The First Two Jews Who Attended a German Medical School—in Exchange for Teaching Hebrew

February 21, 2024 | Edward Reichman
About the author:

In an upcoming episode of the Mosaic podcast, Yehudah Halper will discuss the medical works of Moses Maimonides, which continued to be studied by Jewish scholars in the centuries after his death. Later generations of Jews added their own contributions to the Jewish medical corpus, of which the most influential was likely a book titled Ma’aseh Tuviah by Tuviah Cohen, also known as Tuviah the Healer (1652–1729). Edward Reichman recently uncovered some documents related to Tuviah and his close friend and fellow physician Gabriel Felix. In his mind, the documents cast a very interesting light on the beginning of these two Polish Jews’ medical educations:

Tuviah and Gabriel were the very first Jewish students allowed to attend a medical school in Germany, the University of Frankfurt an der Oder. This was only possible through the intercession of Friedrich Wilhelm, the “great elector” of Brandenburg and duke of Prussia, who ruled from 1640 to 1688. Part of the arrangement in exchange for Tuviah and Gabriel’s matriculation, as explicitly stated by the duke, was for them to provide instruction in Hebrew language and grammar to the German university students. Tuviah and Gabriel happened to be particularly proficient in this area. Another transparent intent was for these young impressionable Jews to become “enlightened” and ultimately convert to Christianity.

Tuviah’s medical application took the form of a poem he wrote for the duke. . . . The choice of Hebrew as the language of the sonnet betrays the duke’s linguistic interests in Tuviah’s matriculation.

Unfortunately, the social experiment was a resounding failure. Not only did the young Jewish students soon transfer to the University of Padua; it would also be some years till another Jewish medical student set foot on campus.

Read more on Seforim: