Defining Effective Treatments: Amulets and their Writers

by Rabbi Michael Cahana

Mishnah: “A man may not go out [in public on Shabbat]… with an amulet, if it is not an expert.”

So there are amulets and there are amulets. What’s the difference? Professional standards!

Amulets were magical items; lockets, which were worn as protection. Sometimes they contained written text, sometimes special herbs. But in all cases, they served a purpose health or protection.

Of course, to save a life or protect health, the laws of Shabbat may be suspended. So it makes sense that an amulet should be permitted to be worn in public when other items are not – so long as it works!

So how do you decide if you have a working amulet or not?

“Our Rabbis taught: What is an approved amulet? One that has healed [once], a second time and a third time”

So the amulet (either the actual amulet or one exactly like it) must have a proven track record.

But what about the amulet writer? How can you trust his work? Glad you asked:

“R. Papa said: Do not think that both the man [issuing it] and the amulet must be approved; but as long as the man is approved, even if the amulet is not approved.”

According to Rabbi Papa there are three tests for an approved amulet and/or writer:

  1. If three amulets are successful for three people and each works three times: the amulets and the amulet-writer are approved.
  2. If three amulets are successful for three people and each works 1 time: the amulet-writer is approved, but not the amulets.
  3. If one amulet is successful for three people: the amulet is approved but not the amulet-writer.

So there is an evidence-based standard for approving a particular amulet or for assuming the efficacy of a professional’s work.

If only our modern medical system, which often pays for new medicines and therapies even if their effectiveness is unproven, worked the same way!

Rabbi Michael Cahana is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, OR.

Originally published at Talmud Tweets