Avodah Zarah 28b ~ Ear Candling

Do Not Try this at home

When Rav Abahu was suffering from ear pain, Rabbi Yochanan suggested several remedies. Here are two:

עבודה זרה כח, ב

ואי לא לייתי תרבא דחיפושתא גמלניתא וליפשר ולישדי ביה ואי לא למלייה לאודניה מישחא וליעבד שב פתילתא דאספסתא וליתי שופתא דתומא וליתוב ברקא בחד רישא וליתלי בהו נורא ואידך רישא מותבא באודנא וליתוב אודניה להדא נורא ויזדהר מזיקא ונישקול חדא וננח חדא

 He should bring the fat of a large beetle and melt it and apply it to the ear. And if not, he should fill his ear with oil and prepare seven wicks made of alfalfa and bring dried garlic ends, and tie the ends to the wicks with a strip of hair at one end, and set the wicks aflame. And he should place the other end of each wick in his ear one at a time, and place his ear opposite the flame. And he should be cautious of drafts [and avoid them, as they will harm his ear.] He should take one wick and remove one wick, [i.e., replace each wick as it is consumed until all seven have been used.]

The remedy for Rav Abahu's ear pain, then, was to fill his ear with oil, stick a wick into it, and set it on fire. The idea is that the burning wick draws out the wax, and other toxins, leaving the patient cured and rejuvinated.  Talmudology strongly recommends that you do not try this at home.

Ear Candling is still a thing

From  here .

From here.

Although Rav Abahu (~279-320 CE) recommended  ear candling long ago, it is still in use today. On Amazon you can by candles to stick in your ear, and a guide to talk you through the steps. It's easier to use Amazon than to make your own candles with alfalfa and dried garlic ends, but, scientifically speaking, it's silly. Very silly. A case report from St. Mary's Hospital in London describes an elderly woman who had hearing loss in her left ear.  The woman denied ear candling, which is odd, since the ear was full of what appeared to be candle wax, and "histopathological examination confirmed the material as candle wax." (You can read another medical case report, this one on ear candling in a four-year old girl, here.) The authors noted that "ear candling is widely practiced as an alternative therapy. The procedure lacks scientific explanation, is known to produce complications and should be discouraged."

Eardrum of a patient with white candle wax causing inflammation and hearing loss.From Mohamed Zackaria & Antony Aymat (2009) Ear candling: A case report,  The European Journal of General Practice , 15:3, 168-169,

Eardrum of a patient with white candle wax causing inflammation and hearing loss.From Mohamed Zackaria & Antony Aymat (2009) Ear candling: A case report, The European Journal of General Practice, 15:3, 168-169,

Is there any Science behind Candling?

Still, one case report doesn't mean all that much. We need a more scientific exploration of ear candling, which is precisely what we got in a 1996 research paper Ear Candles; Efficacy and SafetyThe authors, who were ear, nose and throat surgeons and audiologists (and supported by a grant from the William G. Reed Fund for Research in Otolargngology) tested the pressure that an ear candle would generate, and used a mass spectrometer to identify the contents of the candle stubs. After twenty trials using two different candle types, the authors reported that "no negative pressure was generated by any of the burning ear candles at any point during the trial." As for the contents of the burned candles "multiple analyses revealed the sample to be composed of multiple alkanes, which are found in wax candles...None of the contents of cerumen were identified."  

Physicians need to be aware of the dangers associated with ear candle use and counsel their patients accordingly.
— Seeley D. Quigley S. Langman A. Ear Candles; Efficacy and Safety. Laryngoscope 1996, 106; 1226-1229

The authors also reported their results of a survey 122 otolaryngologists. One-third were ‘aware’ of ear candle use amongst one or more of their patients. Fourteen had treated complications of ear candling, including 13 burns of the auricle and canal, 7 partial canal occlusions from candle wax and 1 eardrum perforation.

Ear candling seems to be popular and is heavily promoted (for example, via the Internet), with claims that could easily seem scientific to lay people. However, the truth is that its mechanism of action is first, implausible, and second, demonstrably wrong. Moreover, it has no positive clinical effects and seems to be associated with considerable risks. The few scientific articles available on this subject do not suggest that ear candles are an effective treatment for any condition.
— Ernst E. Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science. Journal of Laryngology and Otology 2004, 118:1-2

The Funny Side to Ear Candling

Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist is one of the funniest writers in the business. He wrote perhaps the funniest newspaper column ever on today's topic. It's also probably the only humorous column on the topic. Dave gave Talmudology permission to reproduce it (I'm not making this up), and you can find it here. Dave also asked that readers do not circulate the piece by email or other electronic media. So read it and enjoy.  Given what we know now, perhaps even Rav Abahu would have found it amusing.

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