Hanukkah and Traditional Jewish Healing Practices

Traditional Jewish healing practices have focused on cures more than healing. Learn about the Jewish Healing Movement and blessings for Hanukkah.






Hanukkah — the Festival of Lights — is a wonderful time of year to think about your health. According to Jewish beliefs, the human body is a temporary gift from God. Much like a loan, we occupy our bodies while we’re alive, and when we die, we return them to God. Because the body is a gift, Jews are obliged to care for it. That includes basics like proper sleep, bathing, diet, and exercise, as well as treatment during times of illness or injury. It also means caring for others.


Traditionally, Jewish medical practices have focused mainly on cures for specific diseases or injuries. But while illness affects the body and creates pain, it also causes the spirit to suffer. The disease may be cured, yet the person might not be healed or, conversely, the person might make great progress in healing even as death approaches.


Jewish tradition has long been aware of the connection between the physical body and the spirit. Healing rituals such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimages have been a part of Jewish beliefs since the beginning. But as modern medical practice advances in finding cures and vanquishing disease, many Jews have not been able to access the spiritual care they need through traditional Jewish community means.


In the Beginning: Jewish Healing Practices in Ancient Times


Written records of ancient healthcare practices are scanty, but conclusions can be made from what does exist. Biblical scholars and those who have studied the Talmud and post-biblical Jewish writings have found that medicinal use of herbs and plants was common throughout the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.


Current research shows that about 45 medicinal plants are either mentioned specifically in religious texts or recorded elsewhere and used in regions where Jews lived during the same time period. Five species or plant-derived preparations referred to as medicinal in the Bible include figs, hyssop, mandrake, balm of Gilead, and nard. These and many others had multiple uses, and most, such as figs, were also used as food or for flavor.


Surgical practices were also common in ancient times. Circumcision rites are one of the oldest, and while you might think of it as a routine procedure, it was (and is) painful even if considered minor by today’s standards. Other surgeries included amputations, abscess lancing, cesarean section, spleen removal, fracture stabilization, wound suturing, and even removal of growths from the brain. Herbal anesthetics such as mandrake, opium poppy, and henbane seed extract were likely used.


By the way, in ancient Greece, exercise was believed to be essential to good health. And that belief continues today.


Jewish Healing Practices Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance


You might be surprised to know that during the Middle Ages, many physicians were Jews. Despite lack of access to university medical training in Christian Europe, Jews nevertheless gained knowledge as apprentices and earned licenses as was common for the times.


In the 10th century CE, for example, a Jewish physician wrote the first Hebrew medical book in Europe. Prior to this, Jewish medical texts were written in Arabic. Later on, books on topics such as remedies, specific ailments, beneficial foods, medical ethics, and lists of hundreds of drugs in use at the time established many Jews as respected physicians.

Jewish women were also active in medicine as doctors, midwives, and experts in folk medicine including the use of herbs and medicinal plants. Like their male counterparts, they learned through apprenticeships, often within their own families.


Throughout the Renaissance, Jewish physicians continued to gain stature despite the ongoing persecution of Jews. Many even became personal physicians to Christian bishops and popes as well as political leaders such as King Christian IV of Denmark and Queen Marie de Medici (France). Much of their work was not only in practice but also in research and writing.

After the French Revolution in 1799, medical universities were opened to Jewish students, and medical advancements took place rapidly.


Jewish Healing Practices Today


With centuries of medical excellence, it’s no wonder that 38% of Nobel Prize winners for physiology or medicine in the U.S. have been Jewish. Sigmund Freud, the well-known Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, was also Jewish as were many of those who followed him including Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, and Otto Rank.


But medicine, whether practiced by Jew or Gentile, has mainly focused on cures. It’s impossible to know exactly how or whether spiritual healing was addressed in ancient times, of course. But fixing broken bones, repairing wounds, relieving symptoms, and destroying disease-causing pathogens has been — and still is — the primary focus of medicine.


That’s not to say that individuals haven’t prayed or sought spiritual healing while seeking a cure for what ails them. It’s that spiritual needs have not been adequately recognized within the Jewish medical or religious community.

Since 1990, however, a resurgence of healing has taken place. Attributed to a small group of women, including three rabbis led by Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the Jewish Healing Movement has resulted in a network of healing centers that meshes medicine with the spiritual side of Judaism.


For many Jews in the U.S., spiritual and emotional support for healing has meant seeking help outside of the Jewish tradition. Jews suffering spiritually have found relief in yoga or meditation practice, secular support groups for people with HIV/AIDS, or 12-step groups for those recovering from addiction.

Today, Jewish healing centers exist throughout the U.S. and, while you won’t find one on every street corner, most major cities can provide resources for those who seek them. Organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington provide information and a directory that links website visitors to help in their own area.


Whether it’s illness in yourself or someone you love, if you’re experiencing loss and grief, or if you want to engage spiritually and mindfully in a quest for wholeness, the Jewish Healing Movement has arrived.

And remember that exercise is part of wellness.


Jewish Healing Practices During Hanukkah: The Candle-Lighting Blessings


Hanukkah is a time to celebrate a miracle and your ability to rise above troubling times as you seek the light of healing and wellness.


Hanukkah Candle-Lighting Blessings


First night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our bodies.

Second night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our minds.

Third night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our souls.

Fourth night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our children.

Fifth night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our parents.

Sixth night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our communities.

Seventh night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the restoration of health and wellness to those who are ill, suffering, or grieving.

Eighth night:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows from this season, we light this candle for the health and wellness of our world.

Shamash:

For the blessing of well-being and transformation that flows through the Shekhinah, the Source of Healing Wisdom and Inner Light.

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Photo by menachem weinreb on Unsplash