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Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 22847

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

From the very earliest times religious legislation has proved an extremely important factor for health. The book of Leviticus, one of the very oldest religious documents that we have, contains a sanitary code which is a marvel of completeness in its prescriptions for the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease. It anticipates most of the modern discoveries in this matter and the faithful keeping of its regulations has made the Jew the powerful personal factor that he has been so often in history, notwithstanding the fact that he belonged to a despised subject race. The orthodox Jew has kept his health in spite of the unfavorable conditions in which he was placed much better on the average than the Gentiles around him, and it is for that reason that his nation has been preserved. It would have seemed almost impossible for a people treated so badly as they were, crowded into unhealthy ghettos, often in the lowest and most insanitary parts of the towns, with no municipal care exercised for their health-except when it was feared that epidemics might spread from them to the Gentiles--to have maintained themselves for all these centuries; but they have not only survived but have been the most vigorous of people, at all times full of initiative and readiness to work far beyond the average of humanity.


The sanitary code of the Jewish people which is contained in the Old Testament is one of the greatest triumphs of sanitary legislation that the world has ever known. Doctor Alexander Rattray, in his volumes on "Divine Hygiene, Sanitary Science and Sanitarians of the Sacred Scriptures and Mosaic Code", [Footnote 17] has brought this out very clearly. The Scriptural motto of his work, "That Thy way might be known upon earth; Thy saving health among all nations", is an excellent text for what he has to say. With regard to the sanitary code of the Hebrews, as compared with other ancient documents in sanitation. Doctor Rattray says:

[Footnote 17: London, 1903.]

"Indeed, contrasted with the teachings of modern times, the comprehensiveness and sufficiency of the rules and cardinal points comprised in the Hebrew Sanitary Code, primitive in time but not in practice; ancient, but not antiquated and obsolete; comprising a treasure of infallible truth, which is the admiration of all experts; and altogether so remarkable as to be comparable to, if indeed they do not surpass both in literary style and professional excellence, extracts from the best modern works on hygiene. So that savants, notwithstanding their increased anatomical and physiological knowledge, the accumulation of ages and the result of modern enlightenment and civilization, bringing with them vastly improved facilities for medical study, professional experience in hospitals and communities, may still quote his model work with approval; sit with advantage at the feet of the Jewish sage; and learn in language as concise and forcible as that of the best modern thinkers, not only the great base facts, but even many of the less important minutiae of the art and science which they {308} study; if they would not continue to despise this authority because he is a Hebrew; ignore his work because it is Asiatic; slight the book in which it is found because it is not a rare, costly and abstruse volume; spurn instruction on a scientific subject because it comes from a Biblical source; and neglect the ready-made and divinely inspired code because it is ancient and a non-professional publication."

The question of the place that this health legislation of the Bible has in medical history is worth noting, for it makes very clear that it was no mere human development but something divine. Doctor Rattray said:

"Moses was no doubt learned in the medicine and surgery of that era, and could at least have taught his old Egyptian teachers, both theoretically and practically, especially in sanitary matters, a science of which they knew little, as the germ thought of preventive medicine had not then been begotten. But it was not to be his role to indoctrinate the Jews and Mankind in the least important sanatory or healing branch of medicine, but rather to initiate its higher and most philosophical department, the sanitary or disease preventing. And to shew both by precept and practice that this is the most philosophic and wisest policy to pursue regarding physical health, as it also is in moral, social and spiritual matters. Part of his beneficent and Divinely inspired mission was to inculcate in those early days the lesson popularly taught in modern times by the trite yet true proverb, 'prevention is better than cure': and to illustrate it on the Israelites; to shew that its scope is not only of private but of national, nay racial, import; and applicable not only to his day, but all-time: although grievously neglected in past ages even by medical men. From its {309} Biblical study does not medical science thereby appear in a new light, and come in the garb of one of the most incontrovertible aids to human faith in the veracity of Holy Writ; the truth of Scripture as the inspired word of the Almighty; God's medical message to Man, sent in His own method, at His own time, and by servants of His own choosing?

"The Sinaitic or so-called 'Mosaic' code and its hygienic sub-code, more ancient by five or six hundred years than Esculapius and the earliest human medical records, was not written and interpolated by any modern or medieval medical sage, but is as Moses says, an emanation of his era. And yet, as he himself affirms, it was not his conception, but strictly and entirely Divine in elaboration, codification, and delivery to humanity. Its true Author and Deviser was Jehovah, and Moses merely its earthly recipient, editor and human expounder and applier. For this most important educational information we are indebted to God's Holy Bible, and to that alone. What was the supernal object of the Code? It was humanitarian and tuitional."

The English physician discusses the origin of this code of laws and traces it to divine interposition:

"Viewed apart from its source, the Hebrew Health Code is an anachronism. And it must be evident that Moses was not a semi-barbarous Jew, but either a secularly scientific or an inspired man. And if we cannot accept the former hypothesis, and think it unlikely that imparted information and unaided intellect could have originated this consummate production; then we must avow the latter conviction, that he was truly 'a man of God.' But was the sanitary code that goes by his name, or styled the 'Sinaitic', his conception or not? This {310} question Moses himself answers indirectly and often; and takes no credit for but disclaims it. Assuredly Moses was not only a man of science and the foremost sanitarian of his own or any other age; but also a man gifted by his Maker with the faculty to discover and appreciate not only the great fundamental facts and elements, but also many of the more important minutiae of private, public, and national sanitation. Still he takes no credit for the sanitary utterances of the Pentateuch or even says or hints at their being partly, chiefly or wholly self-generated; and his own unaided creation; or that we are purely indebted for them to the genius of their practical expounder. Over and over again he insists and reiterates that they are solely heaven-sent and of Divine origin. Nay, more, what he says appears to suggest that his sanitary code was a premeditated and authoritative emanation, which in its elaboration probably occupied more years than any work that has since been handed down to posterity. In early times medical treatises were more slowly elaborated than now; and swayed only by the double patriotism of zeal for his Master and loyalty to his people, Moses had no need to give hasty and incomplete work to the world. In the desert he would have ample time to write his book of the law and the early story of Man and the Earth leisurely. From the Holy Bible alone we glean the great base facts about the Mosaic Law and its Hygienic portion. Here we learn, and by Moses' own handwriting, that he was not their author, but Jehovah Himself; that Moses only gave or wrote the law as averred by the Saviour (John, vii. 19); therefore, that it is Divine and inspired. Moses was merely its earthly recipient and transcriber and applicant. This great fact practically {311} attested by over two millions of Hebrews, who heard the Voice of God delivering the Decalogue at Sinai, materially enhances the value of the bequest, as its supernal nature and origin attests its truth and infallibility. This great honour reserved for Moses, and the culminating fact in his earth history, stamps his character and place in history. Taught by the Divinity as no other man has yet been, Moses thus became Earth's greatest sanitarian and the Deity's ambassador and mouthpiece to Man in sanitary as in many other matters. What Moses wrote was revealed. He penned as he was inspired and wrote what Jehovah dictated in the Holy of Holies. Moses himself attests this, and thus wholly disclaims the authorship. Chapter after chapter begins thus, 'And the Lord said' (Leviticus, xvii). And thus the Hebrew leader and sage, as has been recorded by his successor Joshua, himself 'full of the spirit of wisdom' (Deuteronomy, xxxiv. 9), fully deserves this record, 'there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses whom the Lord knew face to face' (Deuteronomy, xxxiv. 10-11)."

The distinction between the meats allowed to the Hebrews and those not allowed remains down to the present day an extremely valuable canon of preventive medicine. The carnivorous animals were not to be eaten and were declared unclean. They are, as modern science has abundantly shown, much more likely to be the subject of parasites of various kinds than are the herbivorous animals. Any animal that died of itself or had been torn by beasts was not to be eaten, and this was an extremely wise provision, for those that had died were very likely to be the subject of serious disease, while those torn by wild animals, if they did not perish at once were likely to have pyemia or septicemia set in in their wounds, {312} while if they had been killed at once and their bodies had been exposed for any length of time in the open air, they were likely to become the subject of serious putrefactive changes from the growth of bacteria in them. Any of these processes were likely to make the meat toxic, and the one safeguard was prohibition of their consumption. The Hebrews were not allowed to take the blood of animals, hence the necessity for having cattle butchered in their own way so that it might be kosher, and it is interesting to realize that this prohibition probably meant much for the prevention of disease. Meat that is well drained of blood keeps longer than that which contains the tissue fluids, and it has come to be felt that the protection of the Hebrews to a considerable extent against tuberculosis, so that their death rate from this disease is much lower than that of other races living under similar circumstances, is perhaps due to their abstinence from blood according to their law. They were forbidden to eat many of the fats, and this was hygienic in general, for the fat is a sluggish tissue and may contain parasites; but above all this was important for preventing

the Hebrews from eating such an amount of fat as would make them obese and sluggish. The orthodox Jews of the present time who fail to keep this prohibition as to fat are weighted down with a load of surplus fatty tissue that takes away from their activity and shortens their lives. Obesity has certain relations directly with diabetes which also makes this fat prohibition of significance, and as the Jew is probably more subject to diabetes than most of those living in similar circumstances there is here another index of the value of this Mosaic law which prevented pathological tendencies of several kinds that now make themselves manifest.


The greatest weight was placed upon keeping food materials covered from the air, and the use of liquids kept in vessels that were uncovered is forbidden, as is likewise the eating of fruit with open moist cracks. It has often been said in modern times that the paring of fruits, when unbroken, constitutes the best possible safeguard against spoiling, and many have the feeling that this fact was discovered or its significance properly recognized only since we have been studying fermentation and putrefaction. It was known long ago, however. It was recognized also that food materials should not be handled except with the greatest precautions and that those who prepared them should practice careful cleansing. These regulations undoubtedly had much to do with the prevention of the spread of the infectious diseases. We have learned in recent years that cooks have had much to do with the spread of the intestinal infections, and we now recognize the need of the meticulous precautions on which Moses insisted. The place of the hands in conveying disease was emphasized very much, as for instance by Jewish writers who insisted on the rule that coins should never be placed in the mouth because they had been handled by so many people.

We have now come to appreciate this thoroughly, after having suspected for some time that the hands have more to do with the conveyance of contagion in many diseases than almost any other factor. A series of experiments made upon young sailors in the United States service after the Armistice was signed and when the "flu" was at its height demonstrated almost beyond doubt that influenza cannot be conveyed by breathing or coughing into the faces of others, nor in any way through the air. Most army surgeons came to the {314} conclusion, therefore, that the mode of conveyance of the disease was by the hands, which in handling food and in touching the mouth and nose transmitted infectious material which had been gathered in various ways. It is interesting then to realize that the Jewish law insisted on careful cleansing of the hands before eating and on not touching the mouth or nose before the hands were washed in the morning, and that the Talmudic writings emphasized these regulations as regards the cleansing of the hands. They required that the finger nails, when pared, should be burnt. Some of the Talmudists suggested that if water could not be obtained gloves should be worn while eating, which would recall the use of surgical gloves in modern times, for the surgeons learned long since that the hands were by far the most dangerous media for the transmission of infection.

Some years ago Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, one of the most distinguished of the English physicians of the latter half of the nineteenth century, pointed out that the records showed a very marked difference in the health and death rate of the Jews living in various cities of Great Britain as compared to their Gentile neighbors, and always in favor of the Jews. Other statistics gathered later in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth emphasize the fact that there is manifestly something which enables the Jew to resist disease and maintain health under circumstances where the people around him suffer much more severely than he does. For instance, in Manchester the average annual death rate for three years in the two Jewish districts was over eight in one and over nine in the other below the death rate per thousand of the whole city. The two Jewish districts are among the worst slums of Manchester, yet {315} not only do they exhibit a much lower death rate, but the morbidity statistics show that there is less sickness among the Jews from all the serious infectious diseases than among the Gentiles. They had a higher morbidity rate than all the other parts of the city for erysipelas, pyemia, and puerperal fever, showing that they were subjected to the influence of dirt and septic contagion, but in everything else they were much lower in the sickness rate than their neighbors. They had only about one half as many premature births, their children suffered from only half as many convulsions and scarcely more than half as much from diarrhea and dysentery.

The children in the Jewish districts proved to be particularly capable of resisting disease and their death rate is distinctly lower. The diarrheic diseases of childhood are practically all due to improper feeding, and the saving of children's lives in the unsanitary Jewish districts where poverty stalks abroad so openly is due to the more healthy feeding of the infants, but above all to the mother's very careful care of them. The Jewish mother is, by age-long tradition, an absolutely unselfish caretaker of her children. When they are ailing her devotion is constant, and nothing is too much for her to do. No wonder that she saves more of her children than the Gentile mothers around her. It is because of the presence of the Jewish mothers in New York and Boston that our Boards of Health have come upon the startling discovery that the foreign-born mother in this country raises one in seven more of her children than does the native-born mother. The reason, of course, for this is maternal devotion and readiness to sacrifice herself in any and every way for the sake of her children. At least twice as many of these foreign mothers-and among {316} these of course every orthodox Jewish mother who can possibly do it-nurse their children, and that is by far the most important factor in securing the survival of children beyond the first year.

The Jews have been particularly careful for the lives of their infant children both before and after birth. It is considered a disgrace for a Jewish mother to have a premature birth, for it is felt that some blame attaches to the mother. As for the prevalent practice of abortion, there is almost none of it among the poor Jewish populations, and none at all until their orthodox Jewry begins to break down under the influence of contact with their Gentile neighbors. Human life is a very sacred thing to the orthodox Jew, and no matter how small or insignificant that life may be it has all the qualities of humanity for him and appeals to his protection. The solicitude of the Jewish mother for her children has been the subject of poet and painter all down the ages and is to be found as well developed and as strikingly manifest in the slums of the large cities of the west where it is so extremely difficult of exercise as it was in the Jewish towns of the olden time.

In Leeds, toward the end of the nineteenth century, there were some fifteen thousand Jews, the great majority of them belonging to the very poorest class. Most of them lived in the central ward of the city. As pointed out by Doctor Porritt in "Religion and Health", "that ward, one of the most squalid in Leeds, had a death rate lower than that of the whole city, the statistical records for which show all the advantages derived from the healthier or better class districts."

In London itself, in Whitechapel and Mile End, which were principally occupied by Jews, the death rates were only 18.5 and 19.3 per thousand of population, while in {317} the neighboring districts of Limehouse and St. George, where there were many fewer Jews-Limehouse being practically without them-the death rates were respectively 23 and 24.6 per thousand. There was distinctly less morbidity from the infectious diseases in the Jewish districts, there being actually more than one fourth more in Limehouse than in Mile End on the average, and the infantile death rates were much lower among the Jews in spite of the fact that most of them were immigrants who had led very hard and anxious lives before settling in London and since coming had to work under unwonted, exceedingly unsanitary conditions, in a climate to which they were not as yet accustomed.

In other countries besides England the mortality and morbidity statistics favor the Jew even more strikingly than in England. In Frankfurt (on Main), as pointed out by Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, where the influence of the Jewish ghetto still made itself felt about the middle of the nineteenth century and Jews were herded together under restricted regulations that would seem inevitably prone to hurt their health, they had as a matter of fact ever so much better health than the Gentiles around them. The average duration of life among the Jews was forty-eight years and nine months. Among all other classes it was thirty-six years and eleven months. More than half of the Jews reached fifty years of age, while scarcely more than one third of the other classes lived up to that. During the first five years of life Jewish children died at the rate of about thirteen per cent while Gentile children died at the rate of a little more than twenty-four per cent. One fourth of the Jewish population attained the age of seventy; one fourth of the rest of the inhabitants lived to be less than sixty.


In Furth the tenacity of life among the Jews could be noted at all ages. Of the Jewish children from one to five years ten per cent died, but among the rest of the population the infant mortality of the same age was fourteen per cent. At every stage of life Jewish mortality was lower until past the age of sixty, when, owing to the greater number of Jews who reached advanced age, the ratio was inverted. The number of Jews who lived to be above eighty and even ninety is strikingly larger than among the Gentiles. In Prussia, Legoit found that the average life of the Jew is greater than that of the Gentile by at least five years. The mortality among the population of the whole kingdom was a little over two and one half per hundred, while among the Jews it was only one and one half per hundred. The population in Prussia is increasing annually at the rate of one and one third per hundred among non-Jews, but at the rate of nearly one and three fourths among the Jews. The ordinary population requires fifty-one years to double itself, but the Jews require only forty-one and a half years for the same progression.

Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, by a comparison of the ages of two thousand five hundred Jews buried in London in three years with the mortality of the whole population of London at different ages, found that under five years of age forty-four Jews died to forty-five non-Jews; from thirty-five to forty-five years of age, five Jews died to every eight non-Jews; and it was not until the age of eighty-five was reached that the ratio was reversed and two Jews were buried to every one non-Jew, there being considerably more than twice as many non-Jews alive at that age to supply the bodies for the burial.


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