The Mishna toward the top of amud aleph mentions that King Chizkyahu hid the Book of Remedies. Most of the commentaries such as Rashi understood Chizkiyahu’s deed as follows: There existed a book of cures, herbs and the like amongst the Jewish people, passed down as an ancient tradition from Solomon. Almost every ancient indigenous culture had oral and written traditions of various herbal remedies, many of them being rediscovered today as effective ( see https://www.rmhiherbal.org/aa/f-ahr1-hist.html ). The problem was that people were relying too much on the so-called cure instead of repenting and praying. This might be thought of metaphorically such as when a child asks his mom, “If Daddy lost his job and we don’t have enough money, why don’t we go the ATM and get more dollars?” The child mistakes the local source of money for the actual source of parnassah. So too, the one who lacks trust in G-d misplaces the material cure from the actual spiritual process that causes disease and allows for cure. See Ramban Vayikra (26:11) who expresses a similar idea.

Maimonides, in his commentary on this Mishna, rejects this explanation as absurd. He asserts that just as food heals hunger, medicine corrects imbalances in the body that cause disease. Any intelligent person understands that while he physically harvested the food, he knows to thank G-d for giving him the strength, wisdom and good climate to grow the food. So too, any intelligent person who makes use of a cure understands that he is to thank G-d for the intelligence to procure the cure and the very existence of the cure. Therefore if such a book existed, it is ridiculous to hide it. Instead, this so-called Book of Cures either contained idolatrous practices as part of the cures or perhaps had poisons that could be misused in chemical and biological warfare against one’s enemy.

What are we to make of this basic machlokes between Maimonides and many of the commentaries? This philosophical disagreement is about a fundamental difference in how providence is understood.

The traditional Jewish position about providence is more or less that when G-d sees fit, He intervenes in the matters of this world to protect or reward the righteous or to punish the wicked. True we cannot always know when how or why He intervenes at some times, while at other times holds back, but still this is the process. 

However, according to Maimonides, just as G-d’s emotions described throughout the Torah are anthropomorphic representations of something different and unfathomable, so too is His providence and actions in the physical world. While we cannot fully understand His providence the Torah still describes Him as a father, judge or king, even though he does not really act that way. (See chapter one of Hilchos Yesode HaTorah.) Although there is dispute about Maimonides’ opinion on providence and even deliberate obfuscation because he believed it belongs to matters that are secrets of the Torah (see introduction to his Guide for the Perplexed), one theme from his ideas are clear: Divine Providence is commensurate to the degree that a person maintains continuous mindful contact and awareness of G-d (see Guide III:51, as well as II:48 for his concepts of divine causality). Not only this, but it is likely that Providence is enacted via intellectual enlightenment that occurs through this contact. Thus, many of the pains are avoided and successes achieved through mini-moments of Ruach HaKodesh providing conscious and unconscious enlightenment to the person allowing him to know what to do intuitively to succeed and avoid difficulty in life. Maimonides alludes to this, and Ralbag states this explicitly in his commentary on Iyov (chapters 37 and 40). Thus, the reason why the idea of a hiding a Book of Cures is absurd is that the most providential form of a cure is to become intellectually enlightened to know what cure to use. Thus, what difference would it make if the Book of Cures was available to consult with or not, as each person must understand that wisdom, the Ability to heal oneself and apply knowledge is itself providence from G-d.

This brings us to modern times. We have many wonderful cures and medicines. The Jewish philosophical concept according to Maimonides is not to ignore these cures. Rather, we are to think, how thankful we should be that G-d has aspired the intellect of man. The Torah has been an incredible formative influence over civilization. We are now able to live in greater peace and greater harmony Jews and gentiles alike, thanks to the civilizing force of the Torah, so that we can work together as a fellow humans and benefit from scientific discoveries (many of them, not surprisingly, by Jews). When we take that medicine we are thankful for G-d - but NOT for sending some magical lightning bolt that heals us, but rather were thankful for G-d who has provided us with intellectual gifts and inspiration to love better.

For Video versions of this click here, and look for title and daf.  

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria