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Did Maimonides ignite the cannabis craze? Book probes roles of Jews in medicine

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If you think medical marijuana is a contemporary craze, here’s a surprise: No less a sage than physician-rabbi Moses ben Maimon prescribed plant-based drugs with psychoactive effects in Cairo during the Middle Ages.

To treat melancholy patients, Maimonides, as ben Maimon is known, chose from 100 separate drugs, some with sedative effects. Several, such as basil, grapes and pepper, are familiar from the garden or supermarket. One unusual animal-based product topped these on the rabbi’s list — castoreum, a liquid secreted by beavers.

We may never look at Maimonides the same way thanks to a new anthology in which he appears in several chapters, “Medicine: From Biblical Canaan to Modern Israel,” co-edited by Drs. Kenneth Collins and Stuart Stanton. Similarly, this groundbreaking book gives readers a chance to reappraise the role of medicine itself in the land that now forms the State of Israel and some of its surroundings.

“We covered everything from the Bible to modern times,” Collins said in a joint Zoom interview between the editors and The Times of Israel, ahead of the in-person July 27 book launch in Jerusalem.

One of the contributors, Prof. Markham Geller of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London (UCL), wrote a chapter on Babylonian medicine incorporating his knowledge of cuneiform.

“[That’s] not an easy chapter to write — a really profound chapter on the early stirrings of medicine that ties in with questions from the Talmud,” Collins said.

Health seems intertwined with Judaism — think chicken soup, or the mi shebeirach prayer read aloud in synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. But medicine also plays an important role in other religions.

The anthology examines the long Islamic era from the eighth to the 18th centuries CE, including the contributions of physicians such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Maimonides — or Musa ibn Maymon in Arabic — served as the personal physician to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, al-Afdal.

The book covers traditional Arab and Jewish medicine, as well as medicine under the British Mandate and in the decades after Israeli independence — including how Israel solved a 1950s polio epidemic through a vaccination drive not unlike the country’s current approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 1950s, with children in Israel endangered by polio, Dr. Natan Goldblum traveled to the United States to learn how fellow Jewish medical........

© The Times of Israel

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