Although the recent outbreak of COVID-19 seems unlike anything we’ve seen before, plagues and epidemics are nothing new. And in fact it’s been a lot worse in the past. Let’s take a look at epidemics throughout history to put things in perspective and gain some insight into how Jews were affected and how leaders responded.

Aaron’s Incense Saved

In the book of Numbers, after Korach’s rebellion, a plague strikes the Jewish people and thousands begin to die. Moses tells Aaron to quickly take a firepan with incense (ketoret), go into the midst of the congregation and atone for their sin. Aaron stands “between the living and the dead” with the ketoret, and the plague is halted.1

How did Moses know that ketoret would avert the plague? The Talmud relates that when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels bestowed gifts on him. The gift that the Satan (who is, of course, an angel) gave was the secret of the power of the ketoret.

Ketoret Today

Although we unfortunately no longer have the Temple, the Kabbalists say that by reading the portion in the Torah that discusses the incense, it is as if one actually brought it. Thus, although many have the custom to recite this portion daily, one should take extra care to learn and recite it at the time of an epidemic.

It is said in the name of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, that in a time of an epidemic one should learn the following verses, together with the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi):2

  • Exodus 30:1–10 (which discusses the making of the golden altar)
  • Exodus 30:22–38 (which discusses the making of the anointing oil and the ketoret)
  • Numbers 16:31–17:15 (which discusses part of the rebellion, the subsequent epidemic, and how they were saved with the ketoret)

Additionally, one should read the above sections twice in Hebrew and once in Aramaic translation.

If one is able to, one should also learn these laws in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Temidin u-Musafin 3:1–11.

King David and 100 Blessings

The Midrash relates that during the reign of King David an epidemic broke out, claiming the lives of 100 people a day. Through Divine inspiration King David understood the cause of this epidemic, and instituted that everyone recite at least 100 blessings a day.3

The Talmud tells us that there is an allusion to this in Deuteronomy: “Now, Israel, what does the L‑rd, your G‑d, ask of you? . . . To walk in His ways . . . and to serve Him.”4 The Hebrew word for “what,” mah (מָה), is phonetically similar to the word me’ah (מֵאָה), which means “100.” In other words, the verse can be understood as saying: “Now, Israel, 100 does the L‑rd, your G‑d, ask of you"—100 blessings.5

For more on this requirement6 (and how it isn’t as difficult as it may seem), see How Many Blessings does a Jew Say Each Day?

In a letter to the people of Israel during a cholera outbreak in the year 1848, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, writes that although nowadays we are accustomed to reciting 100 blessings throughout the day, nevertheless during an epidemic one should be extra careful not only to recite the blessings, but to understand the meaning of the words.7

The Talmud: Avoid Infection

The Talmud gives us a number of ways in which the sages would avoid infection, which may seem obvious to us now but were fairly radical in the times of the Talmud:8

  • Rabbi Yochanan would announce: Be careful of the flies found on those afflicted with ra’atan (a type of infectious disease), as they are carriers of the disease.
  • Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra’atan.
  • Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan.
  • Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived.

Black Death and Handwashing

Perhaps the most devastating epidemic of history was the Black Death, the bubonic plague that decimated much of the world population during the 14th century. More specifically, between the years 1347–1351 it is estimated to have killed somewhere between 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia (30–60% of the population at that time).

What is perhaps less known is that Jews were blamed for the plague, resulting in massacres of Jewish communities throughout Europe. In all, it is estimated that over 500 Jewish communities were decimated.

Besides the general anti-Semitism in that period, historians explain that overall the Jews seemed less susceptible to the plague. This was due both to the fact that many Jews had to live in ghettos away from the general population, and to the Jewish laws that compelled Jews to ritually wash and bathe. In an age when washing and bathing were difficult and not done often, the Jews were markedly more hygienic than their non-Jewish neighbors and were thus less likely to contract the disease. However, many saw this as evidence that the Jews had caused the plague.9

Making the Most of Quarantine

In 1774, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 1724–1806) was traveling to raise money for the Holy Land, when he was quarantined for 40 days in the port city of Livorno, Italy. While in quarantine he compiled one of his most famous works, Shem ha-Gedolim (“Names of the Great Ones”), a bibliography of great Jewish scholars who preceded him, together with their works. It is due to this work that he is considered one of the fathers of Jewish bibliography.

For a list of works written in isolation, see 9 Jewish Works Written in Prison or Confinement.

Charity Saves From Death

In late 1827 an epidemic broke out in the city of Orsha (near the city of Lubavitch), in which three or four people were dying daily. Since Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch was out of town at the time, the inhabitants turned to his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, later known as the Tzemach Tzedek, for advice.

In addition to quoting a story in the Zohar about reading the portion of the ketoret during an epidemic, the Tzemach Tzedek suggested that, in light of the verse in Proverbs “And charity will save from death,”10 they should add in charity. However, he stressed that, as is explained in Tanya,11 it is preferable to give charity many times throughout the day (especially before prayer) in smaller denominations than just giving one large sum, even if it equals the same amount. Ideally, the total sum of each day should be a multiple of 18.12

Cholera 1831: Limit Crowds

During an outbreak of cholera in 1831, people turned to one of the leading rabbis of the generation, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, for advice regarding large gatherings. His many rulings helped stem the tide of the epidemic, and in fact he later received a commendation from the government for his help. In one of his rulings he writes that there should be a schedule of different prayer times, starting from the earliest time one is permitted to pray, and each minyan should be limited to 15 people. Each group should pray and add some chapters of Psalms, and then the next group should enter. He adds that they should turn to the police and get a guard to limit the crowd, if need be.13

Keeping Healthy

In the summer of 1848, Vilnius (commonly referred to as Vilna), Lithuania, was hard-hit by a cholera epidemic. As Yom Kippur approached, Rabbi Israel Lipkin (1810–1883), better known as Rav Yisrael Salanter, was concerned that fasting would weaken people and make them more vulnerable to the disease. He hung placards throughout Vilna urging all who felt weak to eat on the fast day, and, according to some accounts, publicly made kiddush and ate some cakes to encourage all those in need to follow suit.14

This, however, was not without controversy. One rabbi later wrote in response:

It is my obligation to make it known for all generations this great matter—that for three successive years, more than 12,000 men and women fasted [on Yom Kippur during the cholera epidemic] throughout our lands, and no ill befell any of them—and this was known to virtually the entire world at the time.15

It is extremely important to take care of our health and strengthen our bodies enough to withstand disease, but at the same time we should consult with a rabbi and medical professional regarding specific circumstances.

Helping Others

One final note: During times like these, people can often become marginalized and overlooked. Let us do our part to ensure that does not happen in our communities.

Rebbetzin Chana (the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother) relates that when her son (the future Rebbe) was twenty years old, “a typhus epidemic broke out in Yekaterinoslav, and people were falling like flies. My son left his studies and assisted those who were ailing, bringing them aid himself and organizing others to do so. He paid a steep price for his effort. He helped others, but he himself contracted the illness. He had extremely high fever, and in his delirium he was muttering words of Chassidut.”16

May G‑d bring strength and healing to all!