In the late middle ages and early modern period, a very popular remedy for illness was human flesh, or at least medicine derived from human flesh. “Medicinal cannibalism” was practiced throughout Europe and parts of the Middle East. Some of this human flesh came from mummies that were found in places such as Egypt, while others were from artificially produced mummies, i.e. human flesh and body parts which were treated in order to produce medicine. Because of the high demand, there was apparently a flourishing trade in stolen bodies and body parts which were then sold for medicine.
It is not surprising that this issue is discussed in rabbinic literature. R. David ibn Zimra (Radbaz) was asked about about both trading in mummy parts and using it for medicinal purposes. (Responsa of the Radbaz, vol. III, no. 548)
שאלת ממני אודיעך דעתי על מה סמכו העולם להתרפאות בבשר המת הנקרא מומ”יא ושלא במקום סכנה ובדרך הנאתו ולא עוד אלא שמסתחרין בו ונושאין ונותנין בו והוא מאיסורי הנאה דקייל”ן דבשר המת אסור בהנאה דכתיב ותמת שם מרים
“You asked me to tell you my opinion as to on what everyone relies in using the flesh of the dead that is called “mummy” as a remedy, even in a case where there is no danger and it isn’t ingested. Not only that, rather they also trade and do business in this, and this is a prohibited benefit, as we hold that it is prohibited to benefit from the flesh of the dead, as it’s written ‘And Miriam died there.'”
R. ibn Zimra argued that one is permitted to eat parts of a mummy and trade in them since the flesh has been treated with chemicals and has changed so much that it is not really “flesh” any more.
“איסור אכילה לא הוצרכת לשאול דודאי מותר באכילה שהרי נשתנה צורתו וחזר להיות עפר בעלמא וכ”ש ע”י סמים שהרי המומי”א היא בשר החנוטין שחונטין אותם בכמה מיני סמים כדי להעמיד צורתו וגופו וחזר להיות כעין זפת ואין בו איסור אכילה”
The prohibition of eat did not even have to be asked, since of course it is permitted to eat since it changed its form and has returned to be just dust. All the more so through chemicals, since the mummy is flesh of the embalmers who embalm them with different chemicals in order to preserve the form and body, and it has returned to be a kind of tar and there is no prohibition of eating it.
Questions about mummies were asked of a number of other halakhists, with R. Abraham B. Mordecai ha-Levi disagreeing with the Radbaz and prohibiting both the eating of and trading in mummies. (Responsa Ginat Veradim, YD vol. 1, no 4) In addition, this responsum has been used in modern discussions of organ transplantation (see Freehoff) and the question of cannibalism (see Bleich). Some have claimed that the Jews played a significant role in the mummy trade, and there is even a report of some Jews still eating flesh for medicinal purposes in the 19th century. (see Spoer).
J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. , pp. .
Solomon Freehoff, American Reform Responsa, no. 81, pp. 291-296.
Karl H. Dannenfeldt, “Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth Century Experience and Debate”, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 1985), pp. 163-180.
Karen Gordon-Grube, “Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism”, American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 90, no. 2 (June 1988), pp. 405-409.
A.M. Spoer, “‘Momia’, A Ceremony of the Jews of Aleppo”, Folklore, vol. 22, no. 4 (Dec. 1911), pp. 491-493.
H.J. Zimmels, Magicians, Theologians, and Doctors, pp. 126-128.