A Prayer for Healing? (or, Doctors vs God)

Where does the power of healing come from? Is it divine, belonging only to God? Or is it knowledge that humans have gained over the years?

Throughout history many cultures have debated - and continue to debate - how much human intervention there should be in God's "plans" for the world. This debate had a home in Judaism, too. These texts, from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, illustrate some of the debate our ancestors were having about the role of doctors and medicine in our world, and what was and was not appropriate.

The first text quotes a prayer that someone who is undergoing bloodletting should say before beginning. Bloodletting is an ancient practice in which blood was removed from a sick person's body as therapy. People in ancient times (and, honestly, up until pretty recently) believed that using leeches to suck out diseased blood (or even cutting someone open to bleed) could be healing.

דְּאָמַר רַב אַחָא: הַנִּכְנָס לְהַקִּיז דָּם, אוֹמֵר: ״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהַי שֶׁיְּהֵא עֵסֶק זֶה לִי לִרְפוּאָה, וּתְרַפְּאֵנִי. כִּי אֵל רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן אָתָּה וּרְפוּאָתְךָ אֱמֶת, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין דַּרְכָּן שֶׁל בְּנֵי אָדָם לְרַפּאוֹת אֶלָּא שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ״.

As Rav Aḥa said: One who enters to let blood says: May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that this enterprise be for healing and that You should heal me.
As You are a faithful God of healing and Your healing is truth. Because it is not the way of people to heal, but they have become accustomed.

Rav Aḥa is saying that people should not practice medicine as they lack the ability to heal; rather, healing should be left to God.

Rav Aha is saying that God is in charge of healing, not people, and therefore, most medical decisions should be left up to God.

1. Do you agree with Rav Aha? Why or why not?

2. If you were alive 1800 years ago when these texts were first written down, do you think you might believe differently?

3. What wisdom can you learn from this prayer?

4. What do you think the last line of the prayer ("Because it is not the way...become accustomed") means?

This second text is a continuation of the first text and refutes it. Abaye here brings his response (that he learned from Rabbi Yishmael) as to why he disagrees with Rav Aha.

אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: לָא לֵימָא אִינָשׁ הָכִי, דְּתָנֵי דְּבֵי רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל: ״וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא״ — מִכָּאן שֶׁנִּיתְּנָה רְשׁוּת לָרוֹפֵא לְרַפּאוֹת.

Abaye responded and said: One should not say this, as it was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael that from the verse, “And shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus 21:19), from here we derive that permission is granted to a doctor to heal. The practice of medicine is in accordance with the will of God.

5. Why does Abaye disagree with Rav Aha?

6. From where does Abaye find his proof?

7. If God gives permission to doctors to heal, does that mean that God is or is not involved in the healing anyway?

8. Personal question: Does God play a role in the healing of the sick? Justify your answer.

Even though we trust in doctors and put our hope in them, we still continue to pray to God for healing.