Asaph expanding upon Hippocrates' aphorism "life is short…"

About 2400 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates grappled with information overload and the complexity of the physician’s profession.  The first aphorism in Hippocrates’ book of aphorisms declares:

Life is short, and Art {of medical practice} long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult.  The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.

Asaph’s Book of Medicines, a Hebrew text probably from sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, expands upon that Hippocratic aphorism:

the lifespan of a man is too short to investigate all the experiences of the branches of medicine.  All the physicians relying only on their experience will not achieve a high medical skill because as the times change, so do the diseases.  However, one can safely rely on the sources of wisdom.  Most of the people interested in knowledge and study will be able to reach their goal only with God’s help.  In olden times, people would reach the age of nine hundred years, then eight hundred, seven hundred, or six hundred years.  Then, the life expectancy of man decreased.  Therefore, the ancient sages had more time to try to reach knowledge and understanding.  More recent sages lived less and therefore reached less understanding, and made fewer attempts at reaching it, as they did not live so long as the ancient sages did.  Thus, they could not master all the fields of medicine, as wisdom is remote from man and it has to be brought unto him from a great distance. [1]

Asaph places Hippocrates’ aphorism in history and in reason.[2]  The reference to long lifespans in olden times implicitly references Biblical writings.  These patterns of Jewish thinking distinguish it clearly from Greek thinking.

Asaph’s reference to “sources of wisdom…remote from man” is more unusual.  Proverbs refers to God creating wisdom before the beginning of the world.  But Proverbs also describes wisdom addressing her children and crying out at the town gates.[3]  Wisdom brought to the physician “from a great distance” seems to refer to ancient writings.  Asaph seems to be grouping textually both the Book of Proverbs and a book of Greek medical wisdom.[4]  That’s another aspect of Asaph’s effort to encompass within Jewish life Greek medical knowledge.

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[1] Trans. Muntner & Rosner (1971) pp. 188-9 (para. 158). Asaph’s Book of Medicine includes paraphrases of most of Hippocrates’ aphorisms.  See id. pp. 189-230.

[2] In an early fourteenth-century Hebrew treatise on medical astrology, David ben Yom Tov wrote:

However, since — as Hippocrates said — life is too short and every one of these arts is too long, so that one cannot reach perfection and completeness in even one of them, but only <some of> its many parts, no one lives long enough to master all of the subdisciplines <of medicine and astrology>, let alone that one would live long enough to master both arts completely.  For the hearts have grown smaller and those of the latter generations are like a very fine needle.  It is therefore impossible that anyone can be found to master both arts, and if such a person would be found, it would be an uncommonly wondrous thing.

Trans. from Hebrew in ben Yom Tov et al (2005) p. 84.  Ben Yom Tov, like Asaph, historically contextualizes Hippocrates’ aphorism.  But ben Yom Tov does so with an unusual reference to the size of the heart.

[3] Proverbs 8:22-31 (wisdom set up before the beginning of the earth); Proverbs 8:32 (wisdom addressing children); Proverbs 8:3 (wisdom crying out at the town’s gates).

[4] At the beginning of its paraphrases of Hippocrates aphorisms, Asaph’s book states:

This is a book of commentary on the Book of Medicine.  In the Book of Medicine, the Greek physicians discussed and investigated how to cure, recognize and understand the properties of the drugs, and how to understand the symptoms of the diseases, disorders and pains.  They also investigated the problem of how to distinguish between the dead and the living.  Their aim was to make diagnoses and prognoses with the help of the Lord who teaches Man useful knowledge.

Trans. Muntner & Rosner (1971) p. 188 (para. 156).  This explicit reference to an ancient book seems to be the relevant context for wisdom “from a great distance” / “remote from man.”  In Jewish life, the wisdom set out in Proverbs would have permeated everyday life.  But Proverbs, like the Greek medical book, was recognized to be an ancient text.


Ben Yom Tov, David, Gerrit Bos, Charles Burnett, and Y. Tzvi Langermann. 2005. Hebrew medical astrology: David Ben Yom Tov, Kelal qaṭan : original Hebrew text, medieval Latin translation, modern English translation. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Muntner, Sussman, and Fred Rosner, trans. & ed. 1971.  The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician: Commentary (vol. 1) and translated text (vol. 2).  Document 06-501-N-L, Prepared under the Special Foreign Currency Program of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and U.S. National Institutes of Health, Public Heath Service, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294.

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