Monday, May 07, 2012

Vilna Gaon and the Eye Doctor

There is a story about the Vilna Gaon which I have heard many times about when he met an eye doctor. I'll quote from the Artscroll book "The Vilna Gaon: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna
" (p. 155):

Another area in which the Gaon excelled was in his knowledge of anatomy. He once asked an eye doctor if he knew how many blood vessels and nerves go to the eye. The Gaon told him that one who does not konw the anatomy of the eye is unqualified to treat eye disease. Later the Gaon revealed tha thte eye has seventy blood vessles, equal to the numerical value fo the letter ayin, which means eye. [Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, told this story to a famous professor of ophthalmology, adn the man expressed amazemnet that the Gaon could have known teh number of blood vesslels since it was only confirmed by doctors more than a century later].

This story has always bothered me, because it seems to support the myth that Rabbis know medicine better than doctors. Furthermore, I am not a doctor, but I am highly sceptical that this is even correct medically (why mention an un-named professor - simply quote the page reference in Grey's Anatomy if it is actually true). A quick search on google tells me that "Each eye has a different ammount of vessels, even to iddentical twins."

This website explains that depending on how you count there are two main sources of blood, four main blood vessels, and hundreds of capillaries in the human eye.

So it is not medically correct (nor is it particularly medically relevant). Yet this story is used to show that the Torah and Rabbis know more than science.

Yesterday, however, I found something even more interesting. I was looking at one of Rambam's letters, (p. 8 in this pdf - paragraph beginning with the words 've-hizaher she-lo te'ayen...') where he mentions al-Razi. I checked on wikipedia to find out more about him, and found this story:

During that time he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Al-Razi then asked him how many layers does the eye contain and when he was unable to answer he refused his services and the ointment stating "my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy"

The reference here links to a book in Arabic which I cannot read. I am not convinced that it is necessarily a true story, but it makes much more sense when it is told about the foremost doctor of his age who ultimately died of eye disease!

Al-Razi really was a doctor - his books were translated into Latin and became the standard textbooks on medicine.

Al-Razi was "the first of the (physicians of medieval Islam) to treat medicine in a comprehensive and encyclopedic manner, surpassing probably in voluminousness Galen himself

This story seems to me to be too similar to the story of the Gra to be coincidental. Bear in mind that Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi lived from 865 – 925. That is almost 1000 years before the Gra. And his works were known to Rambam, as well as the rest of the medieval world. So whoever first attributed the story to the Vilna Gaon most likely knew of the story from earlier sources.

So the message of the real story of the Gain and the eye doctor is not that all medicine is contained in Torah, or that through Torah a Rabbi can know more than a doctor. Rather it is a story about al-Razi's studies and documentation of medicinal knowledge to try to further scientific understanding.

I wonder why the professor of ophthalmology didn't simply mention al-Razi to Rav Sarna!

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