Chullin 22b ~ Yellow Pigeons, Folk Medicine and Hepatitis

Jaundiced man .jpeg

It was while working as a physician in Jerusalem in the 1990s that I first heard of a bizarre remedy to treat jaundice. A pigeon is placed on the belly of the yellow patient. After a few minutes, the jaundice is drawn out of the patient and enters the bird, which promptly dies. I never got to see the miracle in person, but people swore by it. I was reminded of this folk remedy by a passage in today’s page of Talmud, about which more below.

Pigeons for jaundice, Really?

At this point, a few of you are nodding and saying “sure, I’ve heard of that.” One or two of you might be saying “hey, I’ve seen that work/not work with my own eyes.” But most of you will be saying “what on earth is this all about?” So before we go on, let’s talk about the myth of using pigeons to cure jaundice.

We will never know how, where or when the myth began. It is mentioned in a book called Ta’ami Haminhagim טעמי המנהגים (Reasons for the Customs) by Abraham Isaac Sperling, first published in Poland in 1896. It is still in print today. At the back of the book is a small section called “Remedies” ( סגולות) where you will read this gem (based, apparently on this source):

אברהם יצחק שפרלינג  טעמי המנהגים , ירושלים הוצאת אשכול 1957

אברהם יצחק שפרלינג טעמי המנהגים, ירושלים הוצאת אשכול 1957

A remedy for yellowness:
Take a male pigeon for a man and a female pigeon for a woman. Place it on the umbilicus, and the pigeon will draw out all of the yellowness until there is none left, and the pigeon dies. This has been tested (בדוק).
— אברהם יצחק שפרלינג טעמי המנהגים, ירושלים הוצאת אשכול 1957


The magus, or celestial intelligencer 1801..png

In 1801 Frances Barrett (“Professor of chemistry, natural and occult Philosophy, the Cabala, &c. &c.”) published The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer; being a Complete System of Occult Philosophy. The illustrious professor had come across the pigeon-cures-jaundice myth in a slightly different form: it was the duck-cures-colic. “It is expedient for us to know” he helpfully informs us on page 37,“that there are some things which retain virtue only while they are living, others even after death. So in the colic, if a live duck is applied to the belly, it takes away pain, and the duck dies.”

Suffocation and a Ruptured Spleen

People still do this; you can find it discussed at sites like The Yeshiva World, (“A close relative of mine did this procedure for his father and it worked”) Ohr Somayach (“strong hearsay evidence”) and on the Hebrew site Ynet (אני מכיר רופא מכובד ומוכר …לאחר פרק זמן של חודשים הסכים לתת לביתו את הטיפול ביונים הוא עשה זאת ) And in case you want to see it in action, here is a video of the process. Watch through to the end and count how many pigeons were crushed to death by the charlatan performing the procedure. Warning: for anyone with a modicum of sensitivity, it’s hard to watch.

I know what you are thinking. The guy in the white coat simply crushed the pigeons to death. And you are correct. In fact a post mortem on the bodies of some of these poor birds revealed the cause of death as was a ruptured spleen.

A primer on Jaundice

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin, though it is even more noticeable in the sclera. It is not a disease, but a symptom. Jaundice becomes apparent when when there is a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a breakdown product of heme, which is produced when red blood cells are broken down. It is then excreted via the liver.

There are several causes of jaundice, the most common of which is hepatitis (literally, an inflammation of the liver). Hepatitis itself has many different causes. Viral hepatitis is most often caused by hepatitis A - that’s the one you see when people in close contact don’t wash their hands enough. It is a self limiting disease lasting a few days or so. Hepatitis B, C and D are far more serious, and can lead to liver failure and chronic jaundice. Alcohol is another leading cause of hepatitis, and causes cirrhosis of the liver. But not all jaundice is caused by a liver problem. Newborn babies are very often jaundiced. This happens because they are busy breaking down their fetal hemoglobin, releasing heme in the process, which is then turned into bilirubin. Their livers are working just fine.

So now you understand why crushing a pigeon to death on a person with hepatitis A might appear to work. It is because hepatitis A is a self-limiting disease; it goes away after a few days, as does the jaundice. The pigeon had nothing to do with it. You could clap your hands three times and the hepatitis would also go away. The other causes of hepatitis are chronic, and sometimes fatal. In these cases, no amount of chicanery would be associated with a cure, because there wouldn’t be one (unless you have hepatitis C, in which case a new and very expensive drug will actually cure you, no pigeons needed).

Yellow Pigeons in today’s Daf

In today’s page of Talmud there is a discussion about sacrificing pigeons and doves. And the color yellow features prominently:

חולין כב, ב

ת"ר יכול יהו כל התורים וכל בני היונה כשרים תלמוד לומר מן התורים ולא כל התורים מן בני היונה ולא כל בני יונה פרט לתחילת הציהוב שבזה ושבזה שפסול מאימתי התורים כשרים משיזהיבו מאימתי בני יונה פסולין משיצהיבו

The Sages taught in a baraita: I might have thought all  old doves or all young pigeons would be fit for sacrifice; therefore, the verse states: “Of doves,” and not all doves; “of young pigeons,” and not all young pigeons.This serves to exclude birds at the beginning of the yellowing of their neck plumage, which is a marker of both doves and pigeons. They are unfit as doves because they are not sufficiently old and as pigeons because they are no longer young. The tanna elaborates: From when are the doves fit? It is from when the color of their feathers turns a glistening gold. From when are the pigeons unfit? It is from when their feathers turn yellow.

The Sages here describe how the color of both doves and pigeons changes from or to a yellow. (But I have not been able to find a description of this actually happening in any of the ornithology texts I consulted. )


So now we can understand why these birds were associated with jaundice - because they were once described as changing from being yellow or becoming yellow themselves. By the act of transference, the pigeons were able to draw out the jaundice. There are many examples of transference in Judaism, where an animal symbolically absorbs and removes sin. There was the Temple ritual in Jerusalem, in which the owner lay his hands on the head of the animal brought as a sacrifice to expiated for sin. There is the ritual of Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, in which our sins are symbolically cast away as we throw bread into a stream. And there is the controversial ritual of Kaparrot, in which a chicken (or, more kindly, money) is swung over the head while reciting “this is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.” It doesn’t end well for the chicken, but at least it is slaughtered for food and given to the poor. If only those pigeons had it so lucky.

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New Book Release: Influenza

אמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מצנים פחים

Rabbi Chanina taught: Everything is in the hands of heaven, except diseases brought on by cold or heat.
— Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 3b

I am delighted to share with you that today Simon and Schuster have released my new book:

Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History.

The book is published on the 100th anniversary of the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed over 675,000 people in the US and 100 million people worldwide. It tells the story of that pandemic, and how our knowledge of, and treatments for influenza have changed over the last century.

Read an excerpt here.

For those of you in Australia, Europe and the UK, the book will be released on January 31, 2019. And good news for our 150+ loyal Chinese readers. The book is being translated and will be released by Social Sciences Academic Press in mainland China in the near future.


Reviews of Influenza


We should not underestimate influenza as a serial killer, notes physician Jeremy Brown in this agile study. Brown — director of emergency-care research at the US National Institutes of Health — illuminates much... A thoughtful portrait of an elusive enemy.”


“Brown, in a casual and accessible style, traces the history of the disease from then until now, revealing…just how much we still don’t understand about this ever-changing virus…Graham Holter’s delivery is upbeat and engaging, complementing the author’s approach towards making this unnerving topic digestible….


…an accessible, straightforward and often riveting history of this seasonal menace.... brisk, entertaining and written with an endearing zeal….Influenza is layperson-friendly; Brown's explanations of virology and epidemiology are clearly meant to reach a wide audience of readers.


…Although we know a lot more about the virus today, which kills 30,000 people in the U.S. annually, we do not know enough to stop the next pandemic. Brown argues that a critical preparatory step should be to place the 1918 pandemic in our collective memory as we have for wars and battles—perhaps with a physical memorial—to honor our losses and to remind us how much there is yet to do.


Five new books you won’t want to miss this week

“Influenza” by Jeremy Brown (Touchstone, nonfiction, on sale Dec. 18)

What it’s about: On the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a physician looks at the history of the virus and where we are today with trying to find a cure.

The buzz: A “no-nonsense account of medicine’s long battle against influenza,” says Publishers Weekly.

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Chullin 10a ~ On the Safety of Drinking Snake Venom

חולין י,א

תנן התם ג' משקין אסורין משום גלוי מים ויין וחלב כמה ישהו ויהיו אסורין כדי שיצא הרחש ממקום קרוב וישתה וכמה מקום קרוב א"ר יצחק בריה דרב יהודה כדי שיצא מתחת אוזן כלי וישתה

We learned in a mishna there (Terumot 8:4): Three liquids are forbidden if they were left exposed [ie they were not in a covered container]: Water, wine, and milk. How long shall they remain exposed and their contents will be forbidden? It is a period equivalent to the time necessary so that a snake could emerge from a proximate place and drink. And how far away is considered a proximate place? Rav Yitzḥak, son of Rav Yehuda, said: Even a period equivalent to the time necessary so that a snake could emerge from beneath the handle of the vessel and drink.

We last read about the fear of snakes contaminating water or beer back in October 2017. So let’s take an encore look at two important questions that arise from the Talmud.1) How dangerous is it to drink a liquid that contains snake venom, and 2) do snakes in fact leave venom behind when they drink?

Don't Touch That Beer !

There was a widespread belief was that snakes will drink from liquids left out overnight, (especially when left under the bed) and in doing so would leave fatal venom behind.  In Avodah Zarah 30b Rabbi Yehoshua even categorized three different kinds of liquid contaminated by a thirsty snake:

עבודה זרה ל,ב

שלשה מיני ארס הן של בחור שוקע של בינוני מפעפע ושל זקן צף

There are three kinds of snake venom: that from a juvenile snake sinks; from a middle-aged snake is found in the mid-section of a liquid, and that from an old snake floats on the top.

The Talmud also concluded that a snake would risk its own life to drink from undiluted wine, but is not willing to do so if the wine is diluted. Elsewhere, the Talmud delves into a series of questions about how thoroughly snake venom can infiltrate the lining a water pitcher, and how it will contaminate milk. For this reason (among others) cheese made by idol worshippers is forbidden. Apparently the milk from which the cheese was curdled could be contaminated by the venom in a way that Jewish cheeses were not.

So do snakes really contaminate a liquid from which they are drinking? The answer is no.  Absolutely not. Here is why.

A deep dive into snake venom

בבא קמא קטו, ב

והתניא מים שנתגלו הרי זה לא ישפכם ברשות הרבים ולא יגבל בהן את הטיט ולא ירבץ בהן את הבית ולא ישקה מהם את בהמתו ולא בהמת חבירו

It was taught in a Baraisa: water that was left uncovered should not be spilled out in a public area, nor should one knead clay with it, nor should one lay in the dust with it, nor should one give it to his animal, nor the animal of his friend, to drink. (Bava Kamma 115b)

The rabbis of the Talmud were very worried indeed about the health effects of water that had been left uncovered.  This concern was codified by Maimonides, and later by Ya'akov ben Asher (d. 1340) in his famous halakhic work called the Arba'ah Turim

טור יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז 

דברים האסורים משום סכנה
  יש דברים שאסרום חכמים משום סכנה כגון משקין שנתגלו שיש לחוש שמא שתה מהן נחש והטיל בהן ארס אפי' אם שתו מהן אחרים ולא הוזקו אין לשתות מהן  שיש נחש שהארס צף למעלה ויש שארס שלו מפעפע עד אמצעית המשקה  ויש שהארס שלו שוקע לשולי הכלי לפיכך אפי' שתו ממנו אחרים ולא הוזקו אין לשתות מהן דשמא ארס של הנחש ששתה מהן שוקע ואלו המשקין שיש בהן משום גילוי מים יין חלב ודבש ושום כתוש 

Tur, Yoreh De'ah 116. Things that are Prohibited Because they are Dangerous

There are things that the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited because they are dangerous. For example, liquids that were left uncovered, because of the possibility that a snake drank from the water and expelled some of its poison into them. Even if others had drunk from the liquid, and not been injured, one should not drink from them. For some snake venom floats on the surface, and some sinks to the middle and some moves to the edges of the vessel. Therefore, even if others had drunk and had suffered no harm, one should not drink from them, for perhaps the venom from the snake that had drunk the water had sunk to the bottom. The following liquids should not be drunk if they were left overnight in an uncovered vessel: water, wine, milk, honey, and crushed garlic...

The normative Code of Jewish Law, the שולחן ערוך agreed, but added an important caveat:

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז סעיף א 

משקים שנתגלו, אסרום חכמים דחיישינן שמא שתה נחש מהם והטיל בהם ארס. ועכשיו שאין נחשים מצויים בינינו, מותר

The rabbis forbade drinking from liquids that were left uncovered,. They were concerned that a snake may have drunk from them and expelled some of its poison into them. But now that snakes are not commonly encountered, this is permitted. (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah 116:1)

So today it is permitted for us to drink from an uncovered pot, but only in a place that does not have a problem with poisonous snakes.  Which is not helpful. There are poisonous snakes in nearly every state in the US, resulting in about 2,000 human envenomations each year, and we have noted before that Israel has its own problem with snakes, including the Palestinian Viper.  The World Health Organization estimates that snakes kill between 20,000 and 94,000 people per year. So exactly where this leniency of the Shulchan Aruch might apply is not clear.

But is drinking snake venom indeed dangerous? Nope. In 2012 India Today reported that police in New Delhi had seized about half a liter of snake venom to be used "in high-end raves planned for Valentine's Day in and around the national capital." Apparently the venom, when ingested, produces a euphoric state. Who knew?

Video evidence - Drinking Cobra Venom

It is really hard to find any peer-reviewed scientific studies about people drinking snake venom, because, um, it's a silly thing to do.  But that doesn't mean it hasn't been done. So where could we turn to find people doing silly things? YouTube of course. It involves drinking the venom directly from spitting snake. Apparently, these kind of human interest stories are popular in India. 

Why it is safe to drink snake venom

If you are a diabetic and take insulin, or know someone who does, you may have wondered why the drug has to be injected. It would, after all, be much less bothersome to swallow an insulin pill than to inject insulin several times a day.  The reason is that insulin is a protein, and like all proteins, it is easily broken down by heat and, more importantly, by the acid environment in the stomach.  Our gastrointestinal tracts evolved to break down proteins into their building blocks - and they perform a wonderful job doing precisely that.

Like insulin, snake venom is a complex protein. And so, like insulin, it too is easily broken down in the very acidic environment of your stomach.  Of course, if intact venom gets into your bloodstream, it could kill you. But if you drink venom, then the intact protein never does get into your bloodstream. You don't need to be an Indian snake charmer to safely drink snake venom. You just need a working digestive system.


In case you were wondering how we know how snakes drink, here is a diagrammatic view of the apparatus used to record the kinematics and water transport during drinking. The video camera was placed to the left. LED, light-emitting diode. From Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport.   The Journal of Experimental Biology  . 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

In case you were wondering how we know how snakes drink, here is a diagrammatic view of the apparatus used to record the kinematics and water transport during drinking. The video camera was placed to the left. LED, light-emitting diode. From Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

The Talmud was concerned that snakes leave venom in water from which they drank, and that a person drinking from that water would then suffer from envenomation. As we have seen, this concern has no biological basis, although theoretically, if there was an open cut or ulcer in the mouth, ingested venom could get into the bloodstream and then cause its havoc.  But there is another reason why the talmudic concern is overstated.  Snakes, you see, don't leave any venom when they drink water.  As you may have noted from watching the first video, it takes a lot to get a snake to expel its venom - like sticking a blue pen in its mouth.  Venom is a snake's most precious commodity, and it has evolved to protect that commodity. Snakes only release venom when they are in danger, or ready to strike their prey, and not otherwise. Want a great example? The venomous rattlesnake. That species has evolved a warning rattle to tell would-be predators that if they get any closer, they will be bitten. This only makes evolutionary sense if it was in the snake's best interest to do everything possible to conserve its venom.

In a fascinating article on how snakes drink published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, David Cundall notes that a snake's tongue does not carry or move water, and that "in many snakes, the tongue does not visibly move during drinking." That leads to the conclusion that snakes are suction drinkers. And that makes them even less likely to leave any venom behind in the water.

As far as is known, all snakes are suction drinkers, and the only critical structural variations that might be predicted to influence drinking performance are the relative dimensions and shapes of the mandibles and their suspensorial elements and the arrangements of intermandibular muscles and connective tissues.
— Cundall, D. Drinking in snakes: kinematic cycling and water transport. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2000; 203, 2171–2185.

So let's put this all together:

  1. Snakes don't release their venom unless they are threatened or hunting.

  2. Snakes use suction when they drink water. Their mouths are not open, which is needed when they are expelling venom.

  3. Snake venom is not dangerous when drunk.

  4. (If somehow venom did get into the water, it would be greatly diluted.)

So, there is no danger if you were to drink from water from which a venomous snake had drunk. None. What a relief.

[Partial repost from Bava Kamma 115, Avodah Zarah 30.]

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December 4th, Shmuel and the Pope

If you live in Israel, you need not read on.

December 4th is a significant day in the Jewish liturgical calendar. It is the day on which those who live outside Israel begin to add the words ותן טל ומטר - give us dew and rain. Here is the talmudic source for this change:

תענית דף י, א

משנה. בשלשה במרחשון שואלין את הגשמים. רבן גמליאל אומר: בשבעה בו, חמשה עשר יום אחר החג, כדי שיגיע אחרון שבישראל לנהר פרת

גמרא. אמר רבי אלעזר: הלכה כרבן גמליאל. תניא, חנניה אומר: ובגולה עד ששים בתקופה.

Mishnah: On the third of Marcheshvan we ask for rain [that is, we insert the words ותן טל ומטר into the Amidah prayer]. Rabban Gamliel said: it is started on the seventh.

Talmud: Said Rabbi Elazar, the law is like Rabban Gamliel. It was taught in a Beraita: Chaninah said: outside of Israel, it is inserted sixty days after the fall equinox.

This is the only Jewish ritual that is tied to a real solar event. That event is the autumnal equinox, the day on which the sun is directly overhead on the equator, and on which the lengths of day and night are (almost) equal.(Please do not write to tell me about Birkat Hachamah. It is not tied to any real solar or other event anywhere in the cosmos. See here for more details.)

This year the autumnal equinox was on September 22nd (at 9.54am EST to be precise). The Talmud tells us to begin saying ותן טלֹ sixty days later. So you take out the calendar and count. That will bring us to November 21st. But in every siddur with instructions you will read that we start to recite the addition at Maariv on the evening of December 4th. Which is tonight (or was last night if you are reading this in Australia). That’s a full seventy-three days after the equinox. How did that happen?

It is really not difficult to understand, and requires no skill in observational astronomy or non-Euclidian geometry. Here is the explanation in four easy steps.

  1. The Julian Calendar

In the Julian calendar the solar year is exactly 365 1/4 days. That is, 365 days plus an additional 6 hours. This is also the length of the year according to the great talmudic sage of the second century, Samuel of Nehardea. And it is the assumed length of the solar year that is still used today in Jewish calculations. The actual length of the tropical year (i.e. one complete cycle of seasons) is slightly shorter: 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s a difference of less than twelve minutes. Not much you say. And you’d be right, except that over a century that difference adds up to about 3/4 of a day. So every century the Julian calendar (365.25 days) falls behind the actual length of the year by three-quarters of a day.

2. The Gregorian Calendar

Over hundreds of years that difference adds up to many days, which became a real problem for the Church, when Easter was slipping further back in the calendar. The vernal equinox (a real solar event) had fallen on March 21st in the Julian calendar, but over the centuries had slipped back to March 11th. This threw the calculation of Easter into turmoil. To correct this (and other problems) Pope Gregory removed ten days from the calendar. By papal decree, the last day of the Julian calendar was on October 4, 1582. The next day became the first day of the Gregorian calendar, October 15, 1582. Now the spring equinox would fall on March 21, and everyone would be happy.

3. Jewish law stuck to the old Shmuel - Julian calendar

Rather than go along with this change, it was ignored by rabbis of the early modern period. They would rather have been wrong with Shmuel, than right with the Pope. They added back in the ten lost days. But by 1900 an additional three days of slippage had built up. The calendar of Shmuel is now some 13 missing days behind the Gregorian.

4. So add back in the missing days

If you add an additional thirteen days to the sixty days prescribed by the Talmud, you arrive at….December 4th! I told you it was easy. Here, try it for yourself:

Screen Shot 2018-12-04 at 8.27.21 PM.png

Happy December 4th from Talmudology

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