Science in the Torah

Surgical Cleanliness in the Talmud – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Based upon a story in the Talmud, we can see that the Torah Sages of the time also understood the importance of strict cleanliness during surgical procedures.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 83b) describes an operation performed on Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: “He was given a sleeping draught, taken into a marble chamber and had his abdomen opened…”

Note that the surgery was performed in a marble-lined room, which is easier to clean and keep dust-free. Undoubtedly, a special chamber had been designed to maintain the highest level of cleanliness, to provide the proper environment for the surgery, and to prevent the patient’s body from becoming infected.


We can now see that through their study of the Torah, the Sages knew the following:

A. Tiny, invisible creatures exist in our natural world.

B. These creatures, now called bacteria (from the Greek meaning “small staff,” because the first observed bacteria were rod shaped) can cause the transmission of infectious diseases from one person to another.

C. Bacteria are present throughout the sick person’s body and not only in the affected organ. This includes bodily secretions such as saliva.

D. We should therefore be careful not to drink from someone else’s cup, lest he is sick, and the bacteria in his saliva prove contagious.

E. This applies regardless of whether the person is healthy or not, for a person may carry bacteria that do not harm him, but can be dangerous to others.

E. Particularly dangerous bacteria can be found in rusty iron. Thus, we may profane the Sabbath in order to treat even a superficial wound of this type. Obviously, such permission is granted only in the case of a wound through which tetanus bacteria can enter and cause infection, and not in the case of a light scrape or bruise.

F. Boiling a liquid will help to destroy bacteria it may contain.

G. To prevent bacterial infections during surgery, the maximum level of cleanliness should be maintained. 


Adapted from The Revolution by Rabbi Zamir Cohen

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