January is Eye Care Month!

Close to 2,000 years ago, the importance of treating even basic eye disease was recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 108b), where the rabbis debate what one may do to care for one’s eye on Shabbat:

“[To put] wine into one’s eye is forbidden [on Shabbat]; on the eye, however, is permitted, for Samuel said: One may soak bread in wine and place it on his eye on the Sabbath…Mar Ukba said in Samuel’s name: One may steep collyrium [an eye salve] on the eve of the Sabbath and place it upon his eyes on the Sabbath without fear [of transgressing Shabbat].”

While wine is no longer a recommended medication, one finds that saline solutions are also recommended in the Talmud in their most natural form–tears. The Talmud, in Shabbat 152a, notes that beneficial tears are those brought on by laughter. If one can’t laugh that hard, the sages also noted that tears brought on by plants (such as onions) or medicines may also be beneficial.

While the eye medicines of the Talmud are not specified, Baba Metzia 85b demonstrates that the ancient medicines were no more pleasant than today’s eye drops or ointments:

“When Rebbi contracted an eye disease, Samuel [his physician] wanted to inject a certain medicine into his eyes. But Rebbi objected, ‘I cannot bear it.’ ‘Then I will apply an ointment to it,’ Shmuel suggested. But Rebbi said, ‘I cannot bear that either.’ So Samuel poured some medication into a tube and placed it under his pillow. Thereupon he was healed [by the vapors].”

The sages, however, were all for prevention: “Rabbi Muna said in Rabbi Judah’s name: A drop of cold water in the morning and bathing the hands and feet [in hot water] in the evening is better than all the eye-salves in the world” (Shabbat 108b).

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