Can Jewish Texts About Past Plagues Help Us Navigate Covid-19?

Dear Jew in the City-

Is there anything in Jewish texts from past plagues that could help us navigate the coronavirus?



Dear Jamie-

The Torah tells us (Exodus 21:19) that if one person injures another, the offender is responsible to pay the doctor’s bill to heal him. The Talmud (Brachos 60) points out from here that we are supposed to utilize medical assistance rather than relying on prayer and faith alone.

However, consider the case of King Asa. Though he was a righteous king, we see that he is criticized because, when he fell ill, he put his trust in doctors alone, to the exclusion of God (II Chronicles 16).

The point is clear: we need both things. We need Emunah (faith) but we also need hishtadlus (human effort). Accordingly, if we want to end a plague, we need to do our part. Some of our efforts may be spiritual in nature but Judaism doesn’t believe in “thoughts and prayers” to the exclusion of action.

There was a plague in parshas Korach (Numbers 17), sparked by the rebellious nature of our ancestors in the wilderness. The Torah tells us that Moshe’s brother Aharon “put on the incense and atoned for the people; he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (verses 12-13).

Similarly, there was a plague in II Samuel 24, which stopped when it reached the threshing floor of a man named Aravna the Jebusite. From this, David knew that the threshing floor of Aravna was the site where the Temple was meant to be built.

It’s obvious from these examples that spiritual things have the power to halt plagues but here’s the wake-up call: you’re not Aharon and I’m not David. We need physical methods in addition to the spiritual.

Rabbi Daniel Glatstein recently gave a brief shiur on Rebbe Akiva Eiger’s directions to his followers during the 1830 cholera epidemic. Not surprisingly, Rabbi Eiger’s advice included some spiritual components, such as to recite Psalms 91 (Yosheiv b’seiser) and 142 (A maskil of David), as well as parshas haketores, the section describing the incense service in the Temple. (Parshas haketores can be found in many siddurim as part of the preliminary morning service. The reason for its recitation in such an instance is because of the demonstrated power of the Temple incense to ward off plagues.)

But equally important, Rabbi Eiger advised his followers in more temporal matters as well. He advised them not to gather together, prohibiting more than 15 people in shul at a time. He advised that people stay warm, eat well and keep their homes clean of any filth. He told them to get sunlight and to change into clean clothes regularly.

There’s one crucial piece of advice that others might have overlooked: he told them not to worry. This should not be discounted, as a person’s state of mind can potentially make him more susceptible to illness.

I think this is a good model for us to follow. Absolutely accept a mitzvah upon yourself. Recite Tehillim. Pay extra attention when reciting asher yatzar, which is a prayer that acknowledges the role that God plays in keeping us healthy. Use your extra time at home to listen to some Torah classes online.

But don’t be misled into thinking that these things magically make you immune. God has told us in the Torah that we’re also to utilize doctors and we’re held responsible for recklessly endangering ourselves and others. Therefore, follow local rules for social distancing. Wash your hands appropriately. Stay home and stop the spread.

And, to paraphrase Rebbe Akiva Eiger, don’t freak out. We’re all anxious. We’re all stressed. Panic, however, won’t do anybody any good.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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