Not for the faint of heart (Daf Yomi Shabbos 129)

“One who lets blood should engage in drinking immediately.” 

Today’s discussion of bloodletting is definitely not for those who have delicate constitutions, and I count myself among them. It does provide insight into the practice that was prevalent 1,500 years ago as a treatment for specific ailments such as high blood pressure. It was performed by either cutting into someone with a knife to let out blood or through the use of blood-sucking leeches. We learn in today’s Daf Yomi that it was performed by barbers who would also trim one’s moustache during a session and would offer a package deal.

We are told that it is important after such a procedure to ensure that the patient is kept warm, has plenty of protein to eat and red wine to drink; the wine is said to be for purpose of restoring one’s blood, but it must have also helped with the anxiety associated with the procedure. And I am not sure if it would have hurt if leeches were used, but certainly any wound created by cutting into one’s flesh with a scalpel would have resulted in some pain, and perhaps, danger from infection. Exposure to the sun after such a procedure was also a touted as a helpful method for recovery.

Eating protein and drinking red wine are emphasized in today’s text as important methods for restoring one’s blood. If one does not have the resources to afford meat, we are told that he should sell his very shoes. And if he cannot afford red wine, he should go on a wine tasting tour of various wine sellers in town. He should take a worn coin with him and go from store to store asking for a taste of wine. He is then to turn over the worn coin to the wine-seller who will refuse to take it due to the fact that it is so weathered. He should then proceed to the next store and the next store, “until he has tasted the measure of a quarter of a log of wine.”  An alternate remedy is the consumption of seven black dates, the smearing of oil on his temples and exposure to the sun.

According to Shmuel, the sun, despite the danger of ultraviolet exposure, is said to be healing after a bloodletting procedure. This is especially true during the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the shadows before dusk reach far ahead. Shmuel, along with his dear friend Rav, warn of exposure to wind after bloodletting, out of concern that the wind could draw out more blood than is warranted from someone who just underwent the procedure.

Shmuel tells us that the interval between treatments is thirty days if one is young and healthy, and longer for the middle-aged and elderly. He also established that the first and fourth days of the week, and Shabbat Eve, are the optimal time for undergoing the procedure. Tuesday is cited as a particularly bad day of the week for allowing one’s blood to be extracted because it is the day that the planet Mars is dominant, and “since it is a planet of blood, and the even hours are a bad omen, the combination gives cause for concern.”  Additional times when it is a bad omen to undergo the procedure include the fourth day of the week that is the fourth, fourteenth, or twenty-fourth day of the month. Evidently, the number four when amplified presents a bad omen for recovering from the procedure.

We are told that Shabbat Eve is an ideal time because “the multitude are already accustomed”  to undergoing the procedure on that day, and they are protected from harm because “the Lord protects the simple-hearted.”  There are other times when one should not undergo the procedure: during the New Moon or the second day of the month, or on the eve of a Festival, and especially not on the eve of Shavuot. We are told that on Shavuot an evil spirit named Tibbuaḥ, from the Hebrew word slaughter, emerges and as a result it a dangerous day for any activity involving blood.

What is interesting about the history of bloodletting is that it was the acceptable treatment for a variety of ailments for 3,000 years and was only discredited in the late 19th century. Today, we have a lot of faith in our advances in medical science but there is still so much we do not know. This is an especially critical time for medicine because we are living through the worse public health crisis – perhaps the worst crisis – of our lifetime – and are clinging to the belief that science will save us. Medical science has advanced tremendously since the days of bloodletting and there is hope that what once took generations to develop a vaccine will now be accomplished in just a matter of months. We are all holding our breath hoping for a vaccine to appear on the market that will allow us to stop the encroaching virus from ruining so many lives.  But there is worry that we may not end up with anything more effective than the ancient practice of bloodletting, because there is so much about this virus that we do not understand. If believing in the power of sunlight and propitious days of the week can help at all, I will suspend disbelief and pray against all odds that our hero scientists can come up with a method for controlling this virus.

I have been mostly locked up since March in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City. I have started venturing out a bit more with New York City gradually opening up. The sunlight and New York City air where regardless of how hot and humid it is there is always a faint breeze, have been therapeutic. New York has accomplished so much since early March; what felt like a draconian sheltering-in-place strategy moved the city from the number one virus hotspot in the world to one where the curve has been flattened and the number of new cases dramatically decreased, with just slightly more than one percent positive COVID test results as of yesterday. I love this city and am proud of what we accomplished together as a community. But the escalating numbers in the rest of the United States is terrifying, and I am perplexed as to why so many of the other localities in the country did not follow the science like New York did.

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
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