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Science Recovered

by Gil Student

A recent news report about a woman in Italy has brought memories of my youth in a Jewish day school rushing back to me. I remember that we students had come up with a few "bomb" questions that totally demolished the underpinnings of traditional Judaism. No one knows who first came up with these questions, but they were so elementary yet fatal that we never ceased to ask them to any teacher who was so audacious as to promote Jewish thought. Thinking back, I'm sure that these teachers answered all of our questions. But we were so enamored with our questions that we did not even bother listening to any answers. I cannot honestly recall any response to the killer questions until one tenth grade teacher managed to reach me at a point when I was listening. Before that, I was certain that some elementary school students in New Jersey could outsmart the greatest of the rabbis.

What were these ingenious questions? One, and this was my favorite, was why, if the rabbis of the Talmud were so smart and knew everything, did they not build cars and spaceships? Ahah! We must clearly deduce that, contrary to the fundamental principle of Judaism, the sages of the Talmud did not know everything.

I don't remember being told this answer, probably because I was hypnotized by the brilliance of my question, but I have to believe that my teachers repeatedly told me that no one ever said that the rabbis of the Talmud knew everything. Even if they did tell me this, I probably would have thought that it was a rationalization. "They are only trying to escape this clever trap I set," I would have thought. It would never have occurred to me that, in Judaism, only G-d is omniscient.Of course the rabbis did not know everything.

But I am not going to enter into the discussion of whether the sages of the Talmud made scientific errors. Like all ancient texts, the Talmud requires interpretation. There are therefore different interpretations of the passages that might imply that the Talmud has scientific mistakes. Of course, there are maximalists who search for anything that might be interpreted as an error and there are minimalists who reinterpret any passage that implies a mistake. In between, there are more mainstream views, such as that of R. Eliyahu Dessler in his Michtav Me'Eliyahu (vol. 4 p. 355). Those familiar with the traditional Jewish world, or as some call it the ultra-Orthodox world, know how influential R. Dessler's work has become.

But that is not my topic for today. I would rather dwell upon the condescension that many, my youthful self included, have towards ancient wise men. The term ancient itself implies something outdated, no longer relevant. What could scholars from thousands of years ago know about the human condition?

The truth is that not only were they deeply knowledgeable about human psychology, they were also keen observers of the physical world. Without dissecting corpses, for religious reasons, the rabbis of the Talmud still had a strong grasp of human anatomy. There are numerous examples in the Talmud of humane experiments performed on animals in order to better understand their workings (e.g. Chullin 45b, 57b). The talmudic sages looked at the world around them and registered its processes. They attempted to test medical cures for diseases and noted which cures worked and which did not (Avoda Zara 18a).

An oft-quoted medical success of the ancient world is that found in the Mishna (Bechorot 8:2). The Mishna discusses a woman who gives birth to her first child through a cesarean and then her second child through a normal childbirth. This does not seem surprising to us. Cesarean section childbirths are fairly common and have been documented throughout the ancient world (see here for an exhibit from the National Library of Medicine on the history of cesarean sections). Even though most women who give birth through a cesarean section continue to do so with their future children, there are many who are able to have normal vaginal births after a cesarean. However, until modern times it was rare for women to survive cesarean sections, much less give birth again normally. R. Moses Maimonides, the famous 12th century talmudist who was also the personal physician of the


Plate XLII from Scultetus' Armamentaerium chirugicum bipartum, 1666

Sultan Saladin, wrote in his commentary on the above Mishna that he was puzzled how a woman could give birth normally after having a cesarean section. It seemed medically impossible. Yet, the rabbis of the Talmud either witnessed such occurrences or were sufficiently prescient to know that this would eventually become medically possible. Their knowledge of medical possibilities was sometimes more modern than science would be centuries later.

Another example was a controversy recently reported in the news.  Superfetation is the development of a second fetus when one is already present in the uterus and is a phenomenon that has been observed in some animals.  The Talmud in Nidah 27a tells us that a woman cannot become pregnant and then become pregnant again.  In other words, superfetation is impossible in humans.  However, a contradictory statement can be found in Yevamot 12b.  The Talmud says that a pregnant woman may (or must) use contraception lest her fetus become compressed and destroyed. (Judaism's approach to contraception is complex.  Ask your local rabbi for guidance.)  The implication is that superfetation is possible in humans.  A pregnant woman may (or must) use contraception because if she does not she might become impregnated again and the new fetus will damage the already existing fetus.  This contradiction between the texts is resolved by commentators in different ways (see David M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, pp. 182-187).  The famous talmudic commentator Rashi (early 12th century) explains that superfetation is possible, but the resulting fetus will not survive.  A woman can become pregnant more than once at a time, but cannot deliver viable babies from these multiple pregnancies.  Rabbi Shlomo ben Tzemach Duran (16th century) explains differently.  He says that the passage in Nidah is speaking in general.  Most of the time, women cannot become pregnant more than once at a time.  The passage in Yevamot is speaking of the remote possibility of superfetation.  It can happen, but it is rare.

However, for centuries medicine denied the possibility of superfetation in humans. Indeed, many assumed that this was a case where the rabbis of the Talmud erred in a scientific fact. The simple fact, as observed by doctors over centuries, is that women cannot become pregnant more than once at a time. Even though Rabbi Duran had cited a case of a woman who had given birth three months after having already given birth and was stoned by the Church for adultery, the medical books denied if not the theoretical possibility of superfetation, at least the reality of it.

On Nov. 12, 2001, BBC reported that Flavia D'Angelo, a 20 year old Italian woman who had not used any fertility drugs, claimed that she was ready to give birth that week and then again three months later. The superfetation discussed in the Talmud was presented to experts who admitted that this phenomenon is possible. Even though the claim was later proved to be false, doctors evaluated the woman's claim and concluded that it was possible. The Talmud's claim is now no longer weird science. Rather, 1500 years after the completion of the Talmud this case has been confirmed as possible.

Did the rabbis of the Talmud know everything there is to know about science and medicine? No. But their intuitive sense of observation noted many things that deserve our respect. As we stand in the modern era, on the shoulders of Newton, Copernicus and Vesalius, it behooves us to respect this particular genius of the ancient world and to never underestimate their potential to be more modern than we are.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 8/2/02
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