There has been much talk in the local and international media lately about the despicable behavior of religious Jews towards Christian sites and Christian clergy in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Much of this has been vandalism of property, such as "price tag" attacks in which racist anti-Christian slogans are spray-painted in Hebrew on the facades of churches. In October, dozens of tombstones in the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery were smashed. The most infuriating behavior, however, is the routine practice of spitting at Christian clergy as they walk through the streets. While this does not seem to be a totally new practice (Chabad has been spitting during the Aleinu prayer for generations), it has certainly taken off in Jerusalem in the last few years. The phenomenon also extends beyond Christians. In 2011, the spitting by a Haredi man at a seven-year old Jewish girl in Bet Shemesh made national headlines. Unfortunately, Israelis seem much less troubled by the spitting at Christians. Christian clergy get spit at all over the Old City, but the epicenter of this behavior seems to be Mount Zion, which contains several important Christian sites (Dormition Abbey, the Cenacle, Protestant Cemetery). It is also the site of the Diaspora Yeshiva which in recent year has attracted fundamentalist "hilltop youths" evicted from the West Bank by the Israeli police. It is presumed that the latter are responsible for the upswing in spitting incidents as well as many of the price-tag attacks.
All this spitting has got me thinking about the role that saliva plays in Judaism and Christianity. It's pretty obvious that today's Jewish acts of spitting directed at Christians are meant as an insult. Expectoration, like the violent discharge of other bodily fluids, is not usually regarded as an act of love. Yet there are many examples of good spitting in the ancient sources of both religions. Saliva was (and still is) believed to bring about healing, good fortune and to banish evil. Is there a connection between these two kinds of spitting?
Saliva was widely regarded in the ancient world as a medicine for a variety of afflictions, from blindness to epilepsy to various skin disorders.* Galen, the second century physician and surgeon from Pergamon, writes in his treatise On the Natural Faculties:
Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman polymath, writes in his Natural History:
*see the excellent article on this subject by G. Chowdharay-Best, "Notes on the Healing Properties of Saliva," Folklore 86:3/4 (1975), 195-200
There are three occurrences of Jesus healing by means of saliva in the gospels. In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida by spreading saliva on his eyes. In Mark 7:31-37, Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment by placing his fingers in the man's ears, spitting on his hand and touching the man's tongue. In John 9:1-12, he heals a blind man by spitting on the ground, forming a muddy paste in his hands and spreading the mixture on the man's eyes. After washing in the Pool of Siloam (pictured here), the man is miraculously healed:
The Babylonian Talmud also contains several references to saliva (רוק) as medicine. In Baba Batra 126b there is a discussion about how one can tell if a boy is the firstborn son of his father and not his mother. The answer? According to his spit:
Few modern people today use saliva as a medicine, although it should be noted that recently science has demonstrated that saliva does in fact contain wound-healing proteins called histatins. Many modern people, however, do believe that spitting will bring about good luck, or at least ward off bad luck. Baseball players have elaborate spitting rituals before they step into the batting box. Throughout the world, but especially in the Mediterranean Basin, people spit into the air three times to chase away the evil eye or the devil. This is the origin, for instance, of the phrase "tfu, tfu, tfu" that many Jews recite after announcing a piece of good news. Even Pliny talks about people in his day doing this, particularly boxers would spit in their glove to ensure that their punches would be strong. Perhaps this is the connection between good and bad spitting. Fundamentally, saliva is and was regarded as something undesirable, and the act of spitting seen as something vulgar. This is what provides its power to exorcise both demons and disease.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.