Poisons, Hemorrhoids, Cohabitation (Maimonides)


Worldly and cosmopolitan, this is not the Maimonides I read in graduate school. His short medical writings were translated into English by Fred Rosner for the Maimonides Research Institute in Haifa back in the mid 1980s. For undoubtedly puerile reasons, I checked out first the volume that includes the (three separate) treatises on Poisons, Hemorrhoids, and Cohabitation. They have much to say for readers of gender, and anyone else interested in what Foucault called “the technology of the self,” not however based on obedience and contemplation, but rather on social class (the lives of rich young men) and corporeal pleasure. I’m also reminded of the outstanding work by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson on happiness in the premodern philosophical Jewish tradition.

The technologies at work here in these medieval medical writings are described by Foucault, which you can read here, as those “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” or “how an individual acts on himself.” ()

The purpose of the treatise on Poisons was described by Maimonides to spread God’s good and prevent harm among the general population (p.33). More to the point is how much the medical writings jibe with Maimonides’ philosophical method in the Mishne Torah –that is, to simplify by way of abbreviation and to systematize an immense corpus of knowledge, perhaps to provide regimen for “coddled young men” (pp.36, 38, 125) (the point is made by Rosner on p.13).

It will be very clear that Maimonides was uninterested in women. Politically, they simply don’t matter to him, at least not for the most part, even in the treatise on Cohabitation, where the focus is exclusively on the penis and male eros. About the female orgasm, not a word. About those “coddled young men,” however, there is an interesting aside on the treatise on Poisons about princely virtues. These include patronage, the promotion of learning, and religion and morality, welfare, charity and the distribution of wealth to the poor (p.33).

Re: natural philosophy, on view here is a cornucopia of plants, animals, and foods. Much of it sounds delicious, and lots of it are dangerous –seeds, fats, dungs, hebrs, leaves, fruit, oils, snakes, scorpions, bees, wasps, mad dogs, human bites, and women who poison their husbands with menstrual blood [p.89]. A sample diet to guard you from hemorrhoids include “Flesh of fat chickens and broth…small cattle, yearling sheep cooked in egg yolk, kidney fat and roasted fat tail (of sheep), [fatty soups] together with almonds or pistachio and sugar and a little vinegar and leek…One should cook this or eat it hot, fried with sesame oil or make a cake therefrom with egg yolk.” Deserts are also recommended and so on (pp.135-6).

(For scholars of biblical and rabbinic literature, there is a compendium in the treatise on Poisons of sources relating to snakes and serpents in Bible, Midrash, and Talmud, including some fantastic tales.)

About sex, the point is not to curb sexual appetite, but to strengthen coitus –by way of aphrodisiacs and salves meant to warm and moisten the body. Maimonides offers a “wondrous secret which no person has (heretofore) described” meant to prolong erection, even after ejaculation. It’s made of one liter each of carrot oil and  radish oil, one quarter liter of mustard oil, mixed together, adding to it one half liter of live saffron-colored ants. The concoction is set in the sun for 4-7 days and then massaged onto the penis for 2-3 hours prior to intercourse, after which the penis is washed with warm water. More to the point, Maimonides understood that the art was not purely mechanical, but psychological. To strengthen coitus, Maimonides encourages excessive attention, talk, and lust because sex without which the penis will shrivel up and desire will diminish (pp.164-5).

Is Maimonides writing for coddled Arab princes or there is a larger philosophical-religious stake, perhaps being that there is no human perfection apart from human happiness? At the end of the treatise on Cohabitation there is a little invocation that tells us a lot about the larger religious worldview and cosmopolitan sense that inform the medical writings as a whole. “[M]ay the Lord lengthen [one’s] days with pleasures, and may those delights be attached to eternal delights for the sake of His kindness and His goodness. (Amen.) And blessed be the Lord the Savior…Praise to the Lord and glory to the Lord of Israel.” The Arabic original ends this way. “Most praised be the Lord as He should be, and may God bless our Master Muhammad, his followers and his friends and give them happiness” (pp.181-2).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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