Blood letting

Sotah 8b ~ Sironechi and Strangulation

Measure For Measure

In today's page of Talmud, we are reminded of the principal of "measure for measure", or as the Mishnah teaches: במדה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו.  Rav Yosef teaches that this principal applies to the offenses that were capital crimes; although court imposed executions are no longer carried out,  במידה לא בטיל - "measure for measure remains in force."

מי שנתחייב סקילה או נופל מן הגג או חיה דורסתו ... מי שנתחייב חניקה או טובע בנהר או מת בסרונכי

One who deserved death by stoning, either falls from a roof or is trampled by a wild who deserved death by strangulation [one of the four types of biblical capital punishment] either drowns in a river or dies of sironechi (Sotah 8b)

The question that we need to answer is, of course, just what is סרונכי - sironechi ? Rashi explains that it means חולי בגרנו  "he becomes sick in his throat" but as we will see, this rather general explanation became more specific among later commentators. 

Marcus Jastrow's dictionary (published 1886-1903) defines sironechi as "choking" or "suffocation." The origins of the word, Jastrow claims, is from the root סרך meaning to clutch or hold fast.  This seems reasonable, and Jastrow's understanding of this Mishnah would be that a person who would have been liable to judicial execution by strangulation will meet his end by choking or suffocation.

Soncino, Schottenstein and Koren

The English translations of the Talmud are more specific than was Jastrow, and suggest that the condition is due to an infectious disease. The Soncino Talmud translates sironechi as quinsy, and the Schottenstein Talmud does the same.  The Koren Talmud takes a different approach, and translates the condition as diphtheria. In a side note, the Koren Talmud states that sironechi may have a semitic origin, or it may be derived from the Greek sunnakhe "referring to a form of strangulation that results from complications of diphtheria due to the trachea being blocked by pus." So let's understand what each of these conditions is, and how it may mimic execution by strangulation.


Peritonsillar abscess at the back of the mouth.  But even this does not occlude the airway, and breathing is not usually affected.

Peritonsillar abscess at the back of the mouth.  But even this does not occlude the airway, and breathing is not usually affected.

Quincy is an uncommonly used word that refers to an inflammation of the tonsils.  It is a complication of what Americans tend to call Strep throat, and what I grew up in London calling tonsillitis. It is most commonly caused by a bacteria known as Group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus, and most of you reading this will have had it, or seen it in a family member. Today it is easily treated with antibiotics, but one of its rare complications  is a peri-tonsillar abscess, sometimes called quinsy.  In this condition, an abscess forms at the back of the mouth in the tonsils, which bulge forward.  When this occurs, the treatment is to lance the abscess.  I've treated hundreds of cases of strep throat and many cases of peri-tonsillar abscess, and the condition never causes suffocation - though it could in theory.  This makes it a very unlikely candidate to be the condition known as sironechi. Sorry Soncino. And sorry, Schottenstein.  


Child infected with diphtheria. Photo from the  CDC .

Child infected with diphtheria. Photo from the CDC.

Diphtheria is a disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Infection causes weakness and fever, followed by swelling in the throat, which gradually becomes covered in a thick grey membrane.  If that doesn't kill the victim, toxins released by the bacteria may finish him off.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1921 there were over 200,000 cases of diphtheria in the US, and over 15,000 deaths. Diphtheria is still found in the developing world, especially in parts of Africa and India, and the World Health Organization estimates that there were over 7,000 cases worldwide in 2014.

Like most physicians in the west, I've never seen a case (or met someone who has seen a case, or met someone who has met someone...) because, thanks to widespread vaccination, the disease here has been almost completely eradicated.  Diphtheria may certainly kill its victim by suffocation, and while there is no other reason to identify this with sironechi, it's a reasonable choice. So one point to Koren.

Classical respiratory diphtheria is characterized by formation of a gray-white pseudomembrane in the throat that is firmly adherent. A swollen, bull-neck appearance caused by inflammation and edema of soft tissues surrounding lymph nodes is associated with severe illness and higher death rates...
— Wagner K. et al. Diphtheria in the Postepidemic period, Europe, 2000-2009. Emerging Infectious Disease. 2012 18 (2):218.



Although none of the English translations suggest epiglottis as a possible translation for sironechi, it is an infection that certainly may fit.  The disease is most commonly caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b, and results in swelling of the epiglottis, which is a flap of tissue that covers the larynx (also known to non-medically trained personnel as the voice box). It is your epiglottis that moves over the voice box every time you swallow, preventing food from entering your trachea and lungs. In acute epiglottitis, that flap of skin, and the surrounding tissues, may become swollen to such a degree that breathing becomes impossible, and the victim suffocates.  Thankfully, this disease is now extremely unusual in developed countries since there is an effective vaccine against it. In fact I can't recall having seen a single case of it. Because of the way in which the disease causes the airway to become occluded, epiglottis is good a candidate for the condition described in the Mishnah as sironechi. It's certainly as likely as quinsy or diphtheria.  

Did George Washington Die of Sironechi?

It is generally agreed that when George Washington died in December 1799, it was from some kind of throat infection, although the precise cause remains unclear. Two of the physicians who treated Washington published an account of the president's last hours. Here's an excerpt:

George Washington was attacked with an inflammatory affection of the upper part of the windpipe, called in technical language, cynanche trachealis. The disease commenced with a violent ague, accompanied with some pain in the upper and fore part of the throat, a sense of stricture in the same part, a cough, and a difficult rather than painful deglutition, which were soon succeeded by fever and a quick and laborious respiration.

Interestingly, each of the three diseases we have reviewed here have been suggested as the one that killed Washington. Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, David Morens noted that the culprits include "inflammatory quinsy" and the relatively new diagnostic entity called cynanche trachealis ("dog strangulation"), a term likely to include "the modern diagnosis of bacterial epiglottis...[as well as other conditions such as] laryngeal diphtheria and viral croup." Morens acknowledged that historians do not agree on the cause of Washington's death, but he thought that  "the signs and symptoms point to acute bacterial epiglottitis."

Blood Letting for Sironechi, and for the President

There is more to the relationship between Washington's death and sironechi. In Masechet Yoma, the tractate that deals with the laws of Yom Kippur, a treatment for sironechi is mentioned: מקיזין דם לסרונכי בשבת - "one may let blood on shabbat to alleviate sironechi"(84a). We've addressed the issue of blood letting in the Talmud elsewhere, and noted that it was a widely used therapy until the late nineteenth century.  And as George Washington lay dying from an occluded airway, his doctors decided the best therapy was to let his blood. This they did four times, the last just a few hours before Washington died. It would appear that the medical practice to let blood for a patient with sironechi was found not only in the Jews of Babylon, but among the physicians of Washington's home at Mount Vernon too.   

Washington's death by choking was carefully documented and published, but the infectious agent behind it remains uncertain. If a single infectious agent is behind the talmudic condition of sironchi,  it remains similarly unknown. But most likely, sironechi just means choking or suffocation - (as Rashi and Jastrow suggested) a condition that could be caused by any of the diseases we've reviewed - and more besides. To identify one disease as the cause of sironechi is to miss a larger point - that is likely caused by many infections.  Today, vaccinations make many of these diseases so rare that most physicians will never see a case. Like the form of judicial execution that it mimicked, sironechi has become a feature of a past that we are all better without.    

Print Friendly and PDF

Ketuvot 52b ~ Blood Letting

[Re-posted (with a few minor changes) for חזרה from Yevamot 72a]

Today's Daf - Who Pays for Mom's Blood Letting?

Rabbi Yochanan said: the sages made blood letting in Israel like a healing that has no limit.
— Talmud Ketuvot 52b

Should you undergo therapeutic venesection - blood-letting - regularly (like using the gym) or save it for special occasions (like a birthday or anniversary)? That's a question which is addressed in today's Daf Yomi.  The question of who should pay for a widow's blood-letting session depended on the resolution of this conundrum. If blood-letting is considered a rare or one-off intervention, then the costs of the procedure should be borne from the fixed proceeds from the widow's Ketuvah. But if the procedure needs to performed chronically, it is considered to be more like the ongoing expense of food; in that case the costs must be borne by the heirs of the deceased husband and not by the woman herself using up the proceeds of her Kutuvah.  It's at this point in the discussion that Rabbi Yochanan speaks up, to let us know that in Israel blood-letting was performed on a regular basis, and so - at least there - the heirs were required to pay for it.  

Blood Letting Elsewhere in the Talmud

Blood-letting was a simple enough and rather brutal procedure. You went to the blood letter and he sliced into your vein. After a while, when the blood-letter had determined that you'd lost just the right amount of blood, the wound was bandaged, and off you went, looking forward to being cured of whatever had led you to the blood-letter in the the first place. The procedure was thought to be the way to cure any number of illnesses, including fever and  asphyxia (Yoma 84a). It dates back at least to the 5th century BCE, and is mentioned in the writings of Erasistratus (300-260 BCE) who opposed the procedure, and Galen (c. 130-200 CE) who used it and taught that it was an important tool that could heal the sick.

Blood-letting is frequently mentioned in the Talmud. Most famously, in Shabbat 129a, there is an extensive discussion of some of the do's and dont's of blood letting:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: One should always sell [even] the beams of his house and buy shoes for his feet. If one has let blood and has nothing to eat, let him sell the shoes from off his feet and provide the requirements of a meal therewith. What are the requirements of a meal? — Rab said: Meat; while Samuel said: Wine. Rab said meat: life for life. While Samuel said, Wine: red [wine] to replace red [blood]. ..For Samuel on the day he was bled  a dish of pieces of meat was prepared; R. Johanan drank until the smell [of the wine] issued from his ears; R. Nahman drank until his milt swam [in wine]; R. Joseph drank until it [the smell] issued from the puncture of bleeding. Raba sought Wine of a [vine] that had had three [changes of] foliage.

…Rab and Samuel both Say: If one makes light of the meal after bleeding his food will be made light of by Heaven, for they say; He has no compassion for his own life, shall I have compassion upon him! 

Rab and Samuel both say: He who is bled, let him, not sit where a wind can enfold [him], lest the cupper drained him [of blood] and reduced it to [just] a revi’it,  and the wind come and drain him [still further], and thus he is in danger. 

Samuel was accustomed to be bled in a house [whose wall consisted] of seven whole bricks,  and a half brick [in thickness]. One day he bled and felt himself [weak]; he examined [the wall] and found a half-brick missing.

Rab and Samuel both say: He who is bled must [first] partake of something and then go out; for if he does not eat anything, if he meets a corpse his face will turn green; if he meets a homicide he will die; and if he meets swine, it [the meeting] is harmful in respect of something else.

Rab and Samuel both say: One who is bled should tarry awhile and then rise, for a Master said: In five cases one is nearer to death than to life. And these are they: When one eats and [immediately] rises, drinks and rises, sleeps and rises, lets blood and rises, and cohabits and rises.

Samuel said: The correct interval for blood-letting is every thirty days. Samuel also said: The correct time for bloodletting is on a Sunday Wednesday and Friday, but not on Monday or Thursday…

Modern Medicine and the Practice of Blood-Letting

There is absolutely no place for this intervention today, other than for a couple of rare disorders. One is polycythemia vera.  In this illness, the body makes too many red blood cells (hence its name, poly=many, kytos=cells, hamia=blood), and one way to keep the illness in check is to remove those excess blood cells at a regular intervals.  Another rare disorder that is sometimes treated with therapeutic blood-letting is hemochromatosis, in which there is a build up of iron in the body.  But other than for these rare diseases, blood-letting, (called today phlebotomy or venepuncture, which do sound a whole lot more palatable but describe the same procedure) is harmful. Do not try this at home.  

Having made this very clear, let's introduce some nuance. Palliative blood-letting may be useless, but from this is does not follow that it is a good idea to restore the hematocrit (the concentration of red blood cells in the blood) to normal in every disease state. For example, virtually all patients on  dialysis (due to chronic kidney disease) become anemic, but in these patients, trying to restore the hemoglobin concentration to a higher level (~13g/dL for those interested) seems to be associatedwith increased risk, when compared with those in whom the hemoglobin level was lower. And when tiny premature babies get anemic, there does not seem to be an advantage to keeping the hemoglobin in a higher range (though to be fair, more research needs to be done). But these two examples do not in any way lend support to the notion that blood-letting is anything other than a really bad idea.  

Photo of bloodletting in 1860.  Yes, that's right, 1860.  From the  Burns Archive

Photo of bloodletting in 1860.  Yes, that's right, 1860.  From the Burns Archive

The procedure, which had been in use for at least 2,000 years, only stopped being part of standard medical practice in the late 19th century.  Writing in 1875, one Englishman could not bring himself to believe that the era of blood-letting was really  over. "Is the relinquishment of bleeding final?" he wrote, 

or shall we see by and by, or will our successors see, a resumption of the practice? This, I take it, is a very difficult question to answer; and he would be a very bold man who, after looking carefully through the history of the past, would venture to assert that bleeding will not be profitably employed any more.

(In fact, blood letting was even suggested as a therapy during a severe influenza outbreak at a British Army camp in northern France in the winter of 1916-17.  Amazing.)  we no-longer practice this all but useless intervention, the prayer associated with it is worth recalling. Maimonides ruled (Berakhot 10:21) that before undergoing blood-letting, the patient pray the procedure be effective,and this ruling is found as part of normative Jewish practice, recorded in the (שולחן ערוך (אורח חיים רל ס׳ק ד:

הנכנס להקיז דם אומר "יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלהי שיהא עסק זה לי לרפואה כי רופא חנם אתה". ולאחר שהקיז אומר "ברוך רופא חולים

Before undergoing blood letting say: May it be your will Lord my God, that this procedure will heal me, for you are an unconditional healerAnd when it is finished he says: Blessed are you God, healer of the sick.

The procedures have changed, but the prayers have stayed the same.



Print Friendly and PDF