Shabbat Message: Learning from Jewish History

Posted on April 2, 2021 by Harold Levin

Jewish Communal Response to Health Crises Across the Ages

This time last year, Dr. Joseph Teplisky, an associate professor of History at Stony Brook University, wrote a piece entitled “Plague, Passover, and Perspectives on Social Distancing.” He began his article by discussing how Pope Francis altered Easter week and celebrations and the recommendations from the major Rabbinical organizations to reduce the potential spread of Covid-19 during Passover. This article launched, for me, an exploration of the role of Jewish community leaders in responding to health crises across the ages. As always when exploring Jewish history, there is much to learn.

In his article, Dr Treplisky draw parallels between Covid-19 and the plague which tore through Italy in 1630-1631. The impact on Jews in Italy was especially hard in the city of Padua. There is a Hebrew accounting of this period recorded by Abraham Catalano and entitled “Olam Hafukh” or “The World Overturned.”

Mr. Catalano was part of a four-man commission which oversaw the health and welfare of the Jewish community of Padua during this crisis. He detailed the Jewish community’s attempts to maintain normalcy and while adapting to their circumstances. When Adar arrived and Passover drew near, the commission delivered flour to the rabbi to prepare matzah for the community for the coming holiday. When it came to communal prayer, Catalano’s health board sought to spread people out from each other with the priority given to married men and heads of households, then unmarried men as auxiliary; and finally, to women whose presence in the synagogue was treated as dispensable. Early modern European Jews understood the necessity of social distancing even at moments when normative law and customary practice would have otherwise demanded solidarity and communality.

There have been many other examples of Jews dealing with pandemics and impacting how they observed Passover and other holidays and festivals.┬áThe memoirist Glikl of Hameln, who lived in northern Germany, wrote of her personal experience with social distancing in the 1660s. Her story does not sound terribly far-fetched or extraordinary considering where we are today. Glikl’s four-year-old daughter displayed symptoms of plague during the family’s visit to Hannover for the festival of Sukkot. Left with no choice but isolation, they sent their daughter, along with a trusted caretaker (an older man), to a village on the outskirts of town for the duration of the holiday. Glikl reported that when her husband traveled with a small cohort to deliver festival food to his quarantined daughter and her escort, the young girl was filled with joy and wanted to run to her father, as any child would. The father, too, wanted to rush to his daughter. But they held back. Both were wailing. While obviously a gut-wrenching experience, the family realized that their Jewish values directed them to do what was right to keep the pandemic from spreading, even if it impacted the festive holiday and separated a child from her parents.

Another example is in 1831 during the Cholera epidemic, Rabbi Akiva Eiger issued a stern ruling to the Jews of Poland mandating social distancing and that all gatherings consist of fifteen or fewer people. Eiger told the Jewish community to follow the directives of local law enforcement agencies. Among other things, he constantly reminded them to practice proper hygiene including the constant washing of their hands and faces.

Even earlier, the teachings of the Talmud may have led to the protection of Jews during the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Professor Martin Blaser, an expert in microbiology and medicine at Rutgers University, points out that the spring housecleaning associated with Passover may have helped reduce the plague’s impact on the Jewish community. He notes that by removing old grains from their households, rats steered clear, which likely reduced the level of contagions in Jewish households.

There are more examples of the Jewish community responding to health crises with cooperation and ingenuity. We’ll save some for another drash.

We find ourselves looking back on a long and challenging year. While hopes are rising that we may be able to return to a more familiar lifestyle, we still need to heed the advice of our contemporary medical experts and apply the lessons learned from Jewish communal leaders of the past. May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Harold Levin