Traditional medicine is deeply ingrained in culture. It is based on the cumulative knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation, born from the experience of humans recovering from illness, from the desire to escape death and from social attitudes about sickness, the role of the patient and the role of the health provider.
In every society, our attitude about illness stems from our personal experience and from our beliefs, our social standards, and social knowledge – all which vary from place to place and change over time.
Health and disease can be defined biologically, but they are also defined culturally by every society. Culturally, we link them to values, norms and social attitudes related to pain and our bodies. The way we discuss sickness and cure are linked to a deeper belief system and to our personal and social traditions.
Traditional healers diagnose illness with the assumption that it is one of the following:
A spiritual punishment – the illness is cast on the patient by G-d, the gods, spirits, ancestors or fate. The patient has become ill because they broke religious laws or behaved badly.
A social punishment – magic, curses, the evil eye. Outside the Western world, illness is a major social sanction. Knowing that someone can harm someone else’s health provides social control on all sides; some must avoid behaving in ways that would lead others to wish them ill, while others take extreme care not to use this power casually.
An event related to the natural world – the weather, exposure to the elements, injuries by wild animals, birds or insects. In this assumption, humans are seen as part of nature.
Traditional medicine is holistic and treatment is applied to all physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the patient including his relationships with others, with G-d and with nature. Traditional medicine is not part of the official medical world. Unlike doctors, traditional healers work alone and do not belong to organizations. Most learned their trade through careful observation and mentoring with a more experienced healer.
In the old world, traditional medicine was accepted and valued because of its easy accessibility and its strong bond to local culture. Israel’s immigrants brought with them the traditions that they knew, including the medical treatments that were accepted in their home countries.