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Jewish Penicillin

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There is an unusual statement in the Talmud (Berachot 44b) about the therapeutic value of particular foods: “Six things provide a permanent cure for illness: cabbage, beets, an extract of sisin, the stomach of an animal, the womb of an animal and the large lobe of the liver of an animal.”

This seems to be a rather limited list of therapeutic foods, especially when today we know about the phenomenal healing powers of the many vitamins and minerals that are found in foods. Blueberries have antioxidants, carrots are packed with beta-carotene and so on.

But perhaps the most surprising therapeutic food missing from the list is chicken soup. After all, isn’t chicken soup regarded as “Jewish penicillin”?

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam), who was both a leading 12th century Torah scholar and a renowned physician, mentioned in several of his treatises on health that chicken soup has the therapeutic virtue of balancing humors. He also recommended chicken soup to convalescents. Modern scientific studies have shown that chicken soup’s curative power is not a legend — people really do feel better after a bowl or two.

Chicken soup’s place in Jewish life, however, is rooted in Shabbat. Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetls of Europe were often impoverished, and a chicken (or part of a chicken) boiled together with vegetables or noodles and made into soup was a special delight that could be shared with the entire family. While chicken soup does not enjoy the same status in Sephardic culture as it does in Ashkenazic homes, Sephardic cuisine also has many delicious chicken soup recipes.

Regardless of how effective chicken soup is as a cure, or exactly when chicken soup became “Jewish,” it is now a traditional food that links us to our mothers, our “bubbies” (grandmothers) and the generations of Jewish mothers who came before them, sweetly whispering “Ess, ess myn kind!” (Eat, eat my child!).

This Treat was originally published on February 2, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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