STUDY OF A MULTI-ETHNIC INVESTIGATION OF TRADITIONAL AND CURRENT
|Dr. Judith Issroff is
Consultant in Child
and Family Psychiatry, Bedford and Shires Health & Care NHS Trust Child
and Family Consultation Centre, Union Street Clinic, Union Street, Bedford
e-mail:email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lodge Education Limited, 1996-1999.
One may well question the value of publishing what amounts to a kind of
'ethnographic shopping list'. After all, nowadays everyone is aware of
cultural diversity, certainly everyone who is literate and perhaps even
many of those who cannot tap the vast resource of mankind's collective
cultural storehouse of experience, our common heritage, the collective
mind of collective mankind. I contend such a collation of data has merit
in continuing to draw attention to the fact that even in a country like
Israel where Western medicine is practised with the highest degree of
sophistication and is available to all the population, who are nearly all
literate, and who are certainly all exposed to Western medical practice
through TV and radio, and make routine use of National Health Services,
Hospitals and Clinics, nonetheless traditional home practice is still
very much alive and not infrequently used alongside Western medicine.
There is great interest in and extensive use also of alternative medicine,
such as among other methods homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology,
minerology, bio-energetics, Alexander technique, 'healers', light, Bach
flower remedies, hypnotherapy, neurolinguistic programming, shiatsu, chi
gong and other traditional Eastern practices. This is evident today in
all the "developed world", including the UK, where multi-culturalism is as
much a fact of life as it is in Israel. Yet few people are aware of to
quite what an extent traditional home medicine remedies are passed on, or
have any idea of the diversity and common themes. Accordingly, I think it
is worthwhile to share the data gleaned during this pilot study into
diverse ethnic groups of cultural practices - which may be in the process
of becoming forgotten - at least to remind medical practitioners that they
do still exist, even if there is but little of interest to the
anthropologist in a paper like this.
Such data is of interest also to those who seek to extract and develop new
medications from traditional herbal remedies, but that is not the direction
of this report.
One unexpected result of the ethnographic study to be described was that it
cast light on the antiquity of a certain Jewish ethnic minority
community in India in the discovery of a two thousand year old practice
from Second Temple period.(Issroff,1997/8)
"To understand a people - and through it, humankind - is to see its life
whole" Joshua Trachtenberg (1970).
To understand an illness, and the person suffering this state of
ill-being is to see his/her life whole. Understanding his/her human
totality demands more than a merely physical approach. Asthma is a model
psycho-socio-somato-spiritual disease with marked psycho-social effects
which impact on those who attend the wheezing, distressed patient in
addition to the asthma sufferer.
INTRODUCTORY BACKGROUND TO ETHNOGRAPHIC PILOT STUDY:
Respiratory distress and asthma are widespread and common in all Israeli
ethnic groups, particularly in new immigrants. During the course of an
exploratory study into the practicability of one-off
psychoanalytically-based therapeutically-oriented 'psycho-operative'
interventions with asthmatic children .(Issroff,J.1996) [undertaken at
the Rokach Memorial Centre Clinic for Respiratory Diseases of the
Jerusalem branch of the Israel Lung and Tuberculosis League for the
Prevention of Lung Diseases.], the veteran cleaning lady divulged that she
came from a family of traditional Yemenite healers. [Her son is a medical
specialist now practicing in Italy.].. Unbeknown to the Clinic Staff of
conventional Western medical specialists she grew medicinal herbs in
clinic flowerpots and concurrent with their clinics, ran a traditional
herbalist clinic which was used by a considerable number of regular
After centuries of dispersion and exile Jews have ingathered and
returned to their homeland of Israel from at least 178 different
countries, Israel becoming a natural laboratory for social and medical
anthroplogical ethnographic study. To follow up and expand the
fascinating material she volunteered about traditional Yeminite practices,
a small pilot study was conducted to collect, collate and analyze a
comparative body of data about current home health and disease care,
based on traditional beliefs, practices, superstitions, customs and habits
in the diverse ethnic groups comprising the highly pluralistic Israeli
population organized around respiratory distress (asthma) as the model
This paper reports and reflects on some of the anecdotal ethnographic
data. General contextual background material is presented in [brackets].
Asthmatics produce thick white sputum, and from the information about
numerous diverse practices, the material reported attempts to focus on
those which seem to have developed in relation to this particular asthmatic
feature in different areas.
The origin of practices is obscure and no attempt is made herein to trace
them, or to determine to what extent the practices reported are
essentially Jewish or to what extent they reflect the influence of various
peoples with whom Jews have lived contiguously.
COMMUNITIES WITH WHICH RELEVANT CONTACT WAS ESTABLISHED:
Preliminary data were gleaned about Egyptian, Syrian, Yemenite, Babylonian
(Iraqi Kurdish), Ukrainian, Ethiopian, Tunisian, Moroccan, Indian (from
Dadar district, Bombay), Middle European-origin (Ashkenazi),
Afghani-Iranian-origin and also non-Jewish Palestinian Arab and Bedouin
Data was collected in unstructured but directed individual and group
interviews. Unfortunately no proper survey of the extent of such practices
could be undertaken, nor could it be determined in which ethnic groups such
traditional healing methods continue to be most used.
The pilot study revealed great diversity of practice and belief.
All the raw ethnographic data will not be presented here, but an
effort will be made to extract similar practices in diverse ethnic groups
in a preliminary attempt to organize and understand trends in the
WHY ASTHMA WAS CHOSEN AS THE MODEL ILLNESS:
The Hebrew etymological root for 'spirit, soul' (neshama ) and for
'breath' (neshima) is the same. The great Jewish sage and physician, Rambam
wrote a treatise in Arabic in 1190 about hakatseret, the Hebrew word for
asthma which may literally be translated as 'the shortness of breath'
(Rosner,F., Munter,S. 1973).
[The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, also known as Moses Maimonides, and
Abu-Amran in Arabic [1135-1204, born in the year 4895 according to the
Jewish calendar], was a great scholar, rabbinic authority, codifier,
philosopher and royal physician - the most famous and illustrious figure in
Judaism in the post-Talmudic era and one of the greatest of all times. (See
Encyclopaedia Judaica,1972,Vol.11, p799.)]
In his treatise, hakatseret, "Maimonides regards bronchial asthma as
largely due to nervousness, and believes that some people thus inclined
react strongly to certain irritants. Correct diet and spiritual treatment,
he says, have a beneficial effect on the asthmatic."
"In the formation of his opinions on man's spiritual well-being,
Maimonides' scientific and psychological experiences are closely interwoven
with his religious principles. Physical and biological rules are integrated
with moral and ethical principles in his world of values. To integrate
oneself consciously into the natural biological laws of the world
represented for Maimonides the fulfillment of the idea of walking in the
paths of science and wisdom and achieving true knowledge and perfect
bliss."(S.M., Encyclopaedia Judaica,1972)
JUDAISM AND THE LEGALISM OF DAILY LIFE -Halakhah :
Joshua Trachtenberg (1973) pointed out how alongside the steady expansion
and development of the inner life of Judaism, as religious concepts were
advanced and elaborated, always the effort was made to make these something
more than concepts, to weave them into the pattern of daily life, so that
the Jew might live his religion, referred to by Trachtenberg as the
'badly misunderstood legalism' of Judaism.
[ Halakhah ( from the word root halakh, "to go") is the codified Way of
living, conduct and practice, the whole legal side of Judaism, that
embraces personal, social, national, and international relationships, and
all other practices and observances of Judaism in detail. (See L.J.1972.
Encyclopaedia Judaica , Vol.7, pp.1156-1167). In Judaism halakhah is
distinguished from aggadah, a body of non-legal material, particularly of
the rabbinic literature, that is regarded of lesser significance(H.N.Bialik
& Y.H.Ravnitzky, 1992. The halakhah in its entirety goes back to Moses
(Sinaitic divine revelation) except for various later elaborations,
extensions, applications, and innovations according to new circumstance.
Halakhah is the distinctive feature of Judaism as a religion of obedience
to the word of God. It unites Jews of many different temperaments, origins,
and theological opinions. The Talmud (literally the imperative passive
receptive form "You will learn!") is a labyrinth of legal debate about
determining actual decision in law which was collected over centuries
both in Jerusalem and in Babylon; codification and debate continue to this
day.(A. Steinshaltz, 1976; L.Browne,1962; J.G. Williams 1980; M. Adler,
1963; I. Epstein(Ed.) 191935-53)]
'Alongside this formal development there was a constant ELABORATION OF
FOLK RELIGION - ideas and practices that never met with the whole-hearted
approval of the religious leaders, but which enjoyed such wide popularity
that they could not altogether be excluded from the field of religion. Of
this sort were the beliefs concerning demons and angels, and the way
superstitious images based on these beliefs actually became a part of
Judaism by more or less devious routes. So in the periphery of the
religious life, the practices of magic continued; although stretched
almost to the breaking point they never broke completely with the tenets
of the faith.' Trachtenberg proposes that we call these traditional
practices 'folk religion' because they express the common attitude of the
people as against the official attitude of the synagogue to the universe."
(My italics). [See also H.J. Zimmels, 1952; C. Zuckerman-Bareli, M.
Ronen,1988; S. Daiches, 1913; S. Sered, 1988; I. Jakobovits, 1959; H.
Goldberg(Ed.), 1987; A.Deutsch, Tulea; H.C. Dobrinsky, 1988; M.
Douglas,1966; W. Robertson Smith 1889; I. Epstein,1959; E.
Trachtenberg's contention is readily supported by even a cursory browse
through the comprehensive data concerning Babylonian Jewry (plus some
Yemenite herbal remedies) compiled and published by Avraham Ben Ja'akov
(1991-2a,b,c). This work requires analysis and discussion. I suspect that
there are links to ancient Mesopotamian and traditional Chinese medical
and folk practices via all the ancient spice route stops, although the
origin of the practices is equally likely to lie in ancient Mesopotamia
from where possibly they also affected traditional Chinese medicine. Some
practices may have originatd in Africa. It must be remembered that the
land of Israel lies in the natural great land bridge between Africa and
Eurasia, and that trade routes passed through since time immemorial, and
a Jewish Diaspora existed even before the dispersion of the Jews first at
the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians in the 6th Century B.C.E.
(Before Christian Era), and again wide dispersion of the people of Israel
occurred as a result of the Roman conquests in the first and second
centuries C.E. According to the Afghanistani-Iranian community informant,
Jews who fled there from Iranian persecution kept very rigidly to
themselves and were not influenced by local Muslim community practices, but
this was not necessarily always the case everywhere or elsewhere. One can
only speculate about how much Jewish communities in many lands were
influenced by or influenced the communities with whom they cohabited for
varying lengths of time from decades to many centuries, even millennia. It
seems unlikely that the considerable study needed will ever be funded or
There are elements in traditional folk healing, preventive and remedial
practices which fall into what Trachtenberg termed 'folk religion' that
are carried out alongside of and together with conventional Western medical
practice that can be compared to the historical splitting of Western
medical traditional healers into barber surgeons, who were the precursors
of today's conventional Western medical practitioners, and the other
stream of homeopaths and osteopaths, who today co-exist with and are
freely consulted by patients, including Israelis from many ethnic groups.
WHAT PRACTICES AND BELIEFS, IF ANY, ARE HELD IN COMMON BY DIVERSE ETHNIC
Belief in (i) the evil eye, (ii) sheydim, (demons, evil spirits),
magic, and (iii) folk practices to mitigate their effects, is still
common, probably as widespread as asthma [Schrier,T.1966.; Attal,R.A. 1973;
Weingrod,A.1985; Preuss,1911; Pillsbury, B.L. 1978; W.H.O.1978;
Leibowitz,J.O., Marcus,S.1984; Hes,J.1964; Hes,J. & Palgi,P. 1982].
(i) THE EVIL EYE: AYIN HARA-AH : literally 'the eye of the evil': There
is a widespread belief that some persons may produce malevolent effects on
others by looking at them, based on the supposed power of some eyes to
burn, bewitch or harm by a glance. Preventive or counteractive measures are
taken to avert the effects of destructive fire or the calling into being of
an evil demon who takes vengeance on the cause of wrath. If prevention is
too late, then the endangered person can be saved by confrontation and war
measures based on countermagic to defeat or deceive the evil eye. For
example, the use of mirrors to reflect back the glance, or ornaments or
amulets bearing specal incantations, holy words or symbols, or specific
colours to blight or confound the evil eye (blue or red) as described by
many informants. A hand may deflect its rays, or an obscene gesture, or
its influence may be shamed by grasping the thumbs of each hand in the
other and proclaiming: "I, so and so, son/daughter of so and so, am of the
seed of Joseph whom the evil eye may not affect." All informants described
variants of these measures. (See Encyclopaedia Judaica,1972,Vol.6,
(ii) MAGIC: (See Encyclopaedia Judaica , Vol.11,pp.703-715.)
"To date there is no serious study on the sources on which medieval Hebrew
magic works drew. The various influences have neither been defined nor
classified and no clear distinction can therefore be made betwen the
following sources: the Assyrian and Babylonian (which apparently also
influenced the Talmud), the Hellenistic (Jewish-Hellenistic and Greek), the
ancient Egyptian and their later adaptations during the synchretistic
periods of the Roman Empire, the original Arabic and their fusion with the
Persian and Indian, and the European whch were intermingled with Arabic and
other sources. Principally, however, there is as yet no way to distinguish
in every case between traditional Hebrew magic, derived from the biblical
and talmudic periods, and the magic elements which reached Jewish writers
from foreign sources. Until such studies are made, only impressions and
generalizations can serve as basis for any assumption as to the nature of
medieval Hebrew magic works.
Though there are no detailed studies on hand, there is no doubt that Jewish
medieval magic drew on all the above-mentioned sources."[Y.D.,p.709] "There
is no essenial difference in the basic magic formulas and the attitude
toward magic between the various nations, countries, and periods." I
perceived the same situation as current, and would add possible traditional
Chinese medical 'magical' practices to the list of influences.
(iii) FOLK MEDICINE: is discussed as part of Folklore [in Encyclopaedia
Judaica, 1972, Vol.6, pp.1405-1410] as a means of overcoming anxieties
and fears and for the prevenion and cure of diseases. Folk beliefs,
superstitions and remedies have been transmitted by Jewish communities from
generation to generation, even where there were normative medicine and
'ASHKENAZI' AND 'SEPHARADI' JEWS :
The Jews known as Ashkenazi lived in Eastern Europe, whereas the Sepharadi
Jews are derived from those of Spain who escaped the Inquisition. "The
concern of the Ashkenazi Hasidim with magic practice and phenomena has
its roots in some of their theological ideas."(Encyclopaedia Judaica ,1972,
Members of both Ashkenazi and Sepharadi groups, for example, go to get
blessings and holy blessed water from a respected cult Rabbi.
[RABBI is the title accorded a sage - meaning literally 'my master'.
(Encyclopaedia Judaica , 1972, Vol.13,pp.1445-1458). The Rabbinate
constitute the Jewish religious leadership. Rabbis are not Priests, the
latter are descendents of Aaron of the Levite tribe. One of the priestly
functions was to treat impurities and disease. (See Encyclopaedia Judaica,
1972, Vol.13,pp.1060-1090)] Sometimes this works as do any placebos and
hypnotic suggestions. Other patients are instructed to wear certain
colours or clutch special stones in very religious Haredi communities, or
to drink crushed topaz and emerald coloured stones for asthma. Israel's
prime minister and the Director of the prime Minister's Office receive
blessings and amulets from the Chief Rabbis as a matter of course. To the
extent that the current change in Israeli government can be attributed to
the numbers of amulets for blessings given out by a certain aged centurian
sage whose religious political party advised that instead of blessings
ill-fortune would befall any amulet (kamea) wearer who did not vote for
the present Prime Minister Netanyahu!
[My informant was a clinical psychologist who worked in and
belonged to such a community of Hassidim and Haredi Jews who are
particularly involved with pietism and strict observance of religious and
moral commandments. (See Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972, Vol. 7,
It seems that contemporary man in Israeli society, like medieval man,
as reflected in the literature on magic, "does not clearly differentiate
between magic and other branches of knowledge, especially between medicine
and magic. Most of the collections dealing mainly with magic do not
distinguish between the treatment of an ailment according to the accepted
norms of popular medicine, such as the application of heat, herbs, and
certain foods, and magic means, calling for the help of angels and demons
to heal the patient."(Encyclopaedia Judaica ,1972, Vol. 11. p710).
have been in widespread use since earliest times as man has tried to
protect himself from misfortune by the use of objects which he considered
holy or otherwise (e.g. magically) potent. It was felt that evil spirits
would not dare to attack one so protected. Various forms of pieces of
paper, parchment, or metal discs inscribed with various formulae are
believed to protect the bearer from sickness, the 'evil eye', and other
troubles. [See Encyclopaedia Judaica ,1972, Vol.2., pp.906-915)].
KURDISH JEWS wear amulets of wax with words of Holy books set in them, and
consult a specialist to determine which words to use. So do ETHIOPIANS, who
have several sets of healers, their Ba'al Debtara (?Master of Words) does
something similar to the Kurdish wise man.
[ Ethiopians also consult Ba'al Tonquai, and Ba'al Zar - Master of the
Strange:'balazar' ( See Nudelman,I.1988,1993; Almond,R. 1974; Alpert,H.
1985; Weingrod,A.(Ed)1985; J.Kennedy 1967; S.D.Menuchin-Itzigsohn, R. Ben
Shaoul, A.Weingrod, D.Krasilovsky 1984; Zuckermna-Bareli,C., Ronen,M. 1988;
D. Chemtob, I.Kalka, Y.Fassberg,1990). The balazar deals with whatever
stranger identification or estranged feeling has brought about the illness,
usually attributed to, accepted and attended to as a manifestation of
looking for attention which is given via dance. It does not seem to be
attributed to evil spirit possession which kind of belief system operates
in the Yemenite community, as well as in Egyptians, Europeans, Syrians
amongst others. ]
-YEMENITE JEWS will keep lights on to keep the sheydim and evil eye at
bay, etc. [Re Yemenite Jews : see R.A.Attal,1973; S.Bodenheimer,1961;
H.J.A. Cohen,Z.Yehuda(Eds.)1976; Geridi.1936; O.Greenberg,1987; J.Hes
1964; J. Ph Hes, P. Palgi,1982; S.D.Menuchin-Itzigsohn, R. Ben Shaoul,
A.Weingrod, D.Krasilovsky 1984; M.Meyerhof 1947-8; P.Palgi 1981; P.Palgi
1990; B.L. Pillsbury,1978; Jewish Encyclpaedia,Vol. 16,739-59 ; S.Sered
1988; A. Weingrod(Ed)1985; C. Zuckerman-Bareli, M.Ronen 1988; A.
Deutsch.G.Tulea(Eds.)1988; H.J.A. Cohen, Y.Yehuda(Eds.)1976.]
-BEDOUIN may make the child sleep with a knife under the pillow to frighten
off evil spirits.
- Bedouin also deliberately burn children who cry : perhaps the adrenaline
so released relieves the asthma? But the Beduin explanation is this
provides a way for exit of the djinn or evil spirit which has entered the
sick person and thus causes the illness.
- And sick children may be buried up to their heads in sand by Bedouin...
possibly in a similar way to that employed by San (Kalahari desert Bushman)
people who are also nomadic. Does this possibly prevent the djinns from
getting at the child?
[Aref Abu Rabia,1983; T. Ashkenazi,1974; C.Bailey& A.Danin,1981; Their
herbal remedies were documented by Aref Abu Rabia(1983); Bailey,C. &
Danin,A.(1981); Ashkenazi,T. (1974); Ullman.M.(1978).]
- At least one SYRIAN-ORIGIN grandmother rolled SALT in bits of paper
which were stabbed repeatedly with a needle and then placed under a sick
child's bed or pillow, or burnt, in order to keep the sheydim (evil
spirits) at bay. In Temple Period times salt was 'an indispensable
ingredient of sacrifice...symbolic of the moral effect of suffering, which
purifies man and causes sins to be forgiven." (Enc. Jud. 1972, Vol.14, p.
613; Ber. 5a;p.710-711; The Pentateuch, Leviticus, 2:13; Talmud, Men.
20a.) Salt plays an essential role in Jewish life, ritual and symbolism.
Salt is a preservative. The idea of permanence is the basis of the covenant
of salt mentioned in various occasions in the Bible - a symbol of abiding
loyalty. Salt is also believed to have cleansing, hygienic and purifying
powers since Biblical times, but it stings the eyes and could thus be used
to sting the evil eye. Note also that salt is white in colour.
Various other safety precautions against an evil eye and sheydim are
taken such as:
-the practice of hanging GARLIC outside the door or round the neck, as well
as eating it; [Belief in the 'magical' preventive powers of garlic has
been confirmed by scientists at Israel's Volcani Institute for agicultural
and nutritional research unit in the Hebrew University Rehovot campus: it
is rich in Vitamin C, anti-helminthic, and seems to have a generally
infection-resisting effect. So do placebos and strong belief according to
contemporary research in psycho-immunology!]
- the chamsah (literally arabic for 'FIVE'), a HAND believed magically to
avert the beam of an evil eye and demons, is used particularly by
Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians, as well as Muslims. Some consider the
hand to represent the hand of Fatima, who was Muhammed's daughter, but
hands have appeared in North African amulets since the times of the
Carthaginians who antedated the muslim tradition by more than a thousand
years. [as horse shoes are used hung all over europe, or the cross or
fingers crossed by Europeans and Christians, or effigies of elephants, with
their backsides to the doors and windows in Holland, as i was told by a
- " The words 'five in your eye' are equivalent to the Western 'touch
wood'" (C. Roden1968, p.27) "Touch wood: The wood of the cross to avert bad
. A TUNISIAN-ORIGIN informant remembered her grandmother hitting her head
FIVE times frequently as a secret way of warding off the evil eye, as if
she were pretending to push her hair back, or she would make the sign
with her hand in her pocket. Demonstrating this rather bizarre gesture of
hitting her own head, my informant joked: "Grandmama was dafook b'rosh !-
meaning in Hebrew, 'beaten in the head' - a witty word play in Hebrew,
meaning the equivalent of 'a kook-head', 'nuts', disturbed, in English
- Situations conducive to stimulating envy are considered dangerous and
times of increased vulnerability. Accordingly, in order to avoid someone
casting the evil eye: the moment a stranger entered, a Tunisian informer
said her Grandmama would rush at him or her with a spoon of jam or
something sweet and insist on shoving it in whomever's mouth, whether or
not it was wanted, so as to neutralize any bitterness and to ensure
s of approach and no 'evil eye' casting.
A similar story was told by a MOROCCAN-born social worker. A baby was
born at home one night during a time of some sort of pogrom or danger to
Jewish children. All was cleaned up. Next morning their surprised Arab
neighbour asked when the baby had been born, and her grandmother grasped
the opportunity to ward off the evil eye or any other dangers by
mentioning number five, hamsah, so answered 'five days ago'!
- BLUE or turquoise glass or painting areas blue was directed towards
confusing and misdirecting the sheydim.. Blue is the colour of heaven and
it is believed this will confuse the potentially dangerous spirits, avert
them, and attract the good ones. The same kind of magical thinking
underlies the dome shape preferred for the tombs of important Jewish sages
buried in the Galillee.
- In Tunisia, however, walls are painted RED, and red blinds are
hung, rationally considered to rest the eyes and soothe the brain. I
suggest an alternative possible interpretation: red is frequently equated
with blood, which itself represents either death or life. If the red
is outside then perhaps the evil eye and sheydim may be diverted and
won't be tempted to enter anyone's body. Blood is connected with life in
- FISH is considered in general important to eat.
Gematria is the 'term for one of the hermeneutical rules for
interpreting the Torah, the Pentateuch. It consists of explaining a word
or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters, or of
substituting other letters of the alphbet for them in accordance with a set
system.' (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972, Vol.7, p. 369-374).
The Hebrew for fish (dag) is in gematria numerically equivalent to
shabbat, the sabbath, the seventh day of rest, which represents
wholeness, will heal, make whole. Fish in water also symbolize re-birth,
and fertility. Any fish with scales is used and any preparation, but
preferably Tunisians use red peppers, tomatoes and colouring.
Before cooking the fish the Tunisian Jewish families would cut off the
fish head at the doorway and sprinkle its blood on the door jamb. The
Bible relates what was done in Egypt before the Exodus so that the angel
of death would know to pass over that particular house and spare the
firstborn son from the plague with which the non-Jews were smitten. So it
seems to be a persistent practice of a Passover symbol, a reminder of
freedom and to signal with red-blood=death(?) outside a house to avert or
confuse or as an offering to bad spirits to pass it by.
Newly married Tunisian couples are encouraged to step over a large fish
the day after their weding as an assurance of happiness and protection from
evil. Also in Egypt fish was the first meal to be eaten in a new home. In
Persia fish is eaten on New Year's Eve to cleanse the people from evil.
Today the shape of a fish has become a symbol: embroidered on a cloth and
carved in metal it is believed to ward off the evil eye. Sometimes during
the Passover feast a fish head is placed on the table together with the
other special symbols in the hope that Jews and those present should
always keep 'at the head' (C.Roden. 1968, p165).
[My Tunisian informant had an M.A. in nursing and administration, and
laughed about her Parisienne psychoanalyst sister's insistence that she
continued to practice all these traditions.]
As Passover is the festival of freedom from slavery in Egypt, and Jews
have always lived there, it seems appropriate here to continue reporting
material I obtained about EGYPTIANS.
This interview illustrates the flavour of the kind of interview conducted:
Informant: Albert M., born and raised in Egypt, was a certified
reflexologist (trained in Egypt), Bach flower and aroma therapist, in his
late sixties, slightly stooped but vigorous. He was interviewed in his
clinic for some forty minutes before and while he treated a Yemenite
woman who was intently involved in the interview.
First he insisted that the Egyptians only believed in conventional medicine
and had nothing special or traditional. Then, on being pressed, he came up
with the following:
1. They believed asthma was due to damp in the air and would move house
even every month in an attempt to avoid damp and find improved air.
2. Mint (nana ) tea was administered to calm down the sufferer.
3. Like other Egyptians the Jews believed in fat women, the more fat, the
more double, triple and quadruple chins, the more attractive, imposing and
healthy the woman was considered to be. Therefore to fatten a woman to
make her more healthy and attractive, they would administer an enema with
the plant 'shich ' which only grows in Egypt to his knowledge. [According
to an Israeli botanist specializing in medicinal plants, Crispin Nissim,
'shich' plant also grows in the Negev desert near certain springs, but the
nature of its active ingredient has not been ascertained].
4. Albert then digressed to tell me about the Beduin who treat the pain
of sciatica by applying a white-hot heated iron bar to the nerve as it
appears near the surface of the inner lower leg. This kills the nerve and
so eventually alleviates the pain from the inflamed nerve after the pain of
the lesion caused by the burn treatment and nerve death subsides.
5. After more prompting, by my telling him that I'd heard of habits in
common between Southern Egyptians, Yemenites and Ethiopians (from
psychiatrist Dr. Joop Hes), Albert told me that the Egyptians believed in
'sheydim ' and in the evil eye. They have a 'habitual' Zar ceremony "to
get rid of sheydim". They undulate and dance to the throbbing music of
'kadachtanit ' - a little ceramic jug-like drum beaten to make a very
strong rapid rhythmical music. By making rapid rolling motions
horizontally at about stomach level in his frontal area he demonstrated
how the women would shake, undulate and tremble rapidly, making life within
them most uncomfortable for the sheydim who accordingly would leave
6. He then told me that at least 10% of Egyptian Arabic words are of
Italian origin etymologically. After this informative erudite digression
he remembered some ways of dealing with the influence of the evil eye. He
recalled that there are inhalations for asthma of aromatic herbs, a
mixture called katoret (which is Hebrew for incense).
7. Egyptians (Jews or all?) believe that asthma is a disease of the order
'chasuchat me'refah ' literally "darkness from healing", or whose mode of
healing is obscure) : no one recovers ever from it!
8. Nonetheless there are things done to avert the evil eye:
a) Black seeds rimmed with an orange red which resemble little red eyes
are heated, and when they burst then it is believed that the effect is as
if emanations of any evil eyes have burst and can no more exert their
b) They also used gum, resin, bits of rubber, chewing gum, and heated them
in the fire. When they melted, then it was believed that the evil eye
influence likewise would melt away and be nullified.
This ceremony was sometimes accompanied by staring at the melting bit
of rubber or gum, and, 'with much imagination', the experts would say who
it was who was casting the evil eye.
9. He then remembered that 'cupping' and application of 'wind or spirit
cups or glasses' (cosot ruach in Hebrew) was a common practice. They would
take little bits of paper and light them and put them inside a glass or
cup, and then apply it to the skin. Uptake of Oxygen would reduce air
pressure inside the 'cup' and produce a kind of vacuum, and one could see
the flesh rise inside the glass. Thae suction created would be deemed to
have sucked out all spirits, noxious agents and infections.
(The Yemenite woman present on whom he had begun to work reflexologically
and who was listening intently to the conversation had obviously seen a
similar practice and nodded vigorously).
10. I then asked about leeches (Alukot ). Leeches have been used in
Western medicine for blood-letting, for disposing of infection in wounds,
and presumably also to suck out the bad spirits. They are used by
Ethiopian and Russian immigrants as well as Yemenites and other-origin
Israelis. Albert told me that 'every barber shop in Egypt has big glass
jars of black leeches in water', and that everyone uses them frequently.
This led him to tell me about the many functions of barbers in Egypt,
such as clitoridectomy of young girls, to reduce their sexuality to
manageable proportions etc.
11. In Egypt fertility is very, very important, and since ancient Egyptian
times women are frequently portrayed as pregnant and with big breasts. All
Egyptian women wear anklets, but this is not mere decoration, this is
because reflexologically they are worn where every step will stimulate the
sexual areas in order to keep the women receptive and eager for sexual
pleasure. Nowadays the ankle bangles are of gold, or silver, or copper, but
once they were iron.
After I had shared what I had heard about other ethnic groups with
them, Albert promised to consult an old man whom he considered to be well
informed about Egyptian herbal remedies.
They both talked about the many uses of hilbeh (fenugreek), and how
now it is being investigated by conventional medicine as it is effective in
diabetes. The Yemenite woman joined in and they launched into a tirade
against psychiatrists in Israel, particularly the Chief of the Department
at a major teaching Hospital and medical school. They were convinced that
she herself should be put away for having no respect for the wishes of
the patients. They referred to a recently much publicized case of a
youngster who refused chemotherapy and who was accordingly certified by
her as insane and forcibly treated. They both believed the spiritual and
psychological damage done him is at least as bad as his disease. They could
not understand how the psychiatrists can be allowed such power as to
determine who is hospitalized, forcibly give medication in high and
poisonous amounts, and effectively they feel that a psychiatric
hospitalization is like a life sentence.
Note that recourse to the Courts in Israel does give patients the right
to refuse treatment, but this youngster was under age and his parents could
not bring themselves to make such a decision on his behalf against
professorial professional advice. (I did not tell them that one of my
professions is psychiatry and I could in no way defend the psychiatrists
The AFGHANISTANI JEWISH COMMUNITY never was larger than about 5000 people.
My informant, Aaron, a sculptor, at the age of ten had emigrated by foot
to Israel with his grandfather. The Jewish community in Afghanistan had
fled there to escape forced conversion to Islam some 250 years earlier,
the Sunnis of Afghanistan being less religiously coercive than the Shiites
of Iran. The Jewish community kept very strictly to itself, had one main
traditional family of Rabbis who led them, were very scholarly and
observant. When a house was built an unbaked brick was impressed with the
names of different friendly relatives and members of the community, "the
eye of so and so and the eye of so and so", and these good eyes would keep
the evil eyes and spirits at bay.
1. When someone was ill a bowl of WATER would be passed around the
synagogue and each person would recite some lines from Psalms and bless the
water which the sick person would afterwards drink.
2. Also the door handles of all the synagogues would be dipped in water
and this water would be drunk by the sick person.
3. Preventive measures included never throwing water out at night or peeing
outside in case a passing spirit might be wet whose wrath might be
incurred and illness thus caused.
4. An animal might be slaughtered and the meat given to the poor, the
family never touching any. The BLESSINGS of those who received the feast
would help the sick person.
5. They also would throw little seeds into a fire that popped and
disappeared along with scared off spirits and evil eyes.
6. They would stretch a very thin piece of thread tautly across a narrow
street so that when it got caught and parted, so they believed the illness
7. Mostly they used different combinations of herbs and grasses,
commingled and burnt and powdered, he thought very much herbal and like
The RUSSIAN immigrants (who also use leeches) have no great faith in
official medicine (as practiced in Russia). Many healers have emigrated to
Israel and are currently in practice. They have a host of herbal remedies;
they also employ various probably useful hypnotic suggestive techniques,
wear special metals, stones, crystals, and they use various dietary
practices, like not eating white foods in cases of asthmatic children.
If there is a theme in TREATMENT OF ASTHMA which is specific rather than
general - like ways of dealing with the evil eye or spirit possession -
then it is possibly A TREND TOWARDS DEALING WITH WHITE, which
characterizes the dense sputum produced during asthmatic attacks. Such
measures appeared in several ethnic groups. However, the material is still
too sparse for any well-based discussion.
1. For instance, a Russian informant placed what he called 'allergy' to
white foods as the second cause of asthma, second to 'allergy to mothers'
'of course', as if anyone would know that! Accordingly, he said, among
Russians who tend not to rely on conventional medicine (Tal,L. 1982), but
rather seek out healers, it is customary for foods such as white of egg,
sugar, and milk products to be prohibited when children develop asthma.
2. Amongst the Ethiopians, in order to express and to extrude the Zar, the
spirit possession which may be considered one of the causes of asthma, a
woman customarily asks for various material possessions, such as a white
dress or a white hen. However also a red hen, coffee, or jewelry, or
perfume (Nudelman,I.,1993) may be requested. So she gets various things
which specifically speak to her needs [according to Chola S.D.
Menuchin-Itzigsohn, personal communication,1994] - but that may be a later
addition to the traditional choice of a white magical object (to
counteract 'black magic'?). 3. Nudelman,I. (1993) reports that a SHEEP is
sometimes SACRIFICED during a balazar (translatable as 'Master of the
Strange/Unfamiliar') ceremony, but does not note anything about whether it
is usually or invariably a white sheep.
4. NOTE REMEDIES GIVEN FOR THE TREATMENT OF ASTHMA BY MAGNUS HUGO (1908):
Take and cook together (i) pistachio-sized bit of gum ammoniac (white)
about the size of the nut of sweet galbanum, (ii) a table spoonful of
white honey, and (iii) Machusan natla of clear wine, (one natla as in a
town in Manchuria! -?white rice wine). The remedy is ready when the gum
Or, (iv) as an alternative remedy, take a quarter log of milk of a white
goat, drip it on three stalls of carob and stir with a piece of stem of
marmehin (possibly marjoram- a whitish stem). When the stem boils the
remedy is ready.
(v) or take the excrement of a white dog and knead it with natopha (a type
of resin -?whitish). The 'recipe' adds: "If at all possible however do not
eat the dog's excrement because it unsettles the body"!
5. The Indian Jews from Bombay (mainly Dardar district) sometimes
sacrifice a white dove to make a soup for an asthmatic child. Whilst the
soup is cooking the child's back and chest are smeared with blood [See
Encyclopaedia Judaica,1972,Vol. 14, pp 599-618.] Blood was regarded as the
source of life, and not to be touched except in the sacred conditions of
sacrifice. (M.Douglas.1968; Enc. Jud. 1972,p.1076ff, and Vol.15,
pp.599-616.) The sacrifice may be a purification offering, perhaps the
thick asthmatic sputum is regarded as an unclean. In Temple period times
blood from a propitiatory ( sin or guilt) offering was applied to certain
parts of a ritually cleansed leper's body (p.601) so possibly the
application of the sacrificed dove's blood to the afflicted asthmatic
chest area may be regarded as a similar act.
6. They also feed the asthmatic child white food such as crab meat,
although crabs are not kosher. Perhaps because crab meat is rich in Zinc,
which trace element may well be deficient in asthmatic children, the
treatment 'works'. Zinc may have a function in strengthening immunity or
perhaps in inhibiting allergy.
The material obtained from this MARATHI-SPEAKING INDIAN group of women
from Dadar district, Bombay, who live in Ramle (See Berry Isenberg,S.1988;
Cohen,H.J.A. & Yehuda,Z. 1976; Johnson,B.C.1985), as exemplified by the
white dove sacrifice, indicates that some of their practices date back to
COMMENTS ON JUDAISM , PURITY and CONSCIOUSNESS
KOSHER [ literally "fit' or "proper"], is the term used exclusively for
ritually correct and faultless objects, referring to what is proper within
the law. (Encyclopaedia Judaica,1972,Vol.10,p.806). The dietary laws or
Kashrut are exceedingly complex laws and customs pertaining to the
types of food permitted for consumption and their preparation
(C.Roden.1968). These dietary laws specifically set the children of Israel
apart from their neighbours. They are considered 'divine statutes' and
their goal is holiness, with effects on the soul, part of Judaism's
attempt to hallow the common act of eating which is an aspect of our animal
nature. However, like many aspects of halakhah the practices may be
regarded as mnemonic forms designed to maintain and raise consciousness
concerning life, death, soul, ethical and moral conduct, rather than as
rationally explicable. The practice of kashrut demands sacrifice,
self-discipline, and determination. Forbidden foods are listed in the
Torah (The Bible, Old Testament) Dueteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11. Pork,
euphemistically known to non-observant Israelis as 'white meat' -basar
lavan - is a forbidden (not kosher) meat. Blood-letting is equated with
contamination with death and the custom of shehitah , the ritual
slaughtering of animals, taking life that we may live, is part of the
process of preparation of meat. Koshering meat refers to the prohibition
against the consumption of blood, as not ingesting blood is alleged to tame
man's instinct for violence by instilling in him a horror of bloodshed. For
example, the injunction against the consumption of birds of prey may be
intended to demonstrate that man should not prey on others. It is is
forbidden to eat milk and meat together: "Thou shalt not seethe a kid
in its mother's milk", (Exodus 23:19;34;26; Deuteronomy14:21). Perhaps the
separation of dairy and meat products can be understood as keeping
separate white and life-giving, and red, blood-letting, both life-taking
For attempts to explain the Dietary Laws and their moral effects see
Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol.6, pp26-46; I. Epstein.1959; Mary Douglas.1977.
Judaism is a religion in which separations and distinctions abound as
prohibitions and as rules, and they may be regarded as mnemonics towards
reminding Jews that on behalf of all life they bear the task of being
conscious of consciousness of life, eternity, supreme universal God,
proper ethical conduct and so on, and to give blessing constantly as part
of this celebration of consciousness.
In a life-threatening situation, such as an asthmatic attack,
unkosher food is halakhically permissible. Thus a POLISH informant from a
highly Orthodox and observant family recalled as a child being given pork
meat, [basar lavan- literally translatable as 'white meat', the euphemism
used by non-observant Israeli Jews for pork], to eat to counteract her
asthma which she thought was because it was felt she 'needed to have her
METHOD OF COLLECTION OF INFORMATION:
In the instance the Indian-born Jewesses, an individual informant (a
book-keeper by profession) suggested that were I to meet with their ladies'
group, I would be more likely to gather the most information. So after
interviewing her 'healer' daughter-in-law, who had studied Arogyasathi Yoga
with guru Yogi Knias in Bombay, at their invitation I participated in
their Yoga class. Various elderly women also attended. The interview was
conducted in Hebrew and English, the latter being the preferred language
although the sixteen other women present spoke Marathi between
I gained their initial confidence by my familiarity with the yoga
exercises and ability to sit in full lotus position. Later I explained to
them the purpose of my study. I told them that as an Ashkenazi Jewess born
in South Africa from a British-born mother and Lithuanian-born father,
I'd grown up side by side with an Indian community, and regularly heard
at home the Yiddish expression kainanhora/ kein ayn hora, which I now
realized came from the Hebrew ein eyin haraah. ['May there be no evil eye'
or ''May the evil eye be banished!"] I then shared with them some of the
data I'd gathered from other groups. They were fascinated by what I told
them about Kurdish practices, Egyptian, Yemenite and Ethiopian. They
readily chipped in with information which related to similar practices,
such as giving honey with milk, various herbal remedies and so on. And then
spontaneously 'brain-storming', they shared their own traditions with me.
They were shy about revealing the white dove sacrifice practice and did so
right at the end, only after some prompting among themselves.
The Marathi-speaking Indian Jewish community from Bombay have a
fatalistic attitude to asthma. They came up with a series of some 20
different treatments ranging from rather useful yoga breathing exercises
of Arogyasathi yoga school of Yogi Knias to facilitate control and
strengthening of diaphragmatic and rectus abdomini muscles which are
involved with the active act of expiration - inspiration, being passive,
requires muscular relaxation. They employ a form of massage of the
pharyngeal region by inserting a small diameter, soft black catheter
through the nose and out of the mouth, then moving it gently. There is also
a form of nasal-oral douche, and other 'cleansing' systems such as
swallowing ribbons of cloth 'to sop up excess mucus'. These practices would
stimulate the vagus and autonomic nervous system in various ways, so
stimulate the production of the body's adrenaline - which relieves
Like other groups they have various kinds of herbal remedies which they
apply as pastes, or as poultices, or inhalations, or suck, or make into
herbal tea, given with or without honey.
At this pilot stage of the research, practices which seem to be unique
to them are the previously referred to administration of crab meat as
medicine, and the slaughter of a dove, the blood of which is applied to
chest and back for an hour - a most unexpected practice for a Jewish group
in view of the traditional taboo on touching blood - whilst a soup is made
of the dove, which is then eaten.
- BLOOD, a frequent element in general folk medicine, is rarely, if
ever, used among Jews except in the case of nosebleeding where the actual
blood lost is sometimes baked into a cake and following the principle
prevailing in sympathetic magic, is given to a pig." (Sefer Refu'ot,14b,
according to Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972,Vol 6, p1407). Priests sprinkled
blood of sacrifices during the Temple Period. (See Sacrifice.
Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972,Vol. 14,pp. 599-616.) Poor people brought doves
or pigeons to be offered as burnt offeings to expurgate sin or guilt during
the Temple periods. The offerer executed the symbolic act of laying his
hand on the offering (Leviticus,4:3), thus identifying it with himself. The
priest collected blood and sprinkled it on the veil or on the horns of the
incence altar, or added the blood to the horns of the altar of a higher
rank burnt offering. The remaining blood was draained out at the bsae of
the altar (Leviticus). In the case of a guilt offering which could also be
brought by a leper - and I wonder whether the ill asthmatic child is
considered in a similar fashion-the priest, as well as sprinkling blood
round the altar, would also apply some to certain areas of a
ritually-cleansed leper's body. Like the priest, the leper could eat the
flesh of the sacrifice, 'In that the Lord was deprived of the sevice due
from the infected person so long as his disease kept him outside of the
pale of the ritually clean society. I suggest that because asthmatics
produce sputum, which also is considered as an unclean issue, the
asthmatic may be likened to the leper in the origin of this practice, and
the blood-smearing ritual equated with a purification ritual as practised
in Temple period times.
IRAQI JEWS believe asthma to be a spiritual illness. But Moroccans are
ashamed of it and will move all over the country because a child is
asthmatic without telling even close family members... perhaps this is
because they traditionally
associate the illness with TB, dirt and poverty.
ETHIOPIAN Jews have a PSYCHO-SOCIO-SPIRITUO-SOMATIC MODEL OF ILLNESS
(Chemtob,D., Kalka,I., Fassberg,Y.1990, Alpert,H.1985; Nudelman,I. 1988)
whereby PEOPLE ARE POSSESSED BY STRANGER SPIRITS (ZAR ) which enter via the
breath and affect both behaviour and the expression of the illness.
[See Bilu.Y. 1985,1986, with B. Beit Halahami, 1989 re Moroccan Jewry
and spirit possession. Zar possession and exorcism also exists in
Sudanese, Yemenite, and Egyptian, as well as Dybbuk in Ashkenazi
The healers (therapists) are known as masters of the different spirits
or possession identities and have different ways of dealing with them.. (
Ba'ale a ).
It is well recognized that the strength and power of the healer is
much dependent on the trust and belief in him or her. &qu