Saturday, 16 December 2017


Semecarpus Anacardium

Much of our Torah literature remained in an oral form during the early parts of our history. It was only around the year 180 CE that the Oral tradition was finally committed to writing. (For a fascinating perspective of sources placing the final writing of the Oral Tradition centuries later, see KOTZK BLOG 84).

During the time of the Oral Tradition, much of the vast body of literature we have today was contained not in books or libraries but in minds and memories.  And even in modern times, notwithstanding the labyrinth of published books on a scale never before seen in Jewish history, a scholar would still need a great memory to retain all this information.

In a brilliant piece of research, R. Eliezer Brodt has looked into a medicinal drug or herb called Baladhur, which may have had some role to play as a possible memory enhancer.[1]  I have drawn heavily from R. Brodt’s research and have additionally added some other insights as well.


To be clear, the Sages were known to have used many different memory techniques or mnemonics which did not involve the ingestion of any substances. Accordingly, there are many instances where the Talmud uses seemingly unrelated expressions to connect ideas. This is a common form of memory retention through association. Some of these were known as ‘asmachtas’ and ‘simanim’.

We must also not forget that great scholars do retain vast amounts of knowledge due to their natural and inherent scholarship.

Sometimes, the consumption of particular foods was recommended to help with memory retention, such as wheat, olive oil, spices and wine. These were thought to ‘warm the brain by counterbalancing its cold and moist nature[2]’.

On occasion, certain practices and actions were Halachicaly discouraged as they were said to be ‘bad for the memory’.
A chant or segulah for acquiring wisdom from Raziel haMalach.
Some resorted to mystical incantations and chanting which allegedly aided the memory. Even the rational Rambam tolerated such means as he felt that perhaps at some stage in the future scholars might find a rational explanation as to their effectiveness.

But then, some sought more tangible, direct and effective means for retaining memory:


Ibn Yachya al-Baladhuri, a Muslim historian during the 800’s, was known to have possessed a brilliant memory which he used to compile his many works. He used a memory-enhancing herb, Baladhur (hence his name al-Baladhuri). However, he died as a consequence of its usage in 892.

According to Professor Gerrit Bos, Galen (130-210 CE), the most accomplished of the Greek medical researchers of antiquity also died as a result of Baladhur.


The medicinal drug Baladhur was also known as a ‘marking nut’ because it was used to write the names of the owners of garments before they were sent to be washed - so as to ensure that they would not be lost. The mark made by the ‘nut’ was like indelible ink which could not be washed off.

Baladhur is a sap drawn from the nut of the Indian plant Semecarpus Anacardium.


Baladhur is also sometimes known as Chultit[3], which is frequently mentioned in the Mishna and Talmud. According to Shmuel, a bird which eats Chultit is a treifa because it is so powerful that it can puncture the bird’s throat.[4]

The Talmud Yerushalmi[5] mentions R. Yehuda who ate Chultit whilst standing in cold water so as not to get burned. R. Yehuda said that if one eats it on an empty stomach one will start to ‘burn and the skin will start to peel’.


According to R. Emmanuel Loew, Baladhur was already known by King Solomon.[6]

The Zohar Chadash shows how Baladhur (or Balad) was ingested to help scholars understand Torah.[7]

The philosopher and physician, R. Moshe Narboni (d. 1365?) advocated the use of Baladhur. So did R. Meir Ibn Aldabi (the 1300’s), who was the grandson of the Rosh.


There is an interesting story about R. David da Silva (who was the son of R. Chiykiya da Silva, known as the Pri Chadash - a commentary to Yoreh Deah - of whom it is also said that the author used Baladhur to help his memory).[8]

R. David da Silva writes[9] that he had come across a statement of the rabbis: ‘’Chazor, chazor ve’al titztarech leBaladhur” (Revise, revise so that you won’t need to take Baladhur)[10]. He became curious and started taking quite a lot of Baladhur

When his mother found out, she sought the advice of her father, R. Refael Malchi - who happened to be a medical doctor. He vehemently protested the actions of his grandson and told him that he would literally lose his mind, particularly if Baladhur was eaten in a ‘wet state’. He said that the only safe way to take Baladhur was to feed it to a bird first and then to eat the bird.

According to R. Yehudah Aryeh Modena (1571-1648), Baladhur is very dangerous. He writes that he knew people who used it but that they lost their minds as a result.

R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) warns against using Baladhur as according to him one is more likely to lose ones memory than to enhance it.[11]

Other side-effects appear to be severe itching, hallucination and ‘demonic whispers’.


Most interesting is the great Kabbalist R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the foremost student of the Ari Zal, who actually provides a recipe for Baladhur![12] He writes that this was prescribed to some children, on a daily basis, to help with ‘petichat halev’ (‘opening of the heart’ and memory retention).

The Shulchan Gavoah mentions a certain scholar in Salonika who was famous for his good memory which apparently was a result of him eating Baladhur.


R. Avraham Kalifon who knew the Chida (1724-1806) on a personal level, mentions that the Chida ate Baladhur as a child. Some say he ingested it ‘unintentionally’.  According to another source, R. Yom Tov Algazi’s mother prepared some Baladhur for the Chida to eat.

Either way, the middle finger of his left hand became paralysed.[13]

The Chida was a well-known bibliophile, prolific writer and known to have possessed an unusual memory for great detail. It is said that as a youngster he heard a lecture by R. Avraham Yitzchak, which he, years later, recalled verbatim and published it in his book Shem haGedolim.


To quote from an anonymous view cited in R. Eliezer Brodt’s article “Actually, there is a (unconfirmed) shmu'a that R. Ovadya partook of the Jewish mythological memory-booster known as Balzar. It is mentioned in different sources as being very dangerous, but granted one survives, it leaves the one who ingested it with a superlative memory.”


Many people would be surprised to discover the existence of a ‘memory drug’ used quite frequently, as we have seen, by some rabbis.

While the safety of this medicinal drug has been hotly contested by rabbinical sources themselves, it does seem that there is evidence that some users were negatively affected by it or worse.

One must also remember that, for the most part, the rabbis were inherently great scholars. 

It has been said, for example, that the Rogatchover had an unbelievable memory. Some retort, however, that memory had little to do with his great scholarship. He simply studied the entire Talmud so frequently that he automatically knew it without having to fall back onto his memory, let alone need to rely on memory enhancers.

Nevertheless, an interesting question would be whether this ‘memory enhancer’ should be considered by the Torah world to be akin to modern doping in sports, or whether it is simply like taking vitamin supplements?

[1] See: In Search of Memory: Towards an Understanding of Baladhur, by R. Eliezer Brodt.
[3] The Rosh says Chultit is Baladhur.  But others identify it as Asa Foetida (see R. Shmuel Yosef Finn, haOtzar 2:93).
[4] Chullin 58b. The Gemara concludes that there is a difference whether the branch - or the extracted liquid is consumed.
[5] T.Y. Shabbat.
[6] See Die Flora Der Juden, vol 2. p 203.
[7] Zohar Chadash, Margolis Edition, p 8b.    
[8] See; Pri Chadash, Yoreh Deah 68.
[9] In his Pri Megadim.
[10] For more details see abovementioned article By R, Eliezer Brodt.
[11] See: Migdal Oz p. 50.
[12] See Refuah Maasiot L Rav Chaim Vital, By Zohar Amar and Yael Buchman, p 262..
[13] See: Sefer haChida p. 185.

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