Alternative Medicine in Halacha: a Review


By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla’s new Sefer entitled, “Alternative Medicine in Halacha” [Israel Bookshop 198 pages English 398 pages Hebrew 596 total] is divided into two sections – the main part of the Sefer and the in-depth biurim in Hebrew in the back of the work. In the biurim, it is truly groundbreaking in terms of its exhaustive treatment of the aveiros of the occult: specifically, kishuf, doresh el hameisim, nichush and kosaim. It also deals with following the ways of the gentiles (Darchei Amori) and of the Mitzvah of Tamim Tehiyeh. In discussing these aveiros, the author takes us through every opinion of the rishonim.

In the body of the English text the Sefer is near exhaustive in its discussion of alternative forms of healing. In terms of the scholarship – it is quite clear that we are dealing with an extraordinary Talmid Chochom.

The Sefer also has numerous haskamos from leading figures who back up the Torah erudition of the author. There are two underlying ideas that permeate the work. The first is that the multiple modalities of alternative medicines do not in their core violate the aveiros of the occult. The second underlying idea is that these alternative forms of medicine are, in fact, effective. It is this author’s opinion, however, that the author makes a number of fundamental errors in coming to this conclusion, and that this thesis can seriously compromise the physical health of the Torah-observant community with the publication of this Sefer.

And while the author states that it is not his goal to encourage people to discount conventional medicine – the reality is that advocating the efficacy of modalities of treatment that have statistically been proven ineffective actually does the very thing that Rabbi Szmerla claims that he is not doing: His book will perforce encourage people to discount conventional medicine in favor of the forms of medicine that he claims work. One must always keep in mind that Hashem is the ultimate Rofeh Cholim – but one must also utilize and implement the proper Hishtadlus that Hashem put into the world.


Specifically, it can and does cause family members of those who suffer illness to a] squander much needed and valuable resources on ineffective treatments b] not pursue effective and proven forms of treatment c] cause unnecessary damage to those who are ill. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the moneys spent on pursuing most of these alternative treatments would be far better spent on supporting Torah learning. Rabbi Szmerla ignores the overwhelming medical evidence that these treatments have proven ineffective.


It is clear that Rabbi Szmerla is a scholar of great knowledge and depth, which is perhaps why great Rabbis provided him with approbations. However, a careful reading of a number of the approbations clearly indicate that they do not necessarily agree with his conclusions.


It is this author’s view that this second and central thesis of the sefer is dangerous and can seriously undermine the health of many members of Klal Yisroel. People may pick up the sefer, and peruse the haskamos. They may erroneously assume that the information contained in the sefer is correct. If they discontinue their regular course of treatment, which many will do, this can be extremely problematic.

In this reviewer’s view, the thesis flies in the face of basic mathematics. The proper use and understanding of statistics is essential in determining whether a modality of treatment should be used or not. It is the correct hishtadlus – al pi derecho hateva. That is, in fact, what modern medicine is based upon. This sefer, notwithstanding the deep Torah erudition of its author, has the potential to throw us back to the days when families of cancer victims squandered their parents’ life’s savings on the likes of such cures as “shark cartilage.”


The vast majority of people that advocate the efficacy of most of the alternative medicines found in the sefer – are not at all proficient in the use of advanced statistical analysis. Because of this flaw, they are unable to differentiate between what constitutes a valid study and an invalid one.

One example of this lies in those who advocate against vaccinations. They claim that they have studied the statistics behind both sides of the vast literature regarding vaccinations. However, when put to the challenge those who argue against vaccinations are fundamentally unable to answer basic questions in simple statistics. Arguing with someone in statistics who has no background in statistics is akin to arguing about translations of sentences in Hebrew with someone who does not understand a word of it.


When an error is made in metzius – and we are sure of the error, we do not adhere to that person’s view – no matter how great the individual is. This concept was told to this author by the greatest of Gedolei haPoskim in America as well as in Eretz Yisroel (Rav Dovid Feinstein Shlita, Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita, and Rav Elyashiv zt”l). Thus, when the Aruch haShulchan had a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of electricity – the view of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and other Gedolei HaPoskim won out. Yet the greatness of the Aruch haShulchan and his vast depth and erudition in dalet chelkei shulchan aruch are there for everyone to see.


Rabbi Szmerla dismisses the view of Rav Dovid Morgenstern Shlita, Rav Elyashiv zt”l and Rav Nissim Karelitz Shlita regarding the definition if what would constitute a refuah bedukah – a tested and certain cure. He writes that Chazal only required a cure having worked three times – as manifest in the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling on Kamiyas. Rav Morgenstern writes that it must be a statistically valid cure and cites these other authorities (See Sefer Piskei Din Vol. X p. 535). Rav Elyashiv zatzal has numerous times praised Rav Morgenstern Shlita as fluent in Kol haTorah Kulah, and the dismissal of his views and quotes of Rishonim by Rabbi Szmerla is unwarranted. But let us now examine the various forms of treatments the Rabbi advocates.


In regard to energy medicine, Rabbi Szmerla ignores the six most recent studies showing that there is absolutely no efficacy to such healing – disproving Richard Gerber’s earlier assertions. Rabbi Szmerla attempts to associate the Gemorah’s discussion of B’boah d’boah with the concept of aura. The association is far from proven. Boah is described by rishonim as a shadow. True, Rav Chaim Vital disagrees with this association, but that does not mean that it means aura. Rabbi Szmerla thus rejects the views of the Rishonim, asher mipihem anu chaim, and adopts a kabbbalistic view which he assumes is synonymous with aura. This is far from conclusive. The fact that the overwhelming scientific evidence has demonstrated that there is a lack of efficacy to this type of healing is also proof that the Boah d’Boah is not, in fact, aura. [See, as just one example, the Medical Journal Pain (91 pp 79-89) Abbot, NC; Harkness, EF; Stevinson, C; Marshall, FP; Conn, DA; Ernst, E (2001). “Spiritual healing as a therapy for chronic pain: a randomized, clinical trial.” There are numerous others.]
As far as Rabbi Szmerla’s identification of qi or chi with an adaptive definition of nefesh – this identification is clearly not the authorial intent of Rashi in Vayikra 17:11.


Therapeutic touch healing is a pseudo-science which believes that by placing their hands on, or near, a patient, practitioners are able to detect and manipulate what they say is the patient’s energy field. Study after study has shown that this is completely ineffective (See for example, JAMA (279:13 pp 1005-1010)Rosa, Linda; Rosa, E; Sarner, L; Barrett, S (1998-04-01). “A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch.” PMID 9533499. doi:10.1001/jama.279.13.1005.) – including one demonstration by a nine-year old girl that practitioners of it are either charlatans or are fooling themselves. Indeed, the American Cancer Society has remarked, “Available scientific evidence does not support any claims that TT can cure cancer or other diseases.”
Rabbi Szmerla’s impressive halachic arguments that it does not constitute kishuf is irrelevant. It doesn’t work beyond the placebo effect.


This reviewer agrees with Rabbi Szmerla that acupuncture is, for many types of maladies, indeed, effective. However, the theories behind acupuncture – the notion of restoring energy meridians has been summarily rejected by those with a thorough and grounded understanding of the underlying science behind it. Winston Churchill’s life was extended by his regular intake of aspirin – even though the science behind it was not yet understood.


It is this reviewer’s contention that Rabbi Szmerla fails to differentiate between the current state of Kinesiology and the notion of Applied Kinesiology which he mentions on page 81. A.K. is a technique wherein the ability to diagnose illness by practitioners or to choose the required effective treatment. Practitioners claim to do so by testing muscles for strength and weakness. However, once again the vast majority of statistically valid surveys have proven beyond a sliver of a doubt that there is no validity to this method in diagnosing illness. One who is untrained in statistics will not be able to differentiate between a valid study and an invalid one and there are plenty of both. The American Cancer Society has also gone out of its way to state that the scientific evidence does not support the claim that applied kinesiology can diagnose or treat cancer or other illness.


Rabbi Szmerla explains that dowsing is the ability to uncover information through the use of an L shaped rod or a pendulum. He claims that dowsing is not pseudo-science by virtue of the fact that a number of respectable Rabbonim have concluded, through their experience, that dowsing is authentic. The conclusion of the scientific community is that it is no more effective than random chance guessing (see Water Witching U.S.A. (2nd ed.), Vogt, Evon Z.; Ray Hyman (1979), Chicago: Chicago University Press. ISBN 978-0-226-86297-2. via Hines, Terence (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Second ed.). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 420).


Here too, the author seems to be claiming efficacy of a discredited form of therapy. And while it is true that it may be incorrect to forbid the practice of these therapies on account of darchei amori – it may be forbidden on account of wasting time and money. The statistical studies are conclusive in the idea that they do not work (See, as just one example, Bioethics (26:9 pp 508-512) Smith K (2012). “Homeopathy is Unscientific and Unethical.” doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2011.01956.x.)


The modern day crystal therapy is compared by the Rabbi to the Even Tekumah discussed in the Gemorah in Sanhedrin (68a). However, not all Rishonim agree with this definition of Even tejumah and it is far from clear that it refers to the same type of stone. Let us also keep in mind that the Baalei haTosfos in Moed Koton 11a (d”h Kavra) write that Nishtaneh hateva and that the medical cures in Chazal may not be effective nowadays. Other Poskim who rule in this manner are cited in the authoritative Nishmas Avrohom 1:4 note 14. See also Rav Akiva Eiger, Yoreh Deah 336:1 (d”h Nitna) that one should not even attempt to use the remedies in the Gemorah due to the fact that we cannot properly identify the various samim discussed nor do we know exactly how to administer the remedies. See also Yam Shel Shlomo Chullin (8:12) that even the effective cures should not be done so that am haartzim not develop kefirah.


The author finds some aspects of Feng Shui as being in violation of the prohibition of Darchei Emori – following the ways of the gentiles. He comes to the conclusion that this form of alternative medicine is forbidden based upon the inability to determine which aspects of it achieve true energy harmonization and which ones stem from superstitious beliefs. This reviewer believes that it the former are completely ineffective and have been proven invalid statistically.


The author’s conclusions on both the effectiveness and the halachic validity of hypnotherapy are both perfectly valid. The effectiveness of hypnotherapy is accepted in the medical and scientific communities. There are issues of undergoing hypno-therapy when issues of gender and Tznius are involved. The author does not mention this and recent events have shown some serious breaches in this regard.


Rabbi Szmerla’s conclusions on Yoga’s effectiveness are not out of the ordinary, and do fall in line with the accepted scientific understanding of it. Halachically, he points to some problems with some aspects of Yoga meditation techniques. He does not mention another halachic problem and that is the use of the mantra perforce has one clearing his mind of all thoughts. This does not fall in line with Mitzvah of always having in mind the shaish zechiros. Anochi Hashem – belief in Hashem; Lo Yih’yeh – there shall be no other gods; Yichud Hashem – belief in the absolute Oneness of Hashem; Ahavas Hashem – loving Hashem; Yiras Hashem – fear of Hashem (or as the Nesivos Shalom understands it – fear of losing one’s kesher with Hashem; and Lo Sasuru – do not stray, following apikorsus and taavah.


The author concludes that Shamanic healing is strictly forbidden.


As stated throughout this review – the halachic views of the Rabbi Szmerla constitute amazing depth and profundity in the Hebrew biurim section. The medical views espoused in the main body of the book are, in this reviewer’s opinion and in the opinion of a number of mathematically trained doctors and scientists, quite dangerous. Traditionally, our abilities in calculating the ibbur and other such areas of Torah thought have been described by the rishonim as “ki hi chachmaschem uvinaschem b’ainai ha’amim.” The rejection of statistics in how medicine is applied is a dangerous trend.

The author can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Many have basically come to the same conclusion, albeit not for the same reasons. The authors conclusions re: not being a form of avoda zorah is questioned by many.

    Re: the veterinarian procedures on cows that render them treif, (hence cholov stam milk is treif) Rav Eliyashev, Z”L Told Yehuda Shain that Rabbi Belsky’s heter is not based on correct facts re: the procedures. Rav Eliyashev, Z”L said therefore one may not rely on Rav Besky’s heterim on cholov stam milk.

  2. Why did the author of this article not do a statistical survey of ALL of the evidence from the various scientists? Why did this author only find statistics that backed his conclusion?

    Statistics only measure what the statisticians wants to be measured, scientifically. Science is clearly a religion in and of itself, so why is a Western measurement the one and only measuring stick for a set of Eastern philosophies?

    Rav Hoffman, acupuncture is only effective BECAUSE of energy healing. No acupuncturist would know where to place pins if it wasn’t for a deeper understanding of how a person’s energy flow works. So just because it works, does that mean that it’s okay all of the sudden?

    In “The Coming Revolution” there are lots of things that science is only recently coming to understand that they CAN measure! I don’t know anyone that questions the efficacy of homeopathy. Rav Hoffman, you found ONE article. Why does rov minyan y’binyan all of the homeopaths not outweigh one article from one clearly Western-medicine-bent practitioner?

  3. Rabbi Szmerla is actually a well-know anti-Vaxer. Does he talk about Vaccinations in his Sefer?
    It’s not only a problem of understanding statistics, there are many people who are very gullible and/or desperate for a cure, whose conditions affects their reasoning abilities.
    I’ve always wondered how many fools go to these practicioners of quackery. Now they’ll have many more customers.

  4. Once again Rabbi Hoffman has waded into area of medical science with a biased, predetermined, viewpoint and is thereby misleading the public with disinformation that he has absorbed from main stream medical industry propaganda.First Let us quote Mark Twain. “There are three kinds of lies – Lies, Darn Lies,and Statistics.” The insulting and derogatory claim that only people with advanced training in statistics, are capable of making medical treatment decisions is simply beyond the pale of the entire concept of informed consent. Rabbi Hoffman seems to be oblivious to the shortcomings of statistics and in particular retrospective epidemiological studies particularly in relation to safety and efficacy of vaccination.Rabbi Hoffman also seems to be uniformed of the various instances where scientific studies have been deliberately twisted and falsified by corrupt scientists,in both government and industry due to greed and profit motive. We now know thanks to whistle blowing government scientist William Thompson that the CDC has been lying about the safety of the MMR vaccine for over a decade and that they deliberately hid evidence of MMR vaccine causing Autism. We now know that Merck has been lying about the efficacy of the Mumps Portion of MMR thanks to two whistle blowing virologists who had worked on the vaccine. Perhaps all the families in our own community who are suffering with Autism, ADHD, Depression,Cancer,Auto Immune Disease, and so on, are just statistics to Rabbi Hoffman. However as Robert Kennedy JR. demonstrated at his news conference several months ago, there are hundreds of studies in PUB MED that show these conditions are being caused by vaccines. The pedestal on which Rabbi Hoffman has placed “science”, does not take into account the way “science” can be corrupted by commercial interests. It becomes even more insidious when those commercial interests utilize the power of government to further their interests.

  5. Rav Hoffman, I want to congratulate you on an excellently written and well researched commentary. And you are quite correct – despite Rav Szmerla being a great talmid chacham, it doesn’t excuse his being a proponent of alternative practices that have been debunked for years by the medical and scientific research communities. As to the above comment by “aymdock” – he states, ” I don’t know anyone that questions the efficacy of homeopathy”. I’ve never heard a more ridiculous statement in my entire life. I am a retired oral and maxillofacial surgeon. The fact is the OVERWHELMING majority of scientifically done medical studies (i.e. double blind ones, the only type acceptable in medical research, for the FDA, etc.) show that homeopathy is useless and no better than a placebo. Does it sometimes work? Of course it does – as do copper bracelets, sugar pills, etc. In the research I did for a Masters degree in facial pain disorders, I CURED 60% of the patients in the placebo control group with a TENS machine THAT WASN’T EVEN TURNED ON! So the fact that some have been “cured” by homeopathy proves nothing whatsoever about its actual efficacy. People have also been cured by voodoo and tribal dances. Would Rav Szmerla suggest we try those as well? Furthermore, there is no science whatsoever behind homeopathy. The concept that a substance which is so diluted in the “medicine” as to be virtually non-existent can actually cure someone because of the “massive” immune system response generated is ludicrous, and its only proponents are the homeopaths themselves.

    Rav Hoffman, I compliment your courage to write this scathing review of this sefer.

  6. Yudel, you michutzif. You are so brave to talk against Rav Belsky ZT”L now, after he is niftar? You will never come close to his toenails in gadlus and halacha. You are a moser who was partially responsible for having Rubashkin, a fellow Lubavitcher, thrown in prison. Have you no shame?

  7. Szmerla is a New Age quack, plain and simple. And, as Rabbi Hoffman points out, you have to read the haskama’s carefully.

    And BTW, homeopathic remedies are total nonsense, their active content is statistically non-existent.

  8. ” The Sefer also has numerous haskamos from leading figures who back up the Torah erudition of the author ”

    The Sefer also has numerous haskamos from the “leading figures” that have been withdrawn.

  9. I love Rabbi Hoffman’s Torah articles & I respect him as a major talmid chacham. But I don’t see how you can discredit homeopathy with 1 study when there are 200+ years worth of not just clinical evidence, but also clinical experience & successes. The irony also is that many prominent homeopaths today are also MDs; most opponents either don’t know much about homeopathy or rely on biased, pharmaceutical funded studies that will try to debunk homeopathy no matter what.

    Homeopathy actually has pretty solid research. It’s been found to be effective for ADHD, childhood diarrhea, fibromyalgia, and other conditions. On top of that, 5/6 meta-analyses have shown homeopathy to be effective (the 6th one, the Lancet Review, was later discovered to be invalid because they only counted studies with 150 or more participants, which is absurd considering that according to researchers, the minimum needed is 50). Although not every study on homeopathy is positive, there are a ton of valid ones to back it up =>

    Even in the medical world, it’s becoming more acceptable & used as well. Beth Israel Hospital in NYC uses homeopathy in an outpatient clinic & they have a homeopathy program in their nursing school. There are loads of integrative medicine clinics run by MD’s all over the US where homeopathy is used. Even myself, as a frum Orthodox holistic homeopathic practitioner, I work alongside medical doctors at a medical urgent care clinic near Passaic, NJ. I was brought in by the head director, a major medical doctor himself!

    And to say that it’s a waste of time & $ is not so pashut – virtually all of my clients came to see me as a last resort because they weren’t getting adequate care from the medical establishment. Baruch Hashem, many of them saw refu’ot and major progress in their overall mental, emotional, and physical health. The same goes for other homeopaths.

    There’s a reason why according to the World Health Organization, homeopathy is the 2nd most used system of medicine in the world (ahead of western and Chinese medicine) & the fastest growing. As well as the fact that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a big supporter & user of it (PS: he was also a huge gaon in metaphysics) as well as other tzadikkim.

  10. Many years ago an arguement broke out in a kollel about the alternative medicine.

    the Rosh Kollel was asked his opinion and he stated that while alternative medicine MIGHT help there is NO money invested in making real investigations just people making claims but in conventional medicine the governments spend millions of dollars in research and investigation before allowing the medicine to be used.

    He said better to stick with conventional medicines that are proven than to try ‘claimed’ cures that are NOT backed up with any impartial research.

  11. “Hashem said to Moses, “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.
    Moshe made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.”Numbers 21:5–9

    So would the author of the above article perhaps say that this phenomenon of the copper snake is not statistically viable?
    Maybe this copper snake in Torah is the beginning also of the concept of homeopathy. Isn’t it also the patient’s faith that Hashem will bring a cure a factor in healing? Yes, and that also could be plotted by statisticians who don’t usually plot “faith” on the horizontal axis, but do know how to plot “placebo”.
    Or maybe it is the stick that Moshe threw into the bitter waters to sweeten them.

    For it is Hashem Who heals through His agents and it is Hashem Who disables, no one else.
    Even with faith, one must seek medical assistance, as open miracles are rarely done, and hidden miracles are done through medicine. Live and do not be a statistic.
    A refuach shelema to cholim Isroael.

  12. Polite note to amydock, who wrote: “I don’t know anyone that questions the efficacy of homeopathy.”:
    Maybe it’s time for you to broaden your circle of friends and acquaintances.

  13. For some reason Rabbi Hoffman seems to have an agenda against alternative medicine and almost sounds like a paid shill for conventional medicine. One thing he overlooks is that one of the reasons people turn to alternative treatments is because of the many failures of conventional medicine. Another thing he overlooks is that alternative therapies may work not because of the therapy itself but because the patient has avoided the toxic effects of a conventional therapy and has given the body a chance to heal on its own. When you add the bodies own ability to heal, with the placebo effect you may get an even stronger synergistic effect. To suggest that a book is dangerous and may lead people to indulge in unsafe and ineffective treatments is ludicrous. Do you honestly have such a low opinion of the intellectual capacity of the people in our community? Our community like others, is facing an epidemic of psychological,psychiatric,addiction, and Neuro-developmental problems. Just open up any weekly Jewish newspaper and you will see the huge amount of advertising for all kinds of therapy for these problems. Perhaps we need to step back and think about what might be behind this mess and what might be a better solution than simply filling a prescription for Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Lithium, or sending an addict to expensive treatment centers that do not seem to work very well. Maybe the alternative practitioners have a better more effective methodology.

  14. Beautiful and well written. Kol Hakovod to Rabbi Hoffman. Rabbi Szemerla makes a huge error by trying to tie Energy Healing and Aurah to the Gemata of Boah D’Boah. Such an approach is inadvertently mezalzel Torah and attempts to push faulty ideas of alternative medicine into the words of the gemara. This must be vehemently protested. Torah can not be made into a coloring book for one to stick his own preconceived ideas into.

  15. Thank You for giving this nice seffer some free advertisement . We all know Hoffman is pro pharma & anti nature, if only he would compare the vaccinated to vaccinated kids in any medical practice or community he would wake up.

  16. abara, I have heard before this claim that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a huge proponent of homeopathy. But is there any evidence pointing to this, or is it all hearsay. I havent seen in any of his letters or responses to people anything in favor of homeopathy.

    Where do you get this notion from?

  17. Whilst R Hoffman pays lip-service to the author’s exceptional status as a scholar (already attested to in approbations by Rabbonim who know him personally), and accepts that the sefer is a groundbreaking study of the halachic approach to the problems of the occult, he appears to miss the connection to the central premise of the sefer is that energy healing is not occult by halachic definition.

    Instead, he asserts that the only criterion that may be applied to medicine is that of statistical evidence, and dismisses the author’s halachically-based ruling that modern scientific statistics play no part in the halachic status of a modality. This claim is indeed ground-breaking in its own right.

    The first to make this claim was a R. Dovid Morgenstern of Jerusalem. After issuing a carefully-worded statement that received the approbation of Rav Eliyashiv z”l, a statement that avoids making this radical assertion, he then issued a second, personal letter radically divergent from central views held by Rav Eliyashiv himself (in other written works, and orally to respected Rabbonim). Hoffman refers to this letter in his review. The claim that Rav Eliyashiv and Rav N. Karelitz accepted Morgenstern’s opinion is patently false. This claim has never been made by any posek, ever, and carries no halachic weight whatsoever.

    The rest of Hoffman’s review – a rebuttal of each and every modality mentioned in the sefer – reads like a page from the Skeptic Quackwatch or Quackcast – which indeed it is, and should be treated with the respect due to those sources.

  18. “dismisses the author’s halachically-based ruling that modern scientific
    statistics play no part in the halachic status of a modality.”

    Whether we consider it to be valid? This sounds highly illogical.
    The Alter of Slabodka used to say that the first mitzvah in the
    Torah is not to be a fool.

  19. ydklein, it’s from the book, the Homeopathic Revolution. Here’s the excerpt:

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), referred to by his followers as The Rebbe, was a prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbi who was the seventh and last rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Chabad Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism. Living to a ripe old age, The Rebbe was a great appreciator of homeopathy and used it throughout the latter part of his life. – ‘

    Also, my local shaliach (Rabbi Mordechai Shain) also told me that the Rebbe was a major user and supporter of homeopathy.