My Body is a Temple Four-Story House: Analogical Diagram from Tobias Cohen’s Ma’aseh Tuviyah (1708)

This woodcut diagram, from Tobias Cohen’s Ma’aseh Tuviyah (1708), places the human body and house into analogy. Every organ in the man’s open torso is lettered; each letter matches with a room or architectural feature. The heart of the home can be found where “the master” resides: behind latticed windows, which are the lungs, on the top floor. The kitchen is the stomach, the site of early modern chemical processes that sound gastronomical, such as effervescence and fermentation. Toward the home’s egress, the digestive tract ends with plumbing — storage tanks and waterworks.

Born in Metz, Tobias Cohen (1652–1729) was the son of a rabbi-physician who fled from Narol, Poland, during the mass atrocities of the Khmelnytsky Uprising. He studied medicine in Frankfurt an der Oder, as one of the first Jewish students admitted to the university, before transferring to a more welcoming preparatory school in Padua. Here Cohen fell under the influence and protection of Solomon Conegliano, whom he would later call “prince among philosophers and mighty among physicians”. After completing his degree in 1683, Cohen served as a physician to several sultans of the Ottoman Empire, in both Adrianople and Constantinople, retiring to Jerusalem in 1715. Scholars believe that Cohen completed Ma’aseh Tuviyah in 1700, but it was not published until 1708 in Venice, where it underwent additional print runs throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In David B. Ruderman’s estimation, Tobias Cohen’s encyclopedic work of medicine, theology, and other fields of knowledge is “the most influential early modern Hebrew textbook of the sciences”.

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Explaining the diagram’s analogy does not quite reveal its function, which continues to generate debate. Some think that it served a mnemonic purpose, allowing students of medicine to place the organs in “memory rooms” — the kind famously detailed by Frances A. Yates. Others, such as Conrad H. Roth, find a common trope present here and in works stretching from John Donne and William Harvey back to Ecclesiastes and Vitruvius — of the body, not as a temple, but a structure of domestic life. Yet the good doctor Tobias Cohen seems to have had more cosmological intentions with his chart, which appears in a chapter titled “A New House”. Unlike medieval physicians, who often viewed the body as a microcosm of the universe, or classical scholars such as Plato, who structured the soul like a polis, Cohen proposes an alternative: man is a house in a walled city.

It is enough that he [man] be as one of the towers or houses among the dwellings of a walled city, as bars and gates, as I have shown you the pattern of the house and the pattern of its instruments, as the House of the Soul, for he has lower, second and a third stories, and an attic and roof above, and walls round about, and corners of the house.

Despite Cohen’s fluent knowledge of Latin and several other languages that would have helped his treatise reach a larger audience in Europe, he wrote in Hebrew, which, in David Ruderman’s words, encouraged “his coreligionists to believe that they still remained full-fledged participants in the exciting scientific culture emerging through the Continent.” Even in Hebrew, the author’s rich style made the work inaccessible to anyone who did not seriously engage in the academic study of medicine, shielding it from quacks and “the masses”.

During his preface, Cohen describes anti-semitism in bodily terms, responding to the gentiles “who vex us, raising their voices without restraint, speaking haughtily with arrogance and scorn, telling us that we have no mouth to respond, nor a forehead to raise our heads in matters of faith, and that our knowledge and ancient intelligence have been lost.” In this context, Etienne Lepicard draws our attention to how Cohen’s vision of the body offers a place of fortified refuge — as “one of the towers or houses among the dwellings of a walled city” — perhaps inspired by the supportive Jewish community he found in Padua after the discrimination of Frankfurt an der Oder.

For more on the Hebrew in Cohen’s diagram, you can browse Conrad H. Roth’s blog post, featuring a translation by Simon Holloway.

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