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):
APPARENTLY It’s not just PIGEONS
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.