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For centuries, Jews have been battling epidemics like coronavirus

Decades after the Jews were expelled from Spain, a Jewish traveler worked his way through the medieval Jewish cemetery of Toledo, copying epitaphs from the gravestones there. One of them belonged to Joseph ben Meir Abulafia, a newlywed who, along with his wife, was among tens of millions of people — in Europe, as much as one third of the population — felled by the most lethal pandemic in recorded history. The marker has since been uprooted, but the beautiful, bleak words survive to memorialize Abulafia, who perished from the Black Death in 1349: “Suddenly, in the prime of my life/ Young and tender in years,/ Evil, unending illnesses snatched me away.”

In those desperate days, even if Jews escaped the bubonic plague, they often met with another brutal fate. Early in the outbreak, accusations circulated that they were poisoning wells to cause the plague. Thousands were tortured, burnt or beaten to death in pogroms that swept through what is present-day Spain, Germany, France and Switzerland. The wave of violence exterminated more than 200 Jewish communities, large and small. Seven centuries later, evidence of the murders is still coming to light: in 2007, archaeologists in the Catalan town of Tárrega uncovered the mass graves of 244 Jews killed by their neighbors in 1348.

The Black Death is arguably the most infamous epidemic in history, but by the Middle Ages, Jews had already been encountering, surviving and documenting epidemics for millennia. Beginning with the earliest Jewish texts, epidemic is a recurring theme of the Jewish experience. In so many ways, we’ve been here before.

Tortures During the Black Plague

Chronicle of Horrors: A depiction of the tortures visited upon Jews during the Black Plague. Image by WIkimedia Commons

We recount some of these accounts annually. In the Passover story of the Book of Exodus, written between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, Jews shelter in place while the tenth plague sweeps through the land, leaving “no house where there was not someone dead.” Jews must take precautions to survive, hiding from the mashkhit, “the Destroyer” who mows down people and cattle in Egypt. The guidance is clear: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning…and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter your home.”

“The idea is to protect the domestic space and stay inside,” says Jesse DeGrado, a professor of the ancient Middle East at Brandeis University. “It’s probably not rooted in an actual epidemic, but it represents the broader idea of illness infecting houses via malevolent spirits.”

There are, however, plenty of indications in the Bible that the ancients witnessed plagues. In 701 BCE, the Assyrian King Sennacherib, on a campaign to reassert control over his vassal kings, laid siege to Jerusalem. His army, known for its ferocity, inexplicably stopped short of conquering the city. II Kings casts the end of the attack in terms of an epidemic, saying, “an angel of the Lord went out and struck one hundred eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and the following morning they were all dead corpses.”

1918 flu epidemic

Confronting Horror: Nurses treat patients during the 1918 flu epidemic. Image by Getty Images

It’s hard to know what we can reliably claim about the historicity of any one biblical narrative. But imagine for a moment Sennacherib’s troops arrayed beneath the walls of Jerusalem in a military camp — a sea of men, chariots, horses and camels. How different would it be from Camp Funston, the U.S. Army training camp in Kansas that was the site of one of the earliest outbreaks on American soil of the virulent 1918 flu, or the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, aboard which more than 1,000 sailors were infected with the coronavirus this March?

Military deployment also leads to epidemic in II Samuel, when King David dispatches an army force to conduct a census. Upon the unit’s return after nine months in the field, the angel of the Lord inflicts “a pestilence upon Israel…and 70,000 people died.”

By the 6th or 5th centuries BCE, Jews were also already thinking about the transmission of disease, though “their ideas about contagion are less about hygiene and more about cooties, things that are icky — specifically skin diseases,” says Professor DeGrado.

The biblical mitigation strategy was a proto-quarantine: In the absence of therapeutic options, the Israelites’ best line of defense was isolating the ill—at times outside the camp. Leviticus prescribes, “He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” It also appears as though afflicted people are required to veil their mouths: “He shall cover over his upper lip and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”

Can we now better empathize with the Israelites’ anxiety as they tried to manage what they believed were contagious diseases?

“It’s so interesting and unknowable what the ancient mind understood and assumed about the transmission of disease,” says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “But clearly it was particularly terrifying because they didn’t know. The deep truth of the Torah is that everything has changed since the time of the Torah but human nature. So that when confronted with new challenges, our emotional and spiritual reactions are the same.”

Jews weren’t the first on record to intuit the relationship between community and communicability — not by a long shot. The plague records of their Mesopotamian neighbors some 500 miles to the northwest in modern-day Syria pre-date biblical texts by a thousand years. Among the cuneiform clay tablets found there in the ancient city of Mari is a letter written by a diplomat to King Zimri-Lim: “The god has stricken the Upper District with a plague, so I passed through quickly. My lord should command that the inhabitants of infected cities refrain from entering uninfected.”

The Mari tablets were written in Akkadian, the linguistic precursor to Aramaic. Hebrew speakers will hear a long-ago Semitic echo in the Akkadian word for epidemic — ukulti elim, literally, “devoured by the gods.” In another letter, Zimri-Lim writes to his wife, Queen Shibtu, regarding a woman in the palace who is ill but refuses to restrict herself to her quarters. He instructs: “Give strict orders: nobody may drink from her cup, sit on her chair, or sleep on her bed.”

“People in ancient Israel and Judah had direct contact with people from Mesopotamia, even before the (Babylonian) exile,” DeGrado says. Eons before the advent of germ theory, the Jews of antiquity, like Zimri-Lim, intuited that touching objects could spread contagion, and their priests instructed them to wash or burn clothes thought to have been infected.

Just as priests were the public health officials of ancient Israel, many rabbinic sages in the period of the Talmud were also physicians — a phenomenon that would continue throughout the Middle Ages. And though the Talmud, like the Bible, views epidemics as divine punishment for wrongdoing and promotes the use of amulets, fasting and prayer as remedies, the rabbis were also exposed to Greek medical thought and had an understanding of hygiene and preventative health that was ahead of its time.

The Talmud is fastidious regarding hand washing, warning that “anyone who treats the ritual of washing hands with contempt is uprooted from the world.” The sages also encouraged the washing of food and utensils, and fretted about disease carried by flies, coins, the wind or the home of an infected person — a set of concerns many of us share today.

Perhaps because preservation of life supersedes almost all other Jewish obligations, the rabbis of late antiquity debated medical issues often and with characteristic specificity, including the right course of action to take during an epidemic. The Mishna, for example, defines an epidemic in military terms, as when three out of 500 infantrymen die over three days — a mortality rate of 0.6 percent. Anticipating today’s main countermeasure against coronavirus, the Talmud teaches “If there’s an epidemic in the city, keep your feet inside.”

By the Medieval Period, another question had arisen: Are Jews permitted to flee their city in an epidemic? The rabbis counseled that early escape is permitted, but not when an outbreak of illness is full-blown. But were Jews preparing their escape from the plague or the bloodshed that accompanied it? In Christian Europe, it would have been hard to know where to go: the pestpogrom, the German term for plague massacre, was as widespread as the epidemic. For Jews in those countries, the Black Death was doubly perilous and its horrors are seared into Jewish memory.

But Jews living under the crescent had a radically different experience of the plague from those living under the cross, according to Professor Nükhet Varlık, a historian of the Ottoman Empire at Rutgers University. “I’ve never come across any mention or any evidence that shows that there was communal persecution or communal violence against Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire related to plague,” she says. “There were intercommunal conflicts and problems, but you don’t see people being burnt at the stake. There’s no such open violence.”

Catalan Synagogue

Out of the Past: The Catalan Synagogue in Salonica. Image by Wikimedia Commons

In fact, Varlik has documented a process of accommodation and compromise between 16th century Jewish weavers who wanted to leave Salonica (modern-day Thessaloniki) during bouts of plague and Ottoman officials who demanded they supply wool to clothe their soldiers. A middle ground was reached through negotiations: the Jews were allowed to move their looms to the countryside, keeping themselves safe and the Janissaries outfitted. The barbaric response to plague in Western Europe was not the rule, Varlick says. “It’s horrible, it happened, but let’s not accept it as universal truth.”

Attacks against Jews in Europe would abate in a few years, but Jewish communities and the world would be contending with recurrences of the bubonic plague for the next 500 years. Historians, bioarchaeologists and epidemiologists have recently determined that the Black Death was only the first of a series of outbreaks of plague that resurfaced every ten to fifteen years.

“Plague historians don’t about talk about the Black Death as a two-year event that killed between 30 and 50 percent of the European population, although that is true,” says Andrew Berns, a history professor at the University of South Carolina. “They talk about a ‘second plague pandemic,’ — this one bacterium, yersinia pestis, that recurred for hundreds of years. And so Jews knew that plague was part of life and there was no way to get rid of it. One could only contain it and resist it the best one could.”

“By the 15 and 1600’s, the plague is a familiar visitor already,” says Susan Einbinder, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut who researches the Jewish response to the trauma of the plague. “How do you get your head around a reality where this thing comes back and back and back every few years and you don’t know how many people are going to die?”

Jewish physicians wrote plague tractates that attempted to explain the causes, symptoms and remedies of the disease, as well as narrative accounts. In 1631, after managing the response of Padua’s Jewish ghetto to an outbreak, physician Abraham Catalano wrote “Olam Hafukh” (“A World Upside Down”), an eyewitness chronicle that describes efforts to prepare for an indefinite closure of the ghetto: ordering extra flour for matzah, setting up a clinic, hiring people to transport food to the ill and tallying the dead. “These kind of nitty gritty details…you see them in the news daily now,” says Einbinder. By the end of the plague, 60% of Padua’s ghetto was dead, including Catalano’s wife and daughter. The scope of the tragedy was cataclysmic, but Einbinder finds hope in the resilience of the cohesive early modern Jewish community even as it dealt with a crisis that it only partially understood.

“What I saw was that the traditional language and traditional forms of thinking about the world, the traditional framework, was capacious enough to hold them. That it didn’t break. And that was very moving to me,” she says.

Joshua Teplitsky, who teaches Jewish history at Stony Brook University, says that because plagues frequently struck more than once a generation in the premodern world, Jews “were somehow equipped for the reality, not necessarily materially equipped, but in some way psychologically equipped for it being a fact of life. It was part of their intellectual repertoire.”

Jews also contributed to the development of public health systems. Scholars tell of Jacob of Padua, chief physician of the port city of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnic) in the mid-14th century. Perched on the seam between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, Jacob, like many Jewish doctors of his time, was likely steeped in the medical theories of the Greek, Arab and Christian worlds as well as biblical and Talmudic literature. After the first spasm of the Black Death, he established a site to house the sick beyond the city walls, and in 1377 the city passed a law stipulating a 30-day isolation period for travelers that in time was boosted to 40 days—in Italian, “quaranta giorni” — the quarantine.

Painting by Christoffel Lubienietzky

In the Desert: The number 40 takes on significance in the Bible where, for example, the Jewish people spent 40 yeas in the desert as depicted in this work by Christoffel Lubienietzky. Image by Wikimedia Commons

But why 40? The number may have been inspired by the Gospel’s account of the temptation of Jesus during 40 solitary days and nights in the Judean Desert, but the source may also have been the Bible, in which 40 is the most mentioned number after seven. Moses spends 40 solo days and nights on Mount Sinai; the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years; 40 days and nights of rainfall precede Noah’s flood; Goliath taunts the Israelites for 40 days; spies spend 40 days scouting Canaan.

“I think most Bible scholars will tell you that 40 means a long time,” says Rabbi Wolpe, “that it’s a sort of representative number.” But what else might it represent? One trope is clear: the 40-day or year ordeals are periods of personal and communal worry, adversity and danger—of life in extremis. Despite that, they are also times of growth, and at least in the biblical telling, lead to survival, revelation and nation-building.

The rabbis of the Talmud noticed the number 40, of course; they say it is the age at which we attain wisdom. Forty seah of water are needed in a mikveh for purification. Kabbalists associate the 40 years in the wilderness with the 40 weeks of pregnancy, another liminal and perilous time. Afterwards comes deliverance, the return to community and the resumption of life.

“Noah has to shelter in place because the world around him is too deadly and he has to prepare for a world that’s going to be radically unlike the world he left,” says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of Rabbinics of American Jewish University. “But there’s a kind of faithfulness to knowing that you can enter into the ark and that you will go out again one day.”

Jews have come face to face with epidemics before and some of our old responses are still responses now. That’s the past informing the present, but while we contend with COVID-19, we can also, for once, deploy the present to imagine the past. We can empathize with our ancestors, share their dread and their grief, and we can draw fortitude from the fact that they saw things go very wrong until the world righted itself again.

Deborah Camiel is a news and documentary producer in Los Angeles.


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