits healing with words of Torah: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said “One who has a headache should learn Torah…” (based on Mishlei 1:9). Yes, he is the same Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who forbids healing with words of Torah in masechet Shavuot! And one might additionally ask: How can a person learn Torah if he has a headache? The Meiri explains that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi doesn’t literally mean to learn Torah when unable. Rather, he teaches that a person who is weak by nature and fears that Torah study will make him unwell should not fear. The Torah will protect his health. The Maharsha states that this gemara is speaking about a person who is only not feeling “well” but is not actually ill. The study of Torah will help prevent deterioration to the point of illness.

However, there is another teaching that would seem to permit using words of Torah for healing. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav, “A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot, even if it is not for their own sake, because from occupying himself with them not for their own sake he will come to do so for their own sake.” (Sotah 22b) Tosefot asks there that this seems to contradict another Talmudic teaching that if person learns Torah not for its sake, it is as a “potion of death” for him. Tosafot answers that the encouraged “not for its sake” is for the sake of honor, to be called “Rabbi”. The negative “not for its sake,” however, is to learn Torah with the intent of mocking it. At first glance it would seem that learning Torah for the sake of healing is comparable to the former and not to the latter, and should therefore be permitted and even encouraged as a stepping stone to learning for the ideal reason — because G-d commanded us to learn it. The reader’s comments are invited on this topic, since it seems that this contradicts the basic premise and halacha of forbidding the use of words of Torah for healing.

Finally, for now, there is a widely established practice for an individual or a congregation to say verses and chapters of Tehillim for the benefit of a person who is ill. One might ask: Why doesn’t this custom to say words of Torah transgress the prohibition against healing with words of Torah? I have heard that there is no issue with this custom since the Tehillim are not being said as words of Torah, but rather as words of prayer to G-d, beseeching the Almighty to heal the person. The status of this practice as prayer can further be seen by the concluding words of the “Tehillim session,” when a “Mi shebeirach…” prayer is recited — explicitly mentioning the name of the infirm and asking G‑d to grant the person a swift recovery, to which the entire congregation responds “Amen.”

· Chullin 77b

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