Honey

Bava Basra 3b ~ How to Mellify a Corpse

Herod the Weird

Today's page of Talmud contains a bizarre account of the sexual proclivities of Herod the Great, the Jewish Roman King who died in 4 BCE. Herod took a fancy to one of the women in the House of the Hasmoneans, where he was a slave. He led a rebellion, killing all members of the Hasmonean house but the one woman of his desires. Then comes this:  

בבא בתרא ג, ב

 כי חזת ההיא ינוקתא דקא בעי למינסבה סליקא לאיגרא ורמא קלא אמרה כל מאן דאתי ואמר מבית חשמונאי קאתינא עבדא הוא דלא אישתיירא מינייהו אלא ההיא ינוקתא וההיא ינוקתא נפלה מאיגרא לארעא טמנה שבע שנין בדובשא איכא דאמרי בא עליה איכא דאמרי לא בא עליה

When she saw that he [Herod] wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out "...I am throwing myself down from this roof." He preserved her body in honey for seven years. Some say that he practiced necrophilia with her, others that he did not...

While studying Bava Kamma we discussed the medicinal properties of honey. We noted that although the Talmud described honey as being harmful to your health, it is in fact very good for you. It has antibiotic and antiviral properties, helps with a cough, and has been claimed as a therapy for dozens of medical conditions.  In today's page of Talmud we can add another use for honey: to preserve body parts. Or even whole bodies.

Honey as a MEDICAL Preservative

Dr. Shankargouda Patil is a senior lecturer at the Ramaiah Dental College in Bangalore, India, and has published two papers on honey as a preservative. In one experiment Dr. Patil took "commercially available fresh goat meat" and placed each bit into containers containing either formalin, water, honey or jaggery syrup. (Jaggery syrup being a coarse brown Indian sugar made by evaporating the sap of palm trees.) After waiting all of twenty-four hours he then processed the tissues and stained them as you would any medical specimen.  He noted that although formalin is routinely used to preserve medical specimens, it is highly toxic. And as I recall from my days in the lab, highly smelly. So it makes sense to see if there are alternative preservatives.  Like honey. 

Photomicrograph of the tissues fixed in: A. Formalin, B. Honey, C. Sugar syrup, D. Molasses syrup, E. Distilled water (H & E, 40X). From Patil S, Premalatha B R, Rao R S, Ganavi B S. Revelation in the Field of Tissue Preservation – A Preliminary Study on Natural Formalin Substitutes.   J Int Oral Health   2013; 5(1):31-38.

Photomicrograph of the tissues fixed in: A. Formalin, B. Honey, C. Sugar syrup, D. Molasses syrup, E. Distilled water (H & E, 40X). From Patil S, Premalatha B R, Rao R S, Ganavi B S. Revelation in the Field of Tissue Preservation – A Preliminary Study on Natural Formalin Substitutes. J Int Oral Health 2013; 5(1):31-38.

Patil notes that honey's high osmolarity, low pH and the presence of components such as hydrogen peroxide and phenol inhibine in it all contribute to its anti-oxidative and antibacterial effect. Here is how he thinks honey works as a fixative:

From Patil S, Premalatha B R, Rao R S, Ganavi B S. Revelation in the Field of Tissue Preservation – A Preliminary Study on Natural Formalin Substitutes.    J Int Oral Health    2013; 5(1):31-38.

From Patil S, Premalatha B R, Rao R S, Ganavi B S. Revelation in the Field of Tissue Preservation – A Preliminary Study on Natural Formalin Substitutes. J Int Oral Health 2013; 5(1):31-38.

Ever keen to push the boundaries of honey as a medical preservative, Dr Patil published a second paper titled Natural sweeteners as fixatives in histopathology: A longitudinal study. This time he studied the fixative property of jaggery and honey over a six-month period and compared them with formalin as a control.

From Patil S, et al. Natural sweeteners as fixatives in histopathology: A longitudinal study.   Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine   2015, 6 (1); 67-70  

From Patil S, et al. Natural sweeteners as fixatives in histopathology: A longitudinal study. Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine 2015, 6 (1); 67-70  

Macroscopic appearance of tissues after 6 months of fixation with: (a) Formalin, (b) jaggery, and (c) honey. From  Patil S, et al.   2015. 

Macroscopic appearance of tissues after 6 months of fixation with: (a) Formalin, (b) jaggery, and (c) honey. From Patil S, et al. 2015. 

The conclusion from all this was that at the end of six months, honey was as good a fixative as formalin. In addition, the tissues preserved in honey had no significant odor, while the formalin preserved tissues were "pungent."  On the down side though, honey left the tissues a light-brown color, while formalin caused no color change.  But all this is small potatoes compared to Herod's efforts to preserve an entire human corpse. And it turns out that Herod wasn't the only one who carried out this rather peculiar exercise. 

הדבש נראה שיש לו שתי סגולות האחת למהר למחות ולכלות הדברים הנחתכים הנופלים לתוכו. והשניה להעמיד ולקיים הדברים הנחתכים הנטמנים בתוכו
— שו"ת הרשב"א חלק א סימן פ

IT JUST GOT WEIRDER

Human female fetus (a) 20 weeks gestational age before and, (b) after embalming for one month in honey. From Sharquie K.E. Najim R.A. Embalming with honey. Saudi Med J 2004; 25 (11). 1755-1756.

Human female fetus (a) 20 weeks gestational age before and, (b) after embalming for one month in honey. From Sharquie K.E. Najim R.A. Embalming with honey. Saudi Med J 2004; 25 (11). 1755-1756.

In a paper published in 2004 in the Saudi Medical Journal, researchers from the medical college of Baghdad took these experiments to a whole new level. They preserved mice, rabbits and then ... two human fetuses in honey, to evaluate the embalming qualities of honey.

After embalming the 2 human fetuses in honey for one month and leaving them to dry at room temperature, they were mummified and shrunken. The weight of the first fetus changed from 500gm to 115gm while the second fetus weight changed from 400g to 95g. Both fetuses were darker in color. Both fetuses were observed for a period of one year without any change in their shape despite being kept at room temperature.

In case you were wondering, the authors note that "the protocol for the research project was approved by the ethical committee at the College of Medicine, University of Baghdad, Iraq. For human fetuses embalming, the nature of the experiment was explained to the parents and their approval was taken, to use the fetus for the experiments." Well that makes me feel a whole lot better.

Preserving Human Corpses in Honey

In her entertaining book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach wrote that "in twelfth-century Arabia, it was possible to procure an item known as a mellified man. The verb to mellify" she continues, "comes from the Latin for honey, mel. Mellified man was dead human remains steeped in honey." Vicki Leon picks up the story in her equally entertaining book How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition.

It had long been common knowledge that the Babylonians embalmed with wax and honey. But the big news began when Alexander the Great died at age thirty-three. Always organized, Alex had left pre-need instructions to mellify his remains. The high sugar content of honey draws water from cells and gradually dehydrates tissues. Thus, if honey happens to surround a corpse, under the right conditions it produces a drying action while also preserving.  It seemed to work for Alex. His body survived a 1,000-mile road trip, a corpse-napping and decades-long display u a glass coffin in Memphis, Egypt - and he was still being called 'lifelike' when last seen centuries later by Roman Emperor Carcalla.

The story of Herod's sexual proclivities with a dead body recounted in today's page of Talmud are, I hope, wildly exaggerated.  But the ability of honey to preserve a dead body are, it turns out, quite likely to be true.  Just try to forget all this by next Rosh Hashanah. 

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Bava Kamma 85a ~ Is Honey Bad For You?

בבא קמא פה,א 

כדתניא הרי שעבר על דברי רופא ואכל דבש או כל מיני מתיקה מפני שדבש וכל מיני מתיקה קשין למכה והעלה מכתו גרגותני יכול יהא חייב לרפאותו ת"ל רק

It was taught in a Braisa: If the victim of an assault disobeyed the advice of his doctor and ate honey or all types of sweets - and this violated his doctor's instructions because honey and all types of sweets are harmful for a wound - it could be thought that the assailant is still obligated to heal the victim. Therefore the Torah uses the word רק (only) to teach otherwise...(Bava Kamma 85a)

Secretions of the honey bee. From Israili, Z.  Antimicrobial Properties of Honey.    American Journal of Therapeutics    2014. 21; 304–323.

Secretions of the honey bee. From Israili, Z.  Antimicrobial Properties of Honey. American Journal of Therapeutics 2014. 21; 304–323.

Three days ago we studied the medical effects of garlic, and noted that although the Talmud praises it for its health effects, there is conflicting evidence as to its efficacy. Today, we turn to honey, which has been used as a medicine for at least the last 3,000 years.  It is therefore very surprising that in the culture that gave birth to the Talmud, honey was thought to be bad for your health.  As we will see, honey has some quite amazing therapeutic uses.

FROM WHERE DOES HONEY COME?

The honeybee is the only insect that produces food eaten by humans. Here is what happens: The female honeybees use their proboscis (a tube-like tongue) to up suck flower nectar and mix it with their saliva and enzymes. Then they store it in a honey sack. Back at the hive, the mixture is regurgitated into cells, dried to about 16% moisture, and stored as a primary food source. As you might expect, the content of the honey depends on a number of factors including the species of bee, the kind of flowers on which they fed, and the conditions in which the honey was stored.

Honey as an Antibiotic

In a recent review article that focuses on the antimicrobial properties of honey, Zafar Israili from the Emory School of Medicine noted that a large number of laboratory and clinical studies have confirmed the broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties of honey.  These include antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antimycobacterial.  “Honey,” wrote Israili, “was found to be an effective topical treatment for ringworms, athlete’s foot, jock itch, nail fungus, and yeast infections and reported to be comparable to many over-the-counter antifungal preparations.” These properties are likely due to the honey’s acidity, osmotic effect, high sugar concentration, and the presence of chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, antioxidants, and lysozymes.  

Honey contains more than 600 compounds (you can see a list of them here), and the wound healing properties of honey are probably its oldest and best studied medicinal property.  It has been shown to aid wound healing in conditions such as chronic pressure sores, traumatic and diabetic wounds, diabetic foot ulcers, boils, burns, fistulas, necrotizing fasciitis, and a very nasty condition called Fournier’s gangrene. (That's necrosis of the scrotum. Yes, quite gross.) So in contrast to the advice of the talmudic doctors that "honey is bad for an injury", honey turns out to be rather good for wounds, especially when applied directly to them.  But honey isn't just good for wounds...

There is a large body of evidence to support the use of honey as a wound dressing for a wide range of types of wounds. Its antibacterial activity rapidly clears infection and protects wounds from becoming infected, and thus it provides a moist healing environment without the risk of bacterial growth occurring. It also rapidly debrides wounds and removes malodor.
— Molan, PC. The Evidence supporting the use of honey as a wound dressing. Lower Extremity Wounds 2006. 5 (1); 52.

Your Mother was correct

A 2012 study from physicians at the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv tested the effects of honey on nocturnal cough and sleep quality.  They enrolled 150 children age 1-5 years (and presumably, their tired and exasperated parents) and half an hour before bedtime, gave half of them “a single dose of 10g of eucalyptus honey, citrus honey, or labiatae honey,” and the other half a placebo. (In case you were wondering, as was I, as to what the placebo was, here’s the answer: date extract, “because its structure, brown color, and taste are similar to that of honey.” True enough.) What they found might change the way you treat your own cough this winter. Each of the three honey groups had a better response compared with the date extract, and no significant differences were found among the different types of honey. The authors concluded that honey may be preferable to cough and cold medications for childhood respiratory infections. 

The effect of different types of honey and date extract on cough frequency (I), cough severity (II), cough bothersome to child (III), the child’s sleep (IV), parent’s sleep (V), and combined symptoms score (VI). P <0.05 for the comparisons between group D and the other groups. A, eucalyptus honey; B, citrus honey; C, labiatae honey; D, silan date extract. From Cohen, AH. et al. Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.    Pediatrics    2012. 130 (3); 465-471.

The effect of different types of honey and date extract on cough frequency (I), cough severity (II), cough bothersome to child (III), the child’s sleep (IV), parent’s sleep (V), and combined symptoms score (VI). P <0.05 for the comparisons between group D and the other groups. A, eucalyptus honey; B, citrus honey; C, labiatae honey; D, silan date extract. From Cohen, AH. et al. Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Pediatrics 2012. 130 (3); 465-471.

Honey as a Medicine for Pretty much everything

There are dozens of other medical conditions for which honey may be used. Here is what the review from Israili has to say:

Honey has been reported to be of benefit in a large number of human pathologies including allergy, asthma, bronchitis, common cold, flu, hay fever, nasal congestion, rhinitis, sinusitis, upper respiratory infections, sore throat, cough, fatigue, anxiety, migraine (stress related), cuts, lacerations, burns, wounds (venous, arterial, diabetic, malignant), pressure ulcers, malignant ulcers, perianal and gluteofemoral fistulas, bed sores, adult and neonatal postoperative infections, necrotizing fasciitis, pilonidal sinus, insect bites, infections (bacterial including antibiotic-resistant strains and fungal), septicemia, conjunctivitis and other eye diseases, endophthalmitis, acne, chronic seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, inflammation, gingivitis, stomach ache, stomach ulcers, digestive disorders, constipation, vomiting, diarrhea, colitis, dehydration, diabetes, osteoporosis, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia, hypertension, immune disorders, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease, hepatitis, tumors, cancer, and radiation/chemotherapy-induced oral mucositis.

You'd have to check the references and decide if the evidence supports claims like this. But in any event, this list is in startling contrast to the advice of physicians living during talmudic times, that those who were ill or injured should avoid honey.

The Koren Talmud on Honey - woops

In its otherwise excellent translation and commentary on the Talmud, the Koren Talmud has this to say in a footnote on today's daf:

Ingesting large quantities of sweet foods can cause a rise in blood sugar, which in turn can delay the healing of injuries. In addition, poor circulation caused by the fatty deposits in the arteries can limit the amount of oxygen and healing nutrients that reach a wound. Nerve damage, or neuropathy, causes numbness in the feet that prevents open wounds from healing. Moreover, when blood sugar levels are high, the immune system cannot effectively do its job of clearing away dead and damaged tissue and building new skin cells.

Oy.  This is a mess.  In the first place, in persons who are not diabetic, ingesting sweet foods will only cause a mild and very temporary rise in blood sugar. Second, fatty deposits are caused by cholesterol plaque build-up, and not by carbohydrates (which are sugars). Third, neuropathy has absolutely nothing to do with preventing wound healing.  That's caused mostly by a deficient microcirculation, which is often associated with a neuropathy, (for example in diabetics) but is not caused by it.  Finally, elevated blood sugars might effect the immune system, but again, this is only an issue for those whose diabetes is poorly controlled.

The Koren edition seems to be following a long tradition of getting it wrong when it comes to honey. In today's page of Talmud, honey is recorded as being harmful to your health, and the Koren Talmud tries, but fails, to give this belief a patina of scientific credibility.  But both are wrong.  In fact, you might want to put down that garlic so praised by the Talmud, and pick up some honey. That would be very good for you.

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