Thursday, May 30, 2013

Question: In Jewish writings, is there anywhere written the idea of the human body being compared to a house?

Answer: In 1708, Tobias Cohn, an eighteenth-century Jewish physician, published a scientific and philosophical work titled "מעשה טוביה." In this work, he presents an analogy comparing the human body to a house, and includes an anatomical diagram drawn adjacent to a house. מעשה טוביה in fact provides an interesting glimpse into the unique life of Tobias Cohn in general. The introduction to the work, due to its biographical nature, provides fascinating information about the life of a Jewish physician during the eighteenth century. Moreover, the body of the work itself provides a wealth of scientific knowledge and therefore serves as an interesting text within the history of science, particularly within the historical development of medicine. In the introduction to the work, Cohn explains that this work will serve as his legacy, since his two children have passed away and he does not know if he will have any more children. As such, the work imparts the corpus of his scientific knowledge, which serves of much interest historically. 

Tobias Cohn (Tobias the son of Moses Cohn) lived from 1652 to 1729. Originally from the town of Metz in Northern France, Cohn grew up in a Rabbinic family and, at the age of nine, upon the death of his father, Cohn began living with relatives in Cracow, Poland, where he studied traditional Jewish subjects (Margalith, 2007). Cohn then began studying medicine at Frankfurt on Oder, then continued his medical studies in the Italian university at Padua, and then served as the court physician in Turkey (Margalith, 2007), where he served five sultans (Muntner, 2007). By way of retirement from practicing medicine, Cohn relocated to Jerusalem, Israel, where he again studied traditional Jewish texts (Margalith, 2007). 

In the introduction to מעשה טוביה  Cohn provides a biographical sketch of his life as a medical student and as a physician. He describes studying medicine at Padua, and also studying medicine with a friend at the university at Frankfurt on Oder. Regarding the latter, he mentions that typically Jews were not allowed to study there, which provides an interesting example of the unique nature of his course of study. Also, by way of background information, he briefly describes his family history, which gives the work general historical value as well. Cohn discusses how his family has a legend of descending from the Biblical figure Ezra, and how his family ended up in Metz as a result of fleeing the persecutions in Poland in 1648. Some of his family then returned to Poland. This information that Cohn provides in the bibliography provides historical context for the rest of the work, which focuses on various scientific disciplines. 

The main content of מעשה טוביה serves as Cohn’s intellectual magnum opus, in that it contains his scientific knowledge on medicine, astronomy, botany, zoology, and philosophy. As mentioned, Cohn wishes to impart this knowledge as his legacy. Given the vast expanse of the content of the work, מעשה טוביה serves as a strong testament to the author’s scope and depth of knowledge of the various sciences and of philosophy.

The מעשה טוביה is divided into five sections, four of which comprise Book One and one of which comprises Book Two. Sections one through four include: The Upper World, which addresses philosophy, The Middle World, which addresses Astronomy, The Small World, which addresses “things under the moon,” and Foundations of the World, which addresses “the four foundational elements.” Section five, titled The New World, deals with medicine.

The publisher's imprint indicates Nella Stamperia Bragadina, Venice, 1708. With respect to frequency of print, many later printings of the book occurred: Venice- 1715, 1728, 1769, and 1850, Jessnitz-1721, Lemberg- 1867, 1875, Cracow- 1908, Jerusalem- 1967, 1978, and Brooklyn- 1974 (Ruderman, 1995, p. 229). The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America owns a first edition of the work, with the call number of RB 144:4. The book was published in Hebrew, and consists of one volume containing multiple works, for a total of 321 pages. The book has quarto binding and its collation formula is as follows: [6] [158]ff ([6]ff, 1-39^4, 40^2). The outer binding consists of contemporary sprinkled calf, and the book measures 22.5 by 17 centimeters. In terms of endpages, there are one at each end. Pagination includes both Hebrew and Arabic numerals, with four pages per number (e.g. 13: 1-4). Each page features a catchword at bottom of the page. The work includes a summary of contents of each section before each section. Moreover, the work includes errata, in the form of a table of errors in back of book. The book includes neither footnotes, end notes, nor glosses. The print features monochrome ink, and the book includes many illustrations (discussed below). 

A significant number of approbations precede the text. These include a poem by Solomon Konean/Conegliano (a teacher of the author), an approbation by the Chief Rabbi of Prague, an approbation by the Rabbis of Venice, an approbation by a contemporary of the author, a lengthy approbation by another contemporary, and three poems by the author’s contemporaries. It remains possible, though speculative, that the high number of approbations by famous figures intends to forestall the novelty of a scientific work written in Hebrew for a lay audience. 

The extensive number of illustrations in מעשה טוביה stands out in that the book in its time emerged as “the only Hebrew work on medicine which was profusely illustrated” (Margalith, 2007). The diagrams actually serve as a fascinating glimpse into eighteenth century science. Illustrations include celestial diagrams, anatomical drawing, including the analogy of the body to a house, and drawings of other phenomena in nature, such as thunder and plants. Perhaps most well-known is the full page illustration analogizing the anatomy of the human body to the structure of a house. Furthermore, the verso of the main title page features an illustration of the author by Antonio Luciani; however, information is not available on that illustrator’s history. In addition, the title page contains illustrations, and various decorative illustrations appear at the end of chapters. In terms of the type of material used, the illustrations consist of copper and woodcut engravings, with woodcut and decorative and typographical head- and tailpieces. 


Margalith, David. (2007). "Cohn, Tobias ben Moses." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. (Vol. 5, pp. 44-45). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from 

Muntner, Suesmann, Samuel Vaisrub, Michael A. Denman, Yaakov Naparstek, and Dan Gilon. (2007). "Medicine." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed.(Vol. 13, p720-738). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from|CX2587513493&docType=GALE 

Ruderman, David B. (1995). Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 

1 comment:

  1. Analogizing a woman's body--to be specific, her internal reproductive organs--to a house is common and ancient in Jewish sources. See Mishnah Niddah 2:5 and Gail Labovitz's discussion in her book, Marriage and Metphor, pp. 115-128.