From Be’er mayim ḥayim, by Yisakhar Ber Teller (New York: Tal Or Oth Publishers, 1988; facsimile edition). Portrait of the author; the Hebrew inscription reads: “Ber rofe’ ben 43 shanim” (Ber the Physician, 43 years old). (YIVO)

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Teller, Yisakhar Ber

(d. 1687), physician and surgeon. The inscription on Yisakhar Ber Teller’s tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague gives his father’s name as Leib Berouns (derived from the Bohemian town of Beroun), although the introduction to his work refers to his father more formally as Yehudah. The name Teller, undoubtedly acquired from the emblem of the Barber-Surgeons Guild—a plate—does not appear on his tombstone but is in the epitaph of his son, Yehudah Leib Teller, who followed him in both the medical profession and the service of the Prague burial society.

As university education under the Habsburg monarchy was inaccessible to Jewish students until the end of the eighteenth century, Teller received specialized medical training by studying and practicing with other physicians in the Jewish Town of Prague. He completed his studies under the guidance of Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo, who spent the last 10 years of his life in Prague.

Using his medical experience and theoretical knowledge, before 1655 Teller wrote the text Be’er mayim ḥayim, a complete copy of which has been preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. This small work, written in Yiddish, contains simple and clear instructions for home treatment and for preparing cheap and safe medicines that could be used by all, including the poor, for whom professional treatment was difficult to get. The undated edition of Teller’s work includes Delmedigo’s Hebrew translation of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, a classic resource of medieval medical literature. The Oxford copy is also of interest—and unique for its time in the Ashkenazic Diaspora—for containing a portrait of Teller, who is depicted as a solemn man in period costume and, in an attached explanation, is said to be 43 years old. A facsimile of the work was published on the basis of the extant copy by Yehoshu‘a O. Leibowitz in 1968 and, with an English translation, by Arthur Teller in 1988.

Yisakhar Ber and his son Yehudah Leib Teller were highly esteemed members of the seventeenth-century Prague Jewish community. Their adjoining tombstones in the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery are decorated with relief sculptures with symbols representing their names and the medical profession—the figures of a bear and lion holding a lancet.

Suggested Reading

Otto Muneles, Ketovot mi-bet-ha-‘almin ha-yehudi ha-‘atik bi-Prag (Jerusalem, 1988); Moritz Steinschneider, Catalogus librorum hebraeorum in Bibliotheca Bodleiana, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1931); Issachar Baer Teller, The Wellspring of Living Waters: A Medical Self-Help Book, trans. and ed. Arthur Teller (New York, 1987/88).



Translated from Czech by Stephen Hattersley