Home » Elizabeth Paratz, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

Why Brit Milah is Good for you and Davening can be Dangerous

November 12, 2009 – 6:29 pm61 Comments
Image source: www.customminifig.co.uk

Image source: www.customminifig.co.uk

This article is the third in a series on the medical benefits (or otherwise) of Jewish food, culture, and religion. In this series, Liz Paratz peruses the medical literature for evidence-based answers to the big question: Being Jewish – is it good for the Jews? This week Liz investigates Jewish clothing and ritual. (You can find the other articles in this series here and here)

Circumcision (brit milah):

The big news on circumcision is that it’s no longer just a mere tribal mark and a bris is no longer just a social occasion. Rather, ‘the snip’ is the new HIV preventer. Dr Stephen Moses won the 2008/09 Top Canadian Achievement in Health Research Prize for his work ‘Male circumcision: a new approach to reducing HIV transmission’.

This trial (which was in no way sponsored by any mohels), where men were randomized into circumcised and uncircumcised groups, was meant to finish in September 2007 – at which point any disparities in HIV incidence would be analysed to see if they were significant. However, the trial was stopped in December 2006 – because the Data Safety and Monitoring Board declared that the results were so compelling (circumcision provided a 53% protective effect against HIV) that it would be unethical for the trial to continue. It was thus immediately cut short (please excuse the pun), and all the men in the uncircumcised group offered a bris. Ultimately, all three of the randomized trials conducted (in South Africa, Uganda and Kenya) were stopped early for this reason.

Male circumcision has since been recognized as a preventative HIV measure by the World Health Organisation and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, while the Government of Kenya has established a National Task Force on Male Circumcision. It sounds much more interesting to work at than most government departments.

It is now estimated that mass male circumcision in sub-Saharan Africa could prevent more than 7.7 million people from acquiring HIV, and 3 million from dying from AIDS over the next 20 years. The benefits of circumcision are not just limited to HIV, either – it apparently affords some protection against sexually transmitted, ulcerative, and urinary tract infections as well as penile cancer. Interestingly, though, it appears that the male has to be circumcised as a baby rather than receive an adult circumcision in order to receive the protection against penile cancer.

Of note, though, is the finding from a meta-analysis of 11, 050 men that men who engage in sex during the healing period of circumcision actually place themselves at an increased risk of exposure to infections.


You might think that, when you pray, it’s an out-of-body experience, your soul is all that matters, and your body is unimportant and unaffected. Well, that might also be what the 13 patients in ‘Davener’s dermatosis: a variant of friction hypermelanosis’ thought when they first presented with their strange and seemingly inexplicable skin markings. These patients all presented complaining of what the dermatologists characterized as ‘an elongated, vertical, midline, hyperpigmented patch with indistinct borders, which was distributed along the skin overlying the bony protuberances of the inferior thoracic and lumbar vertebrae’. Investigation revealed all the students were yeshiva students (and all were very thin), while the lesion turned out to be caused by friction from davening against the yeshiva’s rigid backrests. The dermatologists named this disease (a previously unknown form of benign friction hypomelanosis) ‘davener’s dermatosis’ in the students’ honour.

Yarmulkes and their bobby-pins:

It’s exquisitely obscure, but beware the bobby-pins on your kippah. In ‘Pseudo Alopecia Areata Caused by Skull-caps with Metal Pin Fasteners used by Orthodox Jews in Israel’, 37 patients who had developed patches of baldness on their scalp were analysed. The patches were found to correspond to the placement of their yarmulke’s bobby-pins….very House. The solution was not so intricate ; the patients were advised to use big Sephardic kippot without any bobby-pins.


It seems that if you are a frum male, the phone number of a good dermatologist is a must. First there was the bobby-pin-induced pseudo alopecia areata, now there’s tefillin contact dermatitis. A series of case studies has been reported in which the leather of the tefillin triggers a ‘unilateral allergic contact dermatitis of the left arm’. Researchers have hypothesised that ‘the physical trauma associated with the tight winding of the straps for up to 1 hr per day may have predisposed our patients to have become sensitized to the chrome in the leather straps.’

On the other hand, (this reference is thanks to Ariel) traditional Chinese medicine says that tefillin are truly beneficial. In ‘Tefillin : An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription For Mental Clarity’, the knots and wrappings are analysed and it is determined that, ‘regardless of the belief system behind the procedure, it seems clear that putting on tefillin is a unique way of stimulating a very precise set of acupuncture points that appears designed to clear the mind and harmonise the spirit.’

The authors analysed 4 different techniques of putting on tefillin (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chassidic and Sefard), and determined that tefillin stimulates 3 skull points (Shenting DU-24, Shangxing DU-23 and Fengfu DU-16) as well as many of the more than 50 acupuncture points of the arm. Unfortunately, the Ashkenazi technique is least stimulating – it stimulates 3 points fewer compared to the other techniques, which all contact the same number of points.

And, notably, the Sephardi technique wins out over all the others as the strongest stimulator of the Pericardium Channel, which calms the heart and steadies the mind.

Print Friendly