Where good health is next to godliness

Faith and healing have been intertwined throughout Jerusalem’s history. Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis—a new, thematic exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, inside the Old City walls—reveals some of the sublime and grotesque examples of that link in the Holy City.

Take, for example, the caduceus, two intertwined snakes on a stick, that has come to symbolize healing and the medical profession. Westerners usually think of the symbol as Greek, but it actually dates back to third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the serpent as a life-healing symbol was commonly found in the Canaanite fertility cult.

In the exhibition we learn about the Nehushtan, a sacred object in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. The name of the object is a play on the Hebrew words for snake (nahash) and bronze (nehoshet). The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were afflicted by a plague of serpents because of their lack of faith, and it describes how Moses used a “fiery serpent”—a snake on a pole—to cure them (Numbers 21:4–9).

Later, the Nehushtan was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when it became an object of worship in its own right for its purported ability to cure sickness, King Hezekiah—the anti-idolatry reformer—tore it down (II Kings 18:4).

According to Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director, Jerusalem’s historical connection to healing is largely a function of its being a city of pilgrimage. Medical services had to be provided for the faithful who flocked to the holy sites. And this city, where there has long been strife between the religions, was the only place, Lieber said, where each hospital provided services for members of all religions.

But hospitals in Jerusalem were also used for missionary purposes. On display is a podium that stood in front of the Anglican Hospital in the city center. To attract Jewish patients, the podium is adorned with a Star of David, and the hospital made it known that it served kosher food to patients. But the rabbis threatened the hospital’s suppliers of kosher meat and forbade Jews to seek treatment in Christian hospitals.

According to Lieber, a story is told of a Jewish woman in the nineteenth century who fell in the street just outside the missionary hospital next to Christ Church and was brought inside for treatment. She subsequently died there, and after she was brought to Jewish burial her body was exhumed by extremists who claimed that she might have converted to Christianity in the hospital.

Jerusalem is home to a thriving pharmaceutical company, Teva, which began as a small business started by the Salomon family. All pharmaceutical developments in the city were based on plants growing in this hilly area, Lieber said, and the Franciscan order of monks had the city’s first pharmacy. In the eighteenth century, when the city was beset by bubonic plague, a Franciscan monk named Antonio Menzani di Cuna concocted a remedy from forty-two Jerusalem herbs that was dubbed “Jerusalem balsam.” The list of ingredients and jars like those seen in an early photograph of the pharmacy are on display. A version of the remedy is still produced (http://www.jerusalembalsam.com/) and marketed as a cure-all.

When, in 1860, Moses Montefiore built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, no one wanted to move there, according to exhibition curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa. It took the cholera epidemic of 1865 to spur interest in the new neighborhood.

But epidemics continued to beset the city. At the time, there was a Jewish belief that a “black wedding” could help. Two orphans, or two other individuals who could not afford a wedding, would be married under a black canopy in a cemetery, with the hope that the righteous dead interred around them would act as intercessors with God. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 photograph showing such a wedding of two Yemenite orphans, and the young groom appears so terrified that he has started running away.

The real answer to epidemics, of course, came in the form of modern hospitals. By the middle of the nineteenth century Jerusalem had three Jewish hospitals: Bikur Cholim, Misgav Ladach, and Meir Rothschild. Shaare Zedek opened in 1902; Dr. Moshe Wallach, who was strictly Orthodox, was its director until 1947 and lived there all his life, speaking only Yiddish or German. Records were kept in German, and on display is a page from a ledger during a typhoid outbreak showing, in neat German script, that twenty-five of the twenty-seven patients listed had a diagnosis of typhoid.

To this day, the hospital is run according to stringent Orthodox law and custom, though it is open to all Jerusalem residents (I gave birth to three children there), and although Wallach adopted a young Syrian girl who was abandoned there by her father.

According to Lieber, a story is told about a sick man who was brought in a carriage to Dr. Wallach on the Sabbath. After asking the man what was wrong, Wallach told him to wait until the Sabbath was over. The man died. Consequently, the rabbis excommunicated Wallach, then rescinded the excommunication. The true import of the incident was that it forced Jerusalem’s rabbis to clarify what was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life.

In 1888, the Rothschild Hospital relocated to what is today the center of modern Jerusalem, and in 1918 the Hadassah organization established the American Zionist Medical Unit, which took over the hospital. In 1925, when the hospital’s founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, made his last visit to Jerusalem at the age of eighty, the staff presented him with an album showing all the departments in the hospital. On the cover is an image of Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah organization.

One photograph in the album is of the hospital’s X-ray room, with a plaque stating it was dedicated to the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew, who died of tuberculosis. X-rays were used to diagnose this illness, which was common at the time. In addition to the album, which is on loan from the Rothschild Archives in England, the exhibition includes an X-ray machine—with a US Field Army label on it—similar to the one used in Hadassah. As is evident from the photograph, the dangers of exposure to X-rays were not yet well known, and neither patients nor staff were protected against them. Today Hadassah is a medical empire with two large hospitals and schools of medicine, nursing, and dentistry.

Some 300 objects, many of which have never been shown to the public, are on display in this, the largest exhibition the museum has ever undertaken. The exhibition and related tours will run through April 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.






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12 Responses to “Where good health is next to godliness”

  1. Sasha Sedan Says:

    What a wonderful post!!!!! I loved it.


  2. Kutthi Says:

    Hi, Esther: Interesting, but why did you write it for your blog rather than for a paying client? Hillel

    Hillel Kuttler (443) 703-6141 (410) 205-7631

    • estherhecht Says:

      My main paying client wanted only a short item, which it got. I’m not doing much in the way of marketing these days.
      But if my blog readers enjoy it, I’m happy.

  3. Judy Labensohn Says:

    This sounds marvelous, Esther, and I still have time to go! Thanks for the push.

  4. Lior Says:

    Great Piece, Esther. I learned a lot.

  5. estherhecht Says:

    Thank you, Lior. I learned a lot too.

  6. Mark Says:

    Very interesting article , Esther. Thanks!

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Noel Weiss Says:

    From someone who has been in the field of public health for a long time: “The real answer to epidemics” comes from outside the walls of hospitals, in the form of vaccinations, improved sewage and drinking water, smoking cessation efforts, etc.

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