Monday, April 25, 2022

The Oath of Maimonides

 Thy eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children. 

 May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain. 

 Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements. Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. 

Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.

The above is a standard version of what is usually known as the Oath of Maimonides. In the traditional oath ceremonies for medical degrees, it is one of the occasional alternatives to the Hippocratic Oath in its traditional or modern form; it seems to be somewhat more common for pharmacists than the physicians. 

The Oath is an abbreviated form of a longer work, known as "The Daily Prayer of a Physician", which historically has been attributed to Maimonides. In reality, while those acquainted with Maimonides' actual medical and ethical works seem to agree that it is entirely consistent with the views of Maimonides, it seems quite certain that he is not actually the author. Most people attribute it to Markus Herz (1747-1803), and I've told students that, myself. Herz was a student of Immanuel Kant, and later a regular correspondent with him, and a friend of Moses Mendelssohn. 

However, Fred Rosner in 1967 went through the evidence ["The Physician's Prayer Attributed to Moses Maimonides", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 41, No. 5 (September-October 1967), pp. 440-454] and shows that Herz is probably not the author either. As Rosen lays it out, the first version of it shows up in German in 1783, with no indication of an author, and the title, "Daily prayer of a physician before he visits his patients: From the Hebrew manuscript of a renowned Jewish physician in Egypt from the twelfth century".  The first Hebrew version shows up in 1790; this version attributes it to Markus Herz, and says that Herz requested its translation into Hebrew. Very probably what happened was that Herz sent the 1783 version to the Hebrew periodical requesting a translation of it, and the editor took this to imply that Herz had written it. It's still possible that Herz might be the author of the 1783 German version; he almost certainly did not translate it from a Hebrew source (as seen in the fact that, first, he asked that the German version be translated into Hebrew, and, second, that he asked someone else to do the translation for him). It might have been a bit of romantic literary fiction, along the lines of some of Hamann's works; the full "Daily Prayer" touches (briefly) on a number of philosophical issues of the day, like intellectual progress. But it's also possible that Herz did not write any version of it at all, and merely passed it along because he thought it worthy of wider dissemination. 

In any case, the Oath of Maimonides derived from it has had a significant influence on medical ethics, and one can sometimes see in later codes and pledges clear evidence of its influence, particularly in its emphasis on the importance of continuing always to improve one's knowledge.