Cures for the Common Cold from Maimonides to the Shtetl
The arrival of cold season is loudly heralded by advertisements for flu shots and the sounds of sniffles on buses and trains. Colds are inescapable and still, year after year, armed with folk medicine and fierceness, we resolve to cure the incurable. Thankfully, Jewish tradition, from Maimonides to the shtetl, offers us some guidance for using food to cure the common cold.
In the category of folk medicine falls the “guggle-muggle,” a milk and alcohol based drink, or the “Jewish echinacea.” Adored by such contemporary Jewish heavyweights as Barbra Streisand and Ed Koch, this beverage is consumed by the larger Eastern European world, but is most distinctly associated with Yiddish culture.
The exact recipe for the guggle muggle varies, but generally consists of egg yolk, sugar, milk and alcohol. This drink (also spelled gogl-mogl, gogol-mogol, gogel-mogel, kogel mogel, gurgle-murgle, and uggle-muggle) is particularly “effective” for the sore throat and cough that accompany a cold. Its origins are a bit murky, but the remedy may have its roots in the “Shulkan Orech”, or code of Jewish law, written in 16th century Spain by Rabbi Yosef Caro. It specifies that a drink of this type may be consumed on the Sabbath for it’s medicinal qualities, without violating the Sabbath laws (Chapter 92:1).
Herbal remedies to treat a cold also exist in Jewish traditions. The website zeigezunt.com, which is devoted to providing a Jewish perspective on health, explains, “Bubbe had a remedy for regular colds as well. Eating garlic cloves or onion was just the ticket when a sore throat signaled the beginning of a cold.”
Bubbe’s remedy has biblical roots as well, garlic is considered a multi-purpose plant in the Bible and Talmud. “We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt freely: the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic,” Jews longed in the desert, according to the book of Numbers. In ancient Egypt garlic was thought to help with general vitality and it was fed to workers to keep them strong. Indeed, the Mishnah (in referencing the Romans’ name for the Jews) refers to Jews as “garlic eaters” and in the Baba Kamma (82a) five things were said of garlic: “It satisfies hunger, keeps the body warm, makes the face bright, increases a person’s potency, and kills parasites in the bowels”.
For the more adventurous, who wish to use a non-food approach to treat a cold, there is the “bankes” or cupping method, which in ancient times was accompanied by blood-letting (but not the kind using leaches). Though it is an undeniably Jewish practice, it is also Chinese, Vietnamese, Balkan, Persian and beyond. Perhaps it’s ubiquitous nature the world over speaks to its perceived effectiveness.
The process of cupping involves placing a heated bell-shaped glass on the chest of someone suffering from a cold. In the shtetl, this cup was supposed to pull phlegm from the chest, relieving pain and pressure. But cupping in association with blood-letting goes back much further and is mentioned in the Talmud (Git. 70a ) and much later in the writings of Maimonides (Yad, De’ot 4:18) as a practice which should be used in moderation to maintain general health and a balanced constitution. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, cupping and blood-letting techniques are also described in later Hebrew literature.
Finally, there is “Jewish penicillin” or chicken soup. The purported effectiveness of chicken soup is most heavily described in the medical writings of Maimonides in his book, “On the Causes of Symptoms,” written in the 12th century, and by Jewish grandmothers the world round. Dr. Fred Rosner, a renowned doctor, who has also written extensively about Maimonides’ medical texts, explains that “boiled chicken soup neutralizes the body constitution” and that “chicken soup can help cure an upper respiratory infection.” Maimonides gets detailed, stating that fresh coriander or green fennel can be added to the soup in the wintertime, and, in writing of the type of chicken to be used to make soup he states: “one should not use the too large…neither the too lean.” Chicken soup as a cold remedy has thus been practiced by Jews for centuries. In Gil “Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” he describes the Sephardic custom of preparing caldo de gayina viejo (old hen chicken broth) for anyone ill.
Having tried all of these remedies during a recent bout with a cold, I can testify to their placebo affect (which is significant in its own right) and nothing more. In the end, most likely, one must simply suffer while the cold runs its course because truly, all of these methods, as the old Yiddish phrase says, “Es vet helfen vi a toiten bahnkes! (Will help like blood-cupping on a dead body!”)
1 cup milk
1 raw egg yolk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon brandy
1) Heat milk until it is warmed, not scorched.
2) Quickly whisk egg, sugar and brandy into milk until it becomes foamy.
3) Gulp for cold relief.