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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

A letter to Dr. S. Abrahams* of New York as to the
permissibility according to Jewish law of a post mortem
Examination on the body of a deceased Israelite.


*Dr. Simeon Abrahams ז"ל was born and reared in New York City and was a member of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation there. In his earlier years and almost up to mature manhood he was in trade, then having acquired an ample competency he retired from business and devoted himself to study. He went to Jerusalem and remained there for a number of years engaged in the study of the Torah and, it was said, became so well versed therein that the title of Rabbi was bestowed upon him and ever after, when called to the reading of the law he was titled Rabbi. He became an expert mohel and officiated as such in New York City for ten years or more. In 1851 he entered upon the study of medicine and two years later graduated from University Medical College. He began at once the practice of his profession and continued therein up to within a short time of his demise. He never married. All through life he carried himself as a strictly observant Jew and fulfilled all the duties incumbent upon him as such. He took rather an active part in the discussion as to the permissibility of post mortem examinations opposing with great vigor the decision of the Rev. Dr. Nathan Adler of London, who decided it prohibited. Essentially upon the ground of נבול המת.

To S. Abrahams M.D. New York.

My Dear Friend! -- About four years have elapsed since I enjoyed the pleasure of a literary communication from you. I received no direct news from you, and was satisfied to learn from other sources of your well-being. I exclaimed with Cicero, si vales, bene est, ego caleo. But meeting with one of your productions in the Asmonean, a few weeks ago, engaged as you are, in a controversy on an important question, I resolved to break my silence and to address these lines to you.

I perfectly agree with you, my dear friend, in the opinion that dissection is by no means contrary to our oral law; nay, I do even maintain that our sages and ancient teachers practised themselves anatomical investigations. For, how could they otherwise have acquired that knowledge of the structure of the human frame which they so frequently display in the Talmud and Zohar?

How else could they have asserted so positively that the human body consists of 248 members in contradiction to the wise men of other nations, some of whom assert that their number is only 245, while others count 249, others 256, and some even 266 members?

I will now cite, for the satisfaction of your opponent, several passages from the Talmud and Zohar, and then ask him how our sages could speak scientifically of a thing of which they could have no idea, how they could infer one proposition from another, if they were not allowed to convince themselves of the correctness of their inferences? How could they, for instance, say with such precision and positiveness:

נדה דף מ"ד כתובות דף יא קטנה פחותה מבת שלש שנים ויום אחד בתוליה חיזרים לאחר ג' שנים ויום אחד שוב אינם חוזרים

It is generally known that the word brain is a collective term which signifies those four principal parts of the nervous system exclusive of the nerves themselves, which are contained within the cranium; they are the cerebrum or the larger part, the cerebellum, or little brain, the pons variolii which is the connection between the two hemispheres of the cerebellum, and the medulla oblongata. Varoly is known as the first who thus described our brain; but we find already in the Zohar the following description, המוחין הם ג' חכמה בינה דעה והם ג"כ ד' בעבור שמות דעת נחלק לשנים לחסדים וגבורות

Another passage of the Zohar reads thus: רהטי מוחי הן ד' זוטרי רבי רחיבי ומשוכו

The heart of an adult person consists of four muscular cavities, namely, the two auricles (or attria) and the two ventricles, which are respectively named from their position right and left. The right auricle and the right ventricle form together the left part of the heart. In the Zohar, section Behar, we read as follows:  תרין חצרים אינון חצוניים דלבא ואינון תרין בתין פימיים תרין בתי דלבא ותרין אינון בתי גוואי ותרין אינון בתי בראי

Of the auricula cordis we read in the Zohar, section Behar, רוח דנפיק מאודנא שמאלא דלבא ומניה נפיק קלא

The Zohar, section Pinchas, tells us of the lungs, that they send the inhaled fresh air to the heart, whence it spreads over all the blood vessels, tempering their heat, which might else injure the body.

Of the amniotic liquor we read in the Talmud, Niddah, fol. 28, as follows: המח הוולד דומה במעי אמו לאגוז שמונה בספל של מים

Zohar, Idra Rabbah, fol. 136, describes the skull as follows: The skull or cranium has three holes or sockets wherein the brains are imbedded; the brain is covered and protected by two membranes, the one is firm and strong, (dura mater;*) the other thin and tender (pia mater). Three parts of the brain diffuse themselves through thirty-two nerves all over the body and spread through all its parts.**

*So named from a supposition that it was the source of all fibrous membranes of the body.

**The arachnoid, the third membrane of the brain, was probably not known to them at this time.

בגולגלתא דא ג' חללין אשתכחו דשריא בהון מוחא וקרומא דקיק חפייא עלייהו אבל לא קרומא קשישא האי מוחא אתפשט ונפיק לתלתין ותרין שבילין ואילן ג' מתפשטין בכל גופא ובאינון אחיד כל גופא מכל סטרוי ובכל גופא אתפשטן ואשכחן

You will admit that the three main organs with their thirty two nerves, which are so systematically distributed, giving sensation and motion to the entire animal organism of life could not be more distinctly described.

We find also mentioned in the Talmud several surgical operations and experiments, as also, amputations of important limbs; for instance, in Abodah Zarah, where an account is given of an operation for the cure of a fistula. In Talmud Yebamoth, fol. 75, it is stated that Mar Bar Rab Ashi, who is so frequently mentioned in the Talmud, had operated on a person suffering from a כרות שפכה.

Even the two great operations in obstetrics, the Histerotomia, קריעת הבטן and Gastrotomia, יוצא דופן were not unknown to the Talmudists. The first was deemed inadmissible on living women, probably on account of its being very apt to cause a permanent injury. The קריעת הבטן or sectio Caesarea, was mainly performed on a corpse, where the child could be born only by incision, Tosephot Abodah Zarah, fol. 10, states on the authority of Josephus. that this operation gave birth to Julius Caesar, and was for that reason called Caesarean.

שמתה אמו בלדתה ומצאוהו בה חי ונקרא קיסר בלשון רומי והוא לשון כרות בעברית ועל שמו כל המלכים אחריו נקראים קיסר

Niddah, fol. 30, reports of a dissection made on two female slaves of Queen Cleopatra, מעשה בקליאפטרא מלכת יוונית שנתחייבו שפחותיה למלכות בדקון ומצאו זכר לארבעים ואחד

During twenty centuries vain attempts have been made to discover when the vivification of the embryo takes place; but all remained in darkness; the mystery could not be solved. Hypocrates assigned the sixth day; Haller the fifteenth: till lately Prevost and Dumas, after many experiments on animals, have fixed the third as the right day; and will it not strike every one with surprise that in the Talmud we find the same opinion laid down?

ג' ימים לקליטה אמרו חכמים ואם לא קלט נסרח ושוב אינו קולט

Another difficult matter on which physiologists have long disputed and which was lately set at rest by the celebrated French physician, Dr. Velpeau, was already clearly understood by the Talmudists fifteen hundred years ago, (רוב דמים באים מן המקור ומיעוט מן הצדדים נדה מ"ט)

The theory of De Graaf, or the doctrine of the ovules, now so generally adopted, is also embraced in the Talmud, in Niddah, fol. 31, as follows: תר שלשה שותפין באדם אביו מזריע הלובן אמו מזרעת האודם והקבה נותן בו נשמה

I believe to have adduced sufficient proofs; but I could cite ten times more if required, showing that the men of the Talmud possessed a knowledge of the interior as well as the exterior structure of the human body, which they could never have acquired without dissecting and without anatomical investigations of their own; and there is no passage known to me which could, in the least, justify the presumption that the Jewish physician ever made a distinction between the body of an Israelite, or a non-Israelite, in this respect; and therefore I coincide with you in the opinion that dissecting is not only not prohibited to the Jewish surgeon, but that it is right that he should not neglect any opportunity where he can enter the secret laboratory of nature in order to scrutinize her working within and understand her symptoms from without.

Very respectfully, your Friend,

St. Louis, April 6, 5616                                              Dr. B. Illowy