Daf Yomi Shabbos 67: On Healing Words and Incantations

A drawn sword and a readied sling, its name shall not be ache, sickness, and pains.

Today’s Daf Yomi is pure poetry. For me it’s not just what the words themselves are saying, but their rhythm, alliteration and sound of each syllable. I know from my days as a graduate literature student that we can only grasp a glimmer of the true meaning of something in translation, because it is not just about the struggle to capture the underlying meaning, but the power of the words themselves. I also know that those who are reading the daily portions in Hebrew, are comprehending the text at a more profound level than I ever will with the English translation.

We are provided with a litany of remedies for various illnesses in today’s Daf Yomi. For tertian fever (which strikes every three days), we are offered a cure that involves a necklace strung with seven thorns from seven palm trees, seven slivers from seven beams, seven pegs from seven bridges, seven types of ashes from seven ovens,  seven types of dust from seven door sockets,  seven types of tar from seven boats, seven cumin seeds, and seven hairs from the beard of an old dog. This hefty necklace is supported by a simple thread made of hair.

For healing boils, we are told to recite the names of the following angels: “Baz, Bazya, Mas, Masya, Kas, Kasya, Sharlai, and Amarlai”.  We are offered additional healing incantations. For healing a wound: “A drawn sword and a readied sling, its name shall not be ache, sickness, and pains.”  To be saved from a demon: “You were stopped up, stopped up you were. Cursed, broken, and excommunicated be the demon called bar Tit bar Tamei bar Tina as Shamgaz, Merigaz, and Istemai.” 

The Amorites were a pre-Israelite people who occupied Mesopotamia from the 21st century BC to the end of the 17thCentury BC. The Jewish Encyclopedia says they were associated with “black arts” which the Rabbis in the Talmud would have found repugnant. Today’s text takes a tolerant view of the ways of the Amorites. Abaye and Rava are quoted as both saying that “anything that contains an element of healing and seems to be effective does not contain an element of the prohibition against following the ways of the Amorite.”

We are provided with healing words from the Amorites which are presumably allowed by the Rabbis because they were proven to be somewhat effective. For a fish bone stuck in the throat, we are told to say: “You are stuck like a needle, locked as a shutter, go down, go down.” One who is concerned about a bad omen when he hears the call of a raven should say “scream,” and to a female raven “whistle and turn your tail to me for the best.”

The reference to bathroom demons in today’s text brought me back to my love of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories which were replete with dybbuks who created a great deal of trouble for the schlemiels in his tales. I was once sitting in a coffee shop near New York University in Greenwich Village reading a collection of his stories when he walked in with a few of his cronies and sat down near me. I was so overwhelmed with awe for this old Jewish man with the brightest blue eyes I have ever seen. I eavesdropped intently as he read through each item on the menu out loud with his Yiddish accent. I still remember his recitation of the items on the menu which was followed by a shake of the head and a dismissal of each.

What resonated with me today is the focus on words and not just their meaning – but their alliteration and incantation. It is a reminder that words matter, and words can heal. They can carry hope in their very sound as we repeat each syllable and they reverberate through our chest. At this time when so many of us are sheltering in place, words matter more than ever, especially the words from our leaders, because they are all we have to believe in as we wait for a remedy to chase away our present demons.


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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