9. Maimonides and the Study of Medicine (IFA 4905)
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9 Maimonides and the Study of Medicine T O L D B Y R A B B I YA ’ A K O V A S H R A F T O M E N A H. E M B E N A R Y E H Even while still a young man, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides)—may his memory protect us—had a great desire to study medicine. In his town, there lived a gentile physician who used to take on one student each year as his assistant, to work without pay and learn medicine . When the year was up, though, the physician would kill the student, to keep him from mastering the art of medicine and becoming his rival. Maimonides—may his memory protect us—had a great passion to learn medicine, but his mother was opposed to the idea. She knew what that physician did, that every year he killed his student. “Don’t worry, Mother,” Maimonides told her. “I’ll be careful.” Pretending to be a deaf-mute, Maimonides applied to be the physician ’s apprentice. The physician tested him repeatedly until he was satisfied that he [Maimonides] could neither hear nor speak. Then he took him on as his assistant and gestured to him to sit down and work. Every day Maimonides would secretly take a sheet of paper and a pen and record what he had seen, until he had set down the entire art and science of medicine . Of course, he modified, corrected, and improved this lore, based on his own insight and experience. Whenever the gentile physician went to treat patients, Maimonides would secretly write down what he heard from the physician, improving it all the while. In this fashion, Maimonides became a great physician. Five years passed. One day the daughter of the king of Spain complained about her head. All the physicians came to treat her, including the physician with whom Maimonides was studying. Diagnosing that the princess had a frog on her brain, the physician opened her skull. Then he picked up forceps to take hold of the frog. Suddenly, Maimonides struck his [the physician’s] arm aside. “May your hand be cut off!” he rebuked the physician. “What do you think you’re doing? Do you want to kill the king’s daughter?” 55 The physician was astonished. For five years he had thought Maimonides a deaf-mute. Never once had he uttered a word or given a sign he could hear. Now, suddenly, he could speak—and to say such things! The king entrusted his daughter to Maimonides’ care. Maimonides took a nail and a peg, heated them in the fire, and poked the frog in the legs. When the frog lifted up one leg, Maimonides placed a piece of cotton under it; in short order the frog put its other legs on the cotton. Maimonides picked up the forceps, took hold of the frog, and removed it from the princess’s head. Then he closed her skull and sutured up the incision . The king’s daughter recovered. “I don’t want to leave the palace with this physician,” Maimonides told the king. “He kills all his apprentices after they’ve been with him for a year, studying and working.” “Come work with me!” the physician urged Maimonides. But the king intervened. “He will not go with you. No, he will remain here in my palace, because he is a greater physician than you are.” This infuriated the physician. “If he is a greater physician than I am,” he told the king, “let us have a contest. Each will give the other poison to drink. Whoever can cure himself will be the royal physician.” The gentile physician gave Maimonides poison to drink, but Maimonides knew the antidote. He gave the Jews their instructions: “Light a fire in seven furnaces and heat them red hot, and prepare seven bulls for slaughter. After I drink the poison, you must take me and pass my body through the seven red-hot furnaces. Then, after you take me out of the furnaces, place me inside the carcasses of the slaughtered bulls, and I will recover.” The Jews got ready to do what Maimonides had told them. After Maimonides drank the poison they took him and passed his body through the seven red-hot furnaces. From the seven red-hot furnaces they took him and lay him inside the carcasses of the seven slaughtered bulls, which had been prepared as he instructed...


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