As we contemplate a post-Covid-19 world, we must never forget that the Jewish people are survivors, with a history of adapting to change in reaction to the most extreme life-threatening circumstances. No matter how often the Jewish people are perched on the brink of destruction, their spirit and calling have ensured their continued existence.
The Jewish people have weathered storms of disappointment, despair, and devastation from enslavement in Egypt and wanderings in the wilderness to the destruction of two Temples; from the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt to Roman exiles and lengthy stints in the Diaspora; from Christian Crusades, Islamic subjugation, Spanish Inquisitions, Iberian expulsions, and European pogroms, to the Holocaust and Israel-Arab hostilities, as well as spiritual assaults from pseudo-Messiahs.
Despite this litany of lachrymose experiences, Am Yisrael Chai—the Jewish people live! That unlikely survival points to the faithfulness of the Almighty. For those who embrace God’s Word, it should be no surprise that the Jewish people prevail through the long historical trail of tears. God’s covenant remains intact, and in a type of hafokh (role reversal), God uses the unlovely, the unlikely, the unexpected, and even tragedies that seem to bring the Jewish community to the brink of destruction in a “divine reversal” to fulfill his plans. Throughout history these reversals occur periodically, from the revival of Jewish life after two catastrophic defeats at the hand of Rome, to the establishment and survival of the modern state of Israel. Yet, whatever the apparently insurmountable circumstances, in addition to overcoming them, Israel prevails to be blessed and to bless others.
Let us not understate our triumph, for the Jewish people have not merely endured the manifold crises of history. Rebounding from sure devastation, we have not settled for returning to the status quo, but have advanced solutions to struggles that serve humankind. This is the hallmark of the Jewish response, which affirms God’s enduring promise to Israel. Because of the Hashem-Israel covenant, the world continues to reap the assurance that the nations of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham’s seed.
Moreover, the fact that the Jewish people have returned to their home twice after expulsions, most recently to reestablish national sovereignty—a feat never accomplished by any other nation— suggests something more than the ordinary. The Jewish people and their modern return to the land of Israel point to a continuing covenantal relationship with a faithful God whose promises of a land, a people and blessings are intact and reliable (Gen 12:1–3). Jewish awareness of this covenantal relationship contributes to the confidence, inspiration, and recurrent resiliency that enliven Israel today. It is from this past that we gather strength for the present and encouragement for the future.
The goal of this trilogy of articles is to address the question: How shall we, as Messianic Jews, adapt to a world of uncertainty while remaining faithful to our identity and calling? To answer, we engage the wisdom of the past (in this first article), the reality of the present, and creative possibilities for the future.
Covid-19 is surely not the last obstacle that will confront the Messianic Jewish movement or the larger Jewish community worldwide. Once again, we are called to adjust to our plight and emerge with a viable response in terms of faith and praxis. This includes, in some cases, reexamining our approach to the traditional synagogue model, holy-day celebrations, forms of worship, life-cycle events, and other biblical and traditional rituals. Just as the synagogue itself emerged as an innovation, in part, to fill the void from the loss of temple life, we are called to devise alternatives based on the lessons of the past, so that we, “like the traveler, are ready for the morrow.”
This article examines three tragic historical events and three plagues that disrupted the communal life of the Jewish people. Any one of these catastrophic historical events could well have derailed Judaism had Hashem not been in partnership with the Jewish people. Taken together, they remind us that the Jewish people are not only here to endure but also to thrive and bless the world. Messianic Jews, as part of the Jewish people, share that calling to impact the world. A pattern of crisis, reaction, and hope threads throughout these Jewish plights and is embedded within each one, providing light for the journey ahead.
Past Tragedies and Triumphs
Each of these three tragedies occurred on the Ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba Revolt at Betar in 135 CE.
Destruction of the First Temple
The prophet Jeremiah wrote about the destruction of the First Temple in real time in the book of Lamentations. It was the worst of times—a heart-rending experience of a people whose grief was so deafening, that their cries echo over millennia. “Living corpses” walked the ruins of the city, ghostly and emaciated in the aftermath of a fallen temple that had marked the center of religious life for ten generations. The sight of mothers consuming their placenta along with their baby’s flesh must have presented an absolutely surreal horror. King Nebuchadnezzar and his army took Judean captives, settling them in Babylon, 500 miles from their homeland. There they wept by the rivers of Babylon and grieved the lost glory of Jerusalem. Although the misery of the exiles, depicted in the metaphor of “lyres hanging from the cedar trees” (Psalm 137:2) was tragic, it succeeded in refocusing Judah on their God and the promised land. Though estranged from the land and exiled into foreign surroundings, these “recovering idolaters” were compelled to depend on the God of Israel and prepare themselves spiritually for the trials ahead. The Psalmist’s words captured their resolve: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I . . . do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour“ (Psa 137:5–6 JPS).
Our ancestors’ return from exile in waves required rebuilding. Some who had seen the First Temple fall also witnessed the building of the Second Temple. Many chose to remain in the diaspora, where a symbiosis developed between God’s people in exile and the people in the Land of Israel, which actually expanded the knowledge base and literary production of the Jewish people. Biblical texts and other sources make it difficult to discern the precise number of returnees in the waves of aliyot, over the interim years, but the consensus is somewhere between 50,000–60,000, mainly members of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The return marked a transformation in the history of the Jews. Formerly, prophecy and temple service dominated, but now, for Ezra and the returning exiles, the centrality of Torah study became a mainstay of Jewish life.
This transformation required challenging adjustments. Nehemiah’s rebuilding efforts and Zeruvavel’s temple construction captured the attention of those exiles returning from Babylon. Tribal focus waned in favor of smaller family dynastic groups. These adaptations facilitated Jewish survival, emphasizing a more decentralized regulated Jewish life, which witnessed the rise of study houses, and proto-synagogues. During this period, God’s covenant people emerged as a diasporic community, impacting and being impacted by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and other nations to come.
The ancient world no doubt took note as Jews returned on the backs of eagle wings, sustained by the same God who had called them into covenant relationship. For the most part, the lessons of the exile, coupled with Ezra, Nehemiah and Zeruvavel’s zeal and Persian favor, converged to propel the Jewish people back to their land, and thereafter the erection of a new temple structure, even under serious opposition. The three threads of Crisis, Reaction, and Hope were visibly woven into the warp and woof of this experience, but hope was always the driver.
The northern tribes had been led captive into foreign lands by the Assyrians about 140 years before the Babylonian conquest of the south, never to return in mass. The return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile created an opportunity for greater unity than before; even those who remained behind in Babylon could gaze toward Israel, knowing that Jews were back in their homeland. Gone were the divisions of northern and southern kingdoms. Remnants from Babylon returned in waves beginning circa 538 BCE, with the final one in 444 BCE; the remaining exiles in Babylon permanently settled into a diasporic existence. During the initial alienation in Babylon, the Jewish people had to confront the consequence of their sin and the judgment of a just God, which prepared the Judeans for a new chapter and a new temple.
The revival of temple Judaism restored the smell of burnt offerings, the hubbub of temple activities, the business of the market place, and the vibrancy of a community refocused on God. Temple life was once again central. The Jewish nation experienced a restoration and renewed hope. But the footsteps of the Ninth of Av were approaching. Though the Second Temple stood for 500 years, Titus and his Roman legions destroyed the center of Jewish worship in 70 CE. Tragedy and reaction were to repeat, but initially with only a shadow of hope on the horizon.
The gravity of such a loss is hard to compare to modern blows suffered by other people groups. The obliteration of the temple meant that there was no longer the capacity to offer sacrifices that had been canonically prescribed. The foundation and raison d’etre of Judaism seemed at an end. Community, culture, and continuity diluted as Jews scattered to the four winds within and without the Roman Empire. Priests were out of a job. The Sanhedrin was no longer a cohesive organization. The community was in disarray, suffering from corporate shock. How can we live without a temple? The relatively small group of Yeshua-believing Jews who were living in and near Jerusalem, fueled by the teachings, works, and resurrection of Yeshua, had an answer.
Yeshua had left an indelible mark on those who chose to follow him and await his return. When the Romans besieged Jerusalem, many of the disciples, in accord with Yeshua’s instruction, fled to Pella, in nearby Transjordan. There they hid until it was safe to emerge and go forth throughout the known world, armed with the “great commission,” teaching all that Yeshua had commanded. By the 4th century, however, the growing group of disciples had drifted from their Jewish distinctiveness and assimilated into the gentile Christian populace, descending into a sort of “Jewish hibernation.” There they remained until they emerged 1500 years later in the evolving modern Yeshua movement, with renewed hope.
Most Jewish people failed to recognize Yeshua’s messiahship and chose a different pathway. Numb through the destruction, still many leaders sought to preserve Judaism. However, their belief in a coming apocalyptic Messiah was curbed, as Judaism sought a more sustainable future, one that would not focus on radical means to restore their Davidic glory days. Retreating to contemplative houses of study, select rabbis produced writings that were to occupy and sustain them and their community, including Mishnah, Tosefta, Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and midrashic works.
The first significant post-destruction work, the Mishnah, served as a guide for the community to order its life in the absence of a functioning system of sacrifices, while preserving blueprints to facilitate future temple reconstruction. Although the pre-destruction religious community comprised multiple competitive sects, including Priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, a grand coalition gradually solidified. Dissent was tolerated with some limitations, which had the effect of blunting sectarianism. One of those limitations, the birkat haminim, have closed the synagogue door to Messianic Jews.
Shortly after the temple’s destruction, in a place called Yavneh on the southern coastal plain about four miles east of the Mediterranean, a small group of post-destruction learned sages began their innovation of Rabbinic Judaism, headed by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (RYBZ). Legends which illuminate RYBZ’s leadership depict the three-fold trajectory of crisis, reaction, and hope that pervades Jewish history. As one legend imparts, Yochanan escaped from the ongoing siege of Jerusalem and the temple area when his disciples carried him out of the city in a coffin, pretending he was dead, and thereby avoiding the scrutiny of Roman soldiers. He came into contact with Vespasian, Rome’s military leader who was vanquishing the Jews. Yochanan prophesied that Vespasian would become Emperor, and requested that he confer upon him and his small religious group of disciples a place near the sea to study, develop, and perpetuate an unobstructed Jewish way of life. Vespasian did become Rome’s Emperor upon Nero’s assassination, and Yochanan’s wish was granted.
The legends about RYBZ were constructed by later rabbis hundreds of years later (Amoraim), and retrojected into the earlier rabbinic period. One purpose of the fictive creations may have been for these amoraim who engaged in discourse during the development of the Talmuds, to retroactively cast Yochanan in the likeness of the prophet Jeremiah, and thus, as a prophet-hero who saved Judaism. By exalting Yochanan, they elevated the stature of the rabbis, and imprinted an indelible memory on the new Judaism of their role in its perpetuation and development. From this we can discern the tragedies that befell both Jeremiah and Yochanan, and their reactions and hopes, consistent with the thematic triad.
Note the parallelism between Jeremiah, living in the time of the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple, and Yochanan during the siege and destruction of the Second Temple. Similar to Yochanan in the coffin, Jeremiah was placed in a pit, imprisoned, and, like Yochanan, escaped by ruse. Like the Second Temple, the First was also destroyed. Nonetheless, Yochanan and Jeremiah both evidenced faith and hope in a future for the Jewish people, Jeremiah by purchasing a piece of land in an area that was doomed to destruction, and Yochanan by securing a plot of land where a new Judaism could form to ensure future Jewish existence. As Jeremiah serves as a bridge between the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Yochanan spans the gap between the destruction of the Second Temple and the establishment of Rabbinic Judaism. In the midst of tragedies, the plights and reactions of Yochanan and Jeremiah energized a hope for the continuation of Judaism and re-establishment within the Land, which ultimately dovetailed into reality.
Failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt
Yochanan surrounded himself with five disciples, according to Pirke Avot. but expectations were that the circle of leaders would rule the people. At the same time, there were factions that had not given up the hope of a military resistance, with the goal of a return to Jewish hegemony, and the rebuilding of the Temple.Con flicts within this formative group may be discerned,
Expectations were dashed with the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–135 CE) and the death of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the rebellion. Consequences of the failure were disastrous. Archeological evidence confirms the destruction of villages in Judea. Rome sold a large number of Jewish captives into slavery in Israel and abroad. Military commanders and administrators and their families were forced to flee to caves outside Judea. Some who were trapped by the Romans starved to death. Reportedly, as many as 560,000 Jews lost their lives in the debacle. With Jews no longer the majority in Judea, the Jewish population center shifted to the Galilee. Even the name Provincia Judea was purged and renamed Provincia Syria Palestina. The dream of military resistance and reconquest was dead, and sights settled on the pragmatics of survival.
Resigned to the long haul, the Jews were again forced to face the reality of Judaism without a restored temple within the immediate future. They refocused on adapting to the peril, while the rabbis extended their work of servicing the community, and continued their pursuit of compiling the oral teachings of the sages, which eventuated in the redaction of the Mishnah, thus providing guidance for how we must now live, absent a Temple-Priest Judaism. Rabbinic literary endeavors continued the conversation by delving deeply into halakhic and aggadic exegetical polemics, invoking the Mishnah as a springboard for its commentary, referred to as Gemara. When combined with the Mishnah, a dual Talmud emerged, with one in the Land of Israel finished circa 400 CE, and one in the land of Babylon completed circa 500 CE.
The House of Gamliel continued its prominent role in administration of the Jewish community in the land of Israel, based in large part on genealogical descent from the “House of Hillel.” Loosely controlled by the successive heads of that house, a number of other high-profile rabbis were leaders in the enterprise. Competition within this rabbinic circle of leaders was based on the meritocratic rigors of Torah study, as well as charisma and popularity.
After the defeat of Bar Kochba, the hub of Jewish learning relocated north to the Galilee, successively to Usha, Beit She’arim, Sepphoris, and Tiberias, where circa 200 CE, Judah the Patriarch redacted the Mishnah. Here was a document of orally transmitted wisdom and practice prescribed for the Jewish people, intended to unify them in the face of the disaster. The Mishnah records the specific times, events and places occasioned for prayer and fasting for the priests and non-priests during the First Temple period, which was probably adapted and followed in the aftermath of the destruction. It appears that the communities in the land of Israel, as well as those scattered throughout the Roman Empire, cohered when crises such as attacks on the community threatened to divide them.
The Temple, with its ordered structure and earthly service in Jerusalem, was thought to have a heavenly counterpart. So how could the Jewish nation, after suffering the loss of the First Temple, survive the loss of the Second Temple—this time for almost two millennia and counting? The answer led to the adoption of a temple-free new Judaism, with the successors of the house of Hillel patriarchate at the helm, along with other rabbinic participants.
For Jewish followers of Messiah, this period became one of increasing persecution and oppression from Rome and the Church, which had subsumed them into a gentile Christian world by the 4th century. In God’s economy there is a complementary relationship between the Jewish followers of the rabbis and the Jewish devotees of Yeshua. In some mysterious way, God, through both the larger Jewish community and the smaller Messianic community, has preserved the Jewish people for the day when God will be One and his name One (Zech 14:9). In that day God’s people will also be one.
In the meantime, the new Judaism, in which leadership focused on Jewish tradition and praxis, while awaiting temple restoration and national sovereignty, was an adaptation to tragedy that gave rise to renewed hope for Jewry worldwide, thus fulfilling the pattern: crisis, reaction, and hope.
Summary: The Three Tragedies
The destruction of the First Temple produced a shedding of idolatrous practice and a renewal of Torah focus, facilitated by Ezra the Priest, and company. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was the creation of a new Judaism centered on study and practice of traditional texts. After the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the center of Jewish religious activity moved north to the Galilee, where the rabbis continued their quiet and laborious work on the redaction of the Mishnah, while the populace became acculturated to many of the Roman ways.
In the face of so much tsuris (sorrow), it is no wonder that the rabbis gravitated to literary outlets to express the agony triggered by Israel’s plight. Through midrashim they engaged in anachronistic reconstructions, retroactive imaginations, and reconstructed narratives to express their grief and fill textual lacunae. At times they even engaged with God through writings to explore lofty theodical questions. In one midrashic narrative, interpreting Psalm 85, sages imagined a debate among ministering angels with the question of whether God should have even created mankind:
Rabbi Simon said, When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” whilst others urged, “let him not be created.” . . . Chesed and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other (Ps. 85:11). Chesed said, “Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love;” Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood;” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds;” Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.” . . . [T]he Holy One took Truth and cast it to the ground. As it says (Daniel 8) “And truth was thrown to the ground.” The ministering angels said before the Almighty: “Master of the worlds! Why do You put to shame Your chief of court?” [i.e., why do you ignore the counsel of the ministering angels]. The Almighty replied: “Let Truth rise from the ground!” This is what is meant when it is written (Ps 85:12), “Truth shall grow from the ground.”
The midrash interprets Psalm 85 as resolution to the tension of the creation of mankind by assuring us that truth and justice will prevail. Truth may be a process, but it will ultimately rise and rest with righteousness in the heavenly abode. That rest remains a mystery for now; yet, we know the God of this earth will do good (Gen 18:15), “[f]or he makes known to [us] the path of life. Abundance of joys are in [his] presence, eternal pleasures at [his] right hand” (Psa 16:11).
Judaism survived two exiles, two destroyed temples, and a failed second rebellion through innovation, fortitude, courage, and, of course, God’s providence. Judaism, including Messianic, will not be deterred by Covid-19, government regulations in response to a pandemic, or any other impediment that threatens our way of life. In fact, we have already demonstrated strength through these experiences and we are learning to not merely cope, but to thrive. We have witnessed the Messianic Jewish community find ways to connect with our congregants online and become savvy on the use of modalities to broadcast our services to the shut-ins and increase exposure to many who were not “tuned in” pre-Covid-19. Congregations created opportunities for children and adult activities that were unheard of, or under-utilized, before the pandemic hit. Adaptation to, and investment in, electronic communications has widened outreach through YouTube, Zoom, live-streaming, and social media. More are connecting globally through these platforms and, as we look to the future, undoubtedly new innovations will arise which will be more efficient in its delivery and fraught with fewer technical glitches.
These adaptations are simply an extension of the Jewish historical commitment to survival in the face of catastrophes and disasters, which repeat the pattern of crisis, reaction, and hope. We have done it before and we are doing it again: surviving through measured reaction and adaptation, while embracing hope.
There is a discrete pattern in the three events of the destruction of the two temples and the failed Bar Kochba revolt, all of which happened within the sweep of 700 years constituting about twenty percent of Jewish existence. Jewish resolve to return to the land and to normalcy through political intervention resulted in an end to exile under Persian rule and the rebuilding of the temple. The tragedy of the destruction of the Second Temple required the formation of a new Judaism where the synagogue replaced the temple and the rabbinate replaced the priesthood. The failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt brought the realization that we cannot lean on our own understanding, but rather must wait patiently on the Lord, knowing that he will bring his will to pass. And this he has done, even in the diaspora, where the Jewish people flourished in European and Islamic lands by producing great Jewish thinkers, rabbinic literature, achievements in the arts and sciences, and the production of ethical teachings. According to his timing, God has regathered the Jewish people to the land where we have enjoyed sovereignty since 1948. He has refashioned us from the ashes of the Holocaust. He has set the prophetic stage that is poised for the final return of Messiah to the Mount of Olives, which is now under Jewish hegemony. Joseph said to his brothers: “You intended harm on me but God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). This statement is the apogee of God’s grace and providence, for without this assurance, the future of the Messianic Jewish movement is uncertain.
Jews under Three Plagues
We now turn our attention to pestilences that have impacted the Jewish communal way of life, and how the Jewish people responded. By this we gain wisdom for dealing with present and future plagues that threaten to impair our ability to worship and serve. We also see the same pattern of addressing the threats as in the previous tragic events that befell Israel, and note that the lessons learned from each of the crises better equip us for the future. Those particular plagues are: the Passover Plague, the Black Death, and the Spanish Flu, each of which presented challenges, for which the pattern of crisis, reaction and hope were in play.
The Passover Plague and Covid-19
The tenth plague in the land of Egypt was ordained by God, and those who cloistered in their houses under the protection of the blood of the lamb were spared the devastating result of God’s wrath—death of the firstborn. In accord with God’s command through Moses in Exodus 12:1–6, each Israelite family was to apply the blood of an unblemished lamb to the top and side posts of their doors. Seeing that sign, the angel of death passed over the house.
Although God had exempted the Israelites, dwelling in Goshen, from at least the fourth through the ninth plagues, that immunity did not apply to the tenth, the slaying of the first born. Here, the creativity of Hashem provided a “shadow” of protection that applied throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert, which was emblematic of God’s favor for the future. The key for the Israelites in the Exodus was obedience to God’s command. That obedience resulted in a chain of events along a journey of hope that led the Israelites back to the land of Canaan.
God has been silent on any commands to the Jewish communities regarding Covid-19. However, some commands and suggestions to shelter in place along with other safety prescriptions originated from the government. Obeying the command from the sovereign falls within the rabbinic maxim dina d’malkhuta dina (“The law of the kingdom is the law”), which was issued after the Bar Kochba revolt when the Romans expelled massive numbers of Jews from the Land and they relocated elsewhere. Simply, in the diaspora we are obligated to comply with the laws of the land in which we live as long as those laws do not thwart our ability to practice our faith. As good citizens, we also should strongly consider sovereign recommendations, especially during a health crisis like the Covid pandemic. We will never know how many lives were saved through compliance with government regulations, suggestions from health agencies, and public service announcements. Nor will we ever know the extent of the effectiveness of synagogal extra-governmental decisions, which often went beyond government mandates that included closing in-person services, limiting the number of attendees, meeting outside, requiring masks, taking temperatures, and administering health questionnaires.
Consistent with laws, ordinances and executive orders, religious communities were challenged, and Jewish communities even more so, because Shabbat and holiday restrictions make it difficult to comply with Torah and halakha. In light of God’s provision for the Israelites during the Exodus plagues, it is easy to appreciate the need to find creative ways to adjust to unusual circumstances. Many Messianic communities did just that, with the help of groups like the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) that mobilized to provide counsel and technological help to facilitate assembly, fellowship, worship, and the continuity of Torah-centered services. The UMJC also acted as a clearinghouse for ideas to accommodate congregational needs. Other Messianic communities rose to the occasion to ensure that constituents’ spiritual and physical needs were met. Much of this is detailed in Rabbi Rich Nichol’s sampling of congregations in the next article.
What we learned from this experience has improved our ability to fulfill our congregational calling and kiruv (bringing people close through loving one’s neighbor). Congregations mobilized to ensure that the Covid-afflicted and others unable to worship in person were all addressed, and plugged into the community. We are all better for it. We are not just surviving another crisis. Our outreach to communities far and wide was substantially extended as attendees joined from around the world in live-streamed services. Some were introduced to Messianic Jewish worship for the first time. Investing in technological know-how, and exercising creative thinking to accommodate unforeseen circumstances should prove invaluable for the road ahead. With the Passover Exodus, the reaction was simply obedience to God’s directives, with the hope of delivery from the enslavement in Egypt. That hope was realized. With Covid-19, messianic Jews, with some adaptations, continued to carry on Messianic Jewish faith and praxis, with the hope that we would emerge stronger.
The Black Death
The Black Death (1346–52), also known as the Bubonic Plague, was a global pandemic that originated in Asia and spread to Europe when sailors from Asia became infected by rats and fleas. In October 1347, sailors on twelve ships from the Black Sea docked in the Sicilian port of Messina. The outbreak swelled over the next five years, killing 20–25 million Europeans, 33-40% of its population. Death was so swift that 80% of those infected died within eight days. Symptoms included swollen lymph nodes, fever, chills, and black boils that oozed blood and pus. The disease traveled from person to person through the air, as well as via bites from infected rodents and fleas. Doctors donned whole-body coverings, protected their mouths, noses, and eyes, and distanced themselves, even employing long poles to examine patients and apply remedies, most of which proved no more effective than “snake oil.”
Many believed the plague was divine judgment, meant to purge heretics and other evil-doers. Jewish rituals such as hand-washing, along with the restrictions of community life that insulated many Jewish communities from the more severe outbreaks, aroused suspicion that the Jews were responsible for the deadly plague. Anti-religious sentiment seethed and circulated with accusations that Jews caused the plague by poisoning Christian wells. Repercussions spread almost as swiftly as the plague and with similar deadly results.
The first massacre directly related to the plague took place in April 1348 in Toulon, Provence, where the Jewish quarter was sacked, and forty Jews were murdered in their homes. Shortly afterward, violence broke out in Barcelona, Spain, and in other Catalan cities. In 1349, massacres and persecutions spread across Europe, including . . . Erfurt . . . Basel . . . Aragon, and Flanders. 2,000 Jews were burnt alive on 14 February 1349 in the “Valentine’s Day” Strasbourg massacre, where the plague had not yet affected the city. . . . Many hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in this period. Within the 510 Jewish communities destroyed . . . some members killed themselves to avoid the persecutions. In the spring of 1349 the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main was annihilated. This was followed by the destruction of Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne. . . .
At Speyer, Jewish corpses were disposed in wine casks and cast into the Rhine. By the close of 1349 the worst of the pogroms had ended in Rhineland. But around this time the massacres of Jews started rising near the Hansa townships of the Baltic Coast and in Eastern Europe. By 1351 there had been 350 incidents of anti-Jewish pogroms and 60 major and 150 minor Jewish communities had been exterminated.
Far from being responsible for the plague, Jewish doctors participated in developing public health systems to combat runaway infections and death. Jacob of Padua, chief physician of the port city of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik), established a site to house the sick outside the city.
In response to the anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe, many Jews fled and resettled in Poland and Lithuania and other favorable nations where they were granted safety. Others moved to Muslim lands to find refuge; there are no reported cases of anti-Jewish sentiment and repercussions erupting due to the plague within those enclaves. Pope Clement VI issued communiques, as did some European heads of state, positioned to quell the antisemitic displays, opposing the accusations of Jewish culpability. It is likely that some Jews who served in courts of monarchs or royal personages and had relationships with these officials intervened and exercised influence. Flight and influence were the two best options for the powerless Jews of the Middle Ages. Other than these, because of a paucity of historical evidence regarding Jews’ reaction to the Black Death crisis, it is difficult to discern patterns of community response. However, flight and influence are certainly present as responses to Jewish persecution throughout their diasporic journey, thus preserving hope for a better future.
The Spanish flu ravaged the world in 1918–1920, exacting a devastating toll on humanity. One-third of the 1.5 billion people on the planet contracted it, killing 50–100 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. That would be the equivalent of the U.S. currently sustaining 2,362,500 Covid-19 deaths, based on its population in 2020.
During the Spanish Flu, a number of cities in the U.S. initiated social distancing, public closures, and masking regulations in an effort to contain it. Not unlike today, some localities did better than others in mitigating the devastation. Not unlike today, the age-old struggle between science and faith stood in high relief, especially among faith-based religious groups, all while the government enacted closure regulations, mask mandates, and other restrictive requirements.Epidemiological and public health information was more limited, as we faced a formidable enemy along with some resistance to regulatory measures. Yet, although the Spanish Flu broke out in the midst of a world war, populations responded with volunteerism and compassion, and no national immigrant groups were scapegoated or singled out for blame.
Scripture is replete with accounts of people praying for the abatement of plagues and other perils. Biblical heroes of both the Tanakh and the Brit Chadashah prayed and encouraged others to join them when desperate and seemingly hopeless conditions arose. Invoked throughout the world to prevent, mitigate, and eradicate plagues and save lives, prayer stands in sharp focus across the gamut of faith communities, in addition to practical responses—sanitizing, masking, distancing, and quarantining. The Black Wedding, Book Burials, and the practice of Mitzvot were other responses implemented by the Jewish community during the Spanish Flu.
The Black Wedding (Schwartze Khasene)
One way in which a number of Jewish communities sought to abate plagues and unite the community was through the custom of the “Black Wedding.” This wedding has been described as follows:
Everyone gathers at the bridal canopy in the cemetery where there is rejoicing and many musical instruments. And this joy uplifts the masses . . . and they will be used to going to the cemetery and will not fear death.
In Eastern Europe in 1785, in response to an outbreak of cholera, Rabbi Elimelich of Lizhensk presided over one such wedding. The hope was that a joyous occasion celebrated in the midst of death would attract many, remove the plague from the community, and restore its spirit and general welfare.
On the heels of a locust plague that destroyed crops and killed large numbers of people in 1865, a Black Wedding took place on the Mount of Olives:
[T]he leaders of that holy city [Jerusalem] took boys and girls who were orphans and married them off to each other. The huppot were in a cemetery between the graves of our teacher . . . [Rabbi Isaac Luria] and . . . [Rabbi Yosef Karo]. For this was a tradition that they had, and thanks to God who removed this deathly outbreak from among them.
On November 11, 1918, during the Spanish Flu epidemic, Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman came together in a cemetery to exchange vows. On one end of the grounds was a minyan of Jews as required for a traditional funeral; at the other end, one thousand people witnessed the ceremony of the bride and groom. In a similar wedding ceremony in Philadelphia, October, 1918, also at a cemetery venue, Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg exchanged nuptial vows, braving the elements and the threat of infection from an influenza that no one at the time understood. The Black Wedding brought together the horror of the deathly plague and the joy of an improbable couple joining together in jubilant optimism. Tension between the symbols of sadness and joy was not new for Jews, and is perhaps most clearly expressed at Passover when bitter herbs eaten alongside sweet haroset juxtaposed the suffering of the bondage of slavery and the joy of freedom. In the face of the Spanish Flu, the Black Wedding was an attempt to deal with the worst of times, while hoping for the elimination of the “killer,” and a renewed life. These displays evidenced the resolve of Jewish communities to exercise faith and offer solace and hope during a time of agonizing illness, death, and grief. Communities refused to stand idly by as the scourge claimed innocent victims. They were proactive.
Various rationales have been offered for this ritual wedding, one of which is a belief that God would be appeased by this type of atoning sacrifice. Usually, it was the elderly, the orphans, and the disabled who were paired together. It was an opportunity to bring happiness to the marginalized lonely, and for the community to witness the event, in hopes that this mitzvah and “sacrifice” would quell the plague.
Good mental health can be a positive influence on the body’s ability to ward off infection and protect against viruses. On the one hand, weddings produce excitement, particularly those with such unlikely pairings; the cathartic release of happiness and grief were considered to have a healing impact. Pandemics produce stress birthed by the fear of the unknown, the loss of loved ones, and the despair over those losses. Psychologically, the Black Wedding provided an emotional outlet by compressing together the intensity of bereavement and happiness, and thereby resolving overarching cognitive dissonance. Additionally, breathing fresh air and seeing people outdoors added to the well-being of the participants. The event may have very well reduced stress, which may have produced the added benefit of boosting the immune system. Finally, the conjoined wedding and funeral may have also had a spiritual benefit, likened to miracle-workers who brought on rain, healed the sick, parted the waters, and raised the dead.
On March 18, 2020, a Black Wedding to address our current plague took place in the Ponevezh cemetery in B’nei Brak, Israel. Revived 100 years after the last one, this event was attended by a few dozen “happy mourners.” The formula for the Black Wedding generally seems to be: an epidemic; a wedding between impoverished, disabled, or otherwise unlikely partners; a cemetery setting; and community participation. In the face of crisis, often Jewish reaction and hope do not just neutralize the threats, but rather overcome them.
Another Jewish response to plagues throughout history, including during the Spanish Flu, was book burials. These burials involved worn-out documents that contained the name of God in Hebrew, English, or any other language. The search for the origin of a plague pointed some to passages in Deuteronomy which promise blessings for obeying the commandments and curses for disobedience. The rabbis believed good actions were rewarded and evil ones punished, leading to a tendency to understand plagues as judgment from God. One reason for such judgment, it was thought, was the failure to treat books and documents that contained the name of God in accordance with halakha. They were to be buried, rather than casually discarded or burned. During times of plague, a community would come together for a mass burial of such books with the hope of turning God’s judgment toward mercy. Like the Black Wedding, the ceremony had the added psychological benefit of redirecting focus from resignation and despondency to hope.
Response, Mobilization, and Mitzvot
The Jewish community’s reaction and mobilization to the 1918 Spanish Flu was sparsely reported but can be gleaned from local newspapers of the time. In 1918, the flu hit Pittsburgh, where the Jewish community was divided along economic lines. German Jews had been arriving in the United States before the 1860s, settling in the fashionable Squirrel Hill district, on the east side. By contrast, between 1860 and WWI the poverty-stricken Eastern European Jewish immigrant community settled in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, an area bordering the downtown tenements. The two communities were divided along economic and social lines to the extent that they were unable to wage a united war against the deadly flu. They failed to raise awareness of the dangers of the disease through dissemination of news and recommendations targeted to meet the needs of each community. Instead, information was suppressed or lightly treated until the flu was raging, particularly among the most disadvantaged.
By contrast, in Dayton, Ohio, the Jewish community was diligent in addressing the plague. The Jewish Welfare Board mobilized to save lives by attending to the ill, regardless of their position in society. Seeking to lift people’s spirits they provided Jewish theater and entertainment within a safe environment. Home services were encouraged. An editorial in the Dayton Jewish Life read:
In order to compensate for the discontinuance of public worship, in a number of communities, leaders of respective houses of worship issued a call that the members of their congregations should hold a home service at the hour when the public services are usually conducted. . . . We wonder whether those of our people who have practically banished religion from their home, grasped the opportunity offered at this time, to make their homes sanctuaries unto God. We wonder whether this terrible scourge will cause them to see the need of giving Judaism the chief place in their lives, in this time of storm and stress, of sickness and perchance death.
For the most part, the Dayton Jewish community complied with local government mandates. However they did not rely solely on outside information and local ordinances, but also provided their own valuable hygiene recommendations.
In New York City, a Jewish communal organization informed the public of 65 organizations where help was available, including one that offered medical assistance. An average of 15 funerals per day were conducted by members of the Workmen’s Circle, a mutual aid society that promoted Jewish culture with a focus on social and economic justice. Observant Jews particularly needed counsel to comply with halakhic standards. The Head of the Rabbinic Court of New York, apparently pursuant to the rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh (the saving of a life taking precedence), urged mourners to relax Jewish burial and shiva standards, which were antithetical to safe hygiene during a plague. They encouraged mourners to go outdoors for fresh air, change clothing, and bathe. The Forward, a Yiddish Jewish newspaper of standing, kept the community apprised of demographic statistics and safe-hygiene counsel.
In Poughkeepsie, New York, the flu hit hard, taking young victims quickly. At least 1000 mourners showed up outside the home of parents to pay respects to a recent high school graduate, engaged to be married, whose life was cut short by the flu. As concerning that mass visitation, one of her friends wrote:
Hysteria spread through the multitude. We all wept audibly, as though a massive sigh emanated from us—wept for lost love, lost life, lost desire. We wept for the tragedy of dead babies who could not be saved; teenagers at the beginning of adult lives who ended up with ashes in their teeth; old people whose breath was snuffed out like candles on a birthday cake. Above all, we wept for ourselves, in our nameless terror and dread. . . . We wept for hopes that might never be realized, for dreams unfulfilled. . . . In unison we cried out, in our despair and grief, and I had the feeling that this expression of our anguish was in some sense a prayer for our own deliverance.
Those Jewish communities that pulled together and exhibited compassion appeared to fare better under the circumstances. In Detroit, Jewish doctors risked their lives to help fight the flu, not only within the Jewish community but throughout the city. The Detroit Jewish Chronicle published guidelines not unlike those today: “Avoid crowds and wash your hands; don’t put your fingers in your mouth; don’t spit; don’t ‘cough in people’s faces’; and, above all, don’t panic.” Common sense prevailed and it paid off.
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.
We have reviewed some major adversities throughout Jewish history which inform our present. Through these experiences we gain valuable takeaways for the future. The following table summarizes the pattern of crisis, reaction, and hope, as related to the events treated in this article:
Crisis, Reaction, and Hope as a Recurrent Trend
Destruction of First Temple
Purging of idolatry
Political influence exerted to return
Return and rebuild Temple
Traditional: Formulate Rabbinic Judaism
Yeshua Followers: New Covenant
Bar Kochba Revolt Defeat
Focus on Mishnah and Rabbinic Judaism
Communal continuity and thriving
Passover Exodus Plague
Obedience to Mosaic command to kill lamb, apply blood and shelter at home
Escape from Egyptian enslavement
Flee, appeal to sovereign
Aid to Community
Community communication and care
“Atone” through prayer and ritual
Stop the plague
A midrash from the Babylonian Talmud is instructive in bringing this portion of our trilogy to a close: we ought not to forget the past tragedies and crises, but neither ought we to dwell upon them to the extent that it clouds our vision for a future hope:
When the Temple was destroyed a second time, there was an increase in the number of ascetics among the Jews, whose practice was to not eat meat and to not drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua . . . said to them: My children, for what reason do you not eat meat and do you not drink wine? They said to him: Shall we eat meat, from which offerings are sacrificed upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist? Shall we drink wine, which is poured as a libation upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist?
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: If so, we will not eat bread either, since the meal-offerings that were offered upon the altar have ceased. They replied: You are correct. It is possible to subsist with produce. He said to them: We will not eat produce either, since the bringing of the first fruits have ceased. They replied: You are correct. We will no longer eat the produce of the seven species from which the first fruits were brought, as it is possible to subsist with other produce. He said to them: If so, we will not drink water, since the water libation has ceased. They were silent, as they realized that they could not survive without water.
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: . . . To not mourn at all is impossible. . . . But to mourn excessively as you are doing is also impossible. . . . Rather, this is what the Sages said: A person may plaster his house with plaster, but he must leave over a small amount in it without plaster to remember the destruction of the Temple. . . . The Sages said that a person may prepare all that he needs for a meal, but he must leave out a small item to remember the destruction of the Temple.
Enduring lessons from the past can help us adapt to whatever troubles arise, and remind us of God’s future promises. With this in mind we turn to a focus on the present reality of Covid-19 and its impact on our world.
Rabbi Elliot Klayman is a past president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, current Executive Director of Messianic Literature Outreach, and editor of its publication, The Messianic Outreach. He is the Chief Financial Officer of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and a former editor of that institute’s journal, Kesher. He teaches in various schools and forums and has published widely on a variety of Jewish history topics. Elliot holds an MA in Jewish History from The Ohio State University, as well as two law degrees. He is an attorney, an emeritus professor of law, and a zaken at Kehilat Ariel. He resides in San Diego with Joyce, his wife of 47 years.
1 For a sampling of Jewish history books containing tragedies and crises overcome by the Jewish people see A History of the Jewish People, H.H. Ben-Sasson, ed. (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976); Esther Benbassa & Aaron Rodrigue, Sephardic Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th-20th Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Michael Brenner, A Short History of the Jews (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) (translated from German by author); Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York: The Free Press, 1992); Martin Goodman, A History of Judaism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018); John Hayes & Sara R. Mandell, The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity: From Alexander to Bar Kochba (London: Leiden, 1998); Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook: 315–1791 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999); Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: HarperPerennial, 1987); Howard M. Sachar, Farewell Espan˜a: The World of the Sephardim Remembered (New York: Vintage, 1995); Raymond P. Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); The New Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999); Leo Trepp, A History of the Jewish Experience (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2001).
2 Salo Baron invoked the phrase “lachrymose theory of Jewish history” to capture an historical view embraced by Heinrich Graetz, who focused part of his history of the Jews on the morose side, highlighting the persecutions and violence Jewish people suffered at the hands of the Christians throughout a bulk of Jewish history, while praising Islamic reign as a time of Jewish utopia. Baron sought to counter that thinking and blunt the tragedies and tears the Jewish people endured under Christian rule by periodizing and localizing the historical timeline. He thereby demonstrated that there were also times of relative peace and normalcy, where great Jewish literary works were produced under Christian hegemony. Adam Teller, “Revisiting Baron’s ‘Lachrymose Conception’: The Meanings of Violence in Jewish History,” Cambridge University Press, December 1, 2014, . Similarly, there were also times under Islamic domination that were short of paradisiacal for the Jews. For a contrast of the Interfaith Utopia and the Lachrymose Theories see also Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3–14.
3 For a comprehensive listing of Jewish Nobel Prize winners and contributions among the disciplines see Jinfo.org.
4 This is an adaptation from a metaphor heralded by Benjamin Cardozo, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said, “The law like the traveler must be ready for the morrow.” Benjamin Cardozo, The Growth of the Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1924), 20., 20 (1924).
5 But see Charles E. Carter, “The Emergence of Yehud in the Persian Period: A Social and Demographic Study,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supp. 234 (1999), 211 (table 7) & fn. 92, who calculates the population of Judah between 538 and 450 BCE to be 13,350, derived from a random sample of surveyed sites in the Judah enclaves and the excavated sites that date to this period.
6 A few scholars contend that a proto-synagogue arose during the First Temple period, functioning as a meeting hall and place of prayer. More scholars infer the origin of the synagogue during the exilic period which would have been necessary for the maintenance of identity and worship in Babylon. The first hard evidence of actual remains of synagogues did not emerge until the 1st centuries bce and ce, referred to by Josephus and the New Testament. See Jodi Magness, “Roman and Late Antique Period Synagogues in Palestine,” in The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 286–87.
7 According to Yoma 21b, the Second Temple was void of the “Divine Spirit” (yet many sages disagreed); and “many of the kohanim, Levites and patriarchal leaders, older men wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this House, while many shouted for joy” (Ezra 3:12). Scripture does not say that the Shekinah was present in the Second Temple, as it filled the First Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11), nor does it allude to the Ark of the Covenant. Yet, “the glory of the latter House will be greater than the former,” Hag 3:9, because Yeshua’s presence would grace it. E.g., Luke 2: 22, 46; 19:45.
8 Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, First Division, trans. Vol II, John MacPherson (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2018; repr., T & Clark, 1890), 230 & fn. 65; Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period until its Disappearance in the Fourth Century (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992). But see Daniel Boyarin, Borderlines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), characterizing the parting of the Jewish-Christian ways as a religiously imposed process, and suggesting that they never totally parted.
9 A collection of primarily rabbinic halakhic traditions redacted by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi circa 200 ce.
10 A collection of ancient Jewish teachings paralleling and supplementing the Mishnah, compiled in the late 2nd century.
11 The Palestinian Talmud consists of a collection of writings compiled and edited, covering Jewish law, traditions and stories, completed circa 400 ce. The Babylonian Talmud is more complete, containing more material covering a longer period, redacted circa 500 ce. Both Talmuds draw on the earlier Mishnah as their foundation for commentary.
12 Commentaries on specific portions of the Hebrew Bible which contain homilies, halakhic and aggadic expositions, written from the 400s ce well into the medieval period.
13 Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Significance of Yavneh: Pharisees, Rabbis, and the End of Jewish Sectarianism,” Hebrew Union College Annual 55 (1984): 27–53, opts for a post-destruction Yavneh view of a “society that tolerates disputes without producing sects,” one whose “dominant ethic is not exclusivistic but elastic,” pluralistic, not monistic. This view is more consistent with religious, social and political realities when societal factionalism reacts to cataclysmic change; society becomes more cohesive and sub-strata are “subsumed” within the larger group for the sake of the good of the whole.
14 The Birkat Haminim addition to the Shemoneh Esreh sought to exclude heretics from the synagogue. Some scholars think that included the Yeshua believers. See e.g., The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elishiva Fonrobert & Martin Jaffee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xviii, 258–59; and David Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period, Vol. 1 Qumran and Apocalypticism, trans. Azzan Yadin (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 2007), 116–17, maintaining that the amendment was primarily directed at the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, but that it also applied to the “Christians” (who would have included the early Jewish Yeshua believers).
15 Legendary stories about Yochanan ben Zakkai were recorded several hundred years later in the Talmuds. The stories of Jeremiah are found in the canonical books of Jeremiah and Lamentations; for comparisons see Adam Tropper, “Yohanan ben Zakkai, Amicus Caesaris: A Jewish Hero in Rabbinic Eyes,” JSIJ 4 (2005): 133–49,
Jeremiah Ben Zakkai
Oppose war Oppose war
Stymied by opponents Stymied by opponents
Met with leader of rebels Met with leader of rebels
Leader fears the war party Leader fears the war party
Famine plagues city Famine plagues city
Assaulted at the gates Assaulted at the gates
Placed in a pit Placed in coffin
Escapes by ruse Escapes by ruse
Helpers risk life Helpers risk life
Imprisoned by Jews Imprisoned by Romans
Request made & granted Request made & granted
Temple destroyed Temple destroyed
16 Tropper, “Yohanan ben Zakkai.”
17 Pirke Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”) was appended to the Mishnah in the first quarter of the third century.
18 Two versions appear in Rabbinic writings, one preferring Eliezer ben Hyrcanus as the favored disciple of Yochanan ben Zakkai; and the other preferring Elazar ben Arach. Burton L. Visotzky, Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud (Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights, 2011), 20–22, citing Pirkei Avot 2.8.
19 Peter Schaeffer, “Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis,” in The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome, ed., Peter Schaeffer (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 1–22 (depicting Bar Kokhba’s close relationship to the Rabbis); Shayna Sheinfeld, “Bar Kokhba and leadership as seen through the revolt,” Religion Compass, July 3, 2019, (rebutting claim that Bar Kokhba believed himself to be Messiah).
20 Hanan Eshel, “The Bar Kochba Revolt, 132–35,” in ed. S. Katz The Cambridge History of Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 125–27, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521772488.006 (citing the litany of calamitous results of the defeat).
21 See note 11.
22 See, for example, Sefaria, Mishnah Ta’anit regulating prayer: 1:1, 2; 3:8 (rain); 2:2 (pestilence); 4:3 (weekly); and 4:4 (times of prohibition). For fasting regulation see 1:7; 4:3 (weekly); 3:4 (pestilence and collapse of buildings); and 2: 8,10. (days of prohibition). Prayer and fasting are to be accompanied with repentance, 2:1.
23 Psalm 122:3: “Jerusalem, built as a city joined together” according to traditional interpretation alludes to a dual existence of an earthly and a heavenly Jerusalem “that is compact together.” Ramban: Prayer at the Ruins of Jerusalem, trans. Charles B. Chavel (New York: Shilo, 1978), 2, fn.3–4.
24 Gen Rab 8.5, . Another opinion states that while the angels were debating, God created man, at which point the issue was moot, making the case that it is futile to engage in debate on something that God has already done, , 62 (“The Creator approved of the pleadings of Charity, called man into being, and cast Truth down to the earth to flourish there. . . .”).
25 Exodus 12:1–27 details the commandment to shelter within the homes protected by the application of the blood of the Lamb to the two doorposts and the crossbeam of the house within which they were to consume the “Passover Lamb.” “Then Bnei-Yisrael went and did it. They did just as Adonai had commanded Moses and Aaron” (Exod 12:28 TLV). We also note that a mixed multitude went up with them, which would probably include at least some Egyptians (Exod 12:38). In fact, some of those Egyptians within the mixed multitude category may have also been protected from the angel of death by sheltering within a home where the commandment of the Passover was obeyed. For an ancient treatment of those afflicted with tza’rat, a contagious skin disease, requiring quarantining, upper-lip masking, and washings, see Lev 13–14.
26 Encyclopedia Britannica, .
27 Standard questions include (1) Are you experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms, including fever, coughing, running nose, sore throat, difficult breathing, aching body? (2) Has anyone in your household experienced any of these symptoms? (3) In the past fourteen (14) days have you been in close contact with anyone suspected of having Covid-19? (4). Have you travelled out of the country within the past fourteen (14) days?
28 “The Black Death: The Plague, 1331–1770,” ; Black Death, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death
29 “The Black Death,” https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death/
30 “Persecution of the Jews During the Black Plague,” Wikipedia, (footnotes not included). But see contra Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., The Black Death and the Burning of Jews, Past & Present, No. 196 (Oxford University Press, Aug., 2007), 3-36, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25096679 (maintaining that the motives for the perpetration was religious hatred as opposed to economic opportunism, and that the perpetrators were the rich and elite, under color of law, as opposed to the peasants, artisans, and debtors.
31 Fortunately, we have not seen any widespread accusations against the Jews tying them to the Covid-19 plague, although there may be some subtle innuendos on social media; and a general uptick in antisemitism may be related to the pandemic in some way. R. Netanel, “Covid-19, Rising Anti-Semitism & Israel,” Teaching From Zion, Issue 41 (Nov 2020): 44–47. We have, however, seen an uptick in sentiments, slurs, and attacks upon those within the Asian community. Angela R. Gover, Shannon B. Harper & Lynn Langton, “Anti-Asian Hate Crime During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Exploring the Reproduction of Inequality,” Am. J. Crim Justice, July 7, 2020, 1–21, doi: 10.1007/s12103-020-09545-1
32 For a summary of the Jewish response to plagues throughout history see Deborah Camiel, “For centuries, Jews have been battling epidemics like coronavirus,” Forward, June 12, 2020,
33 Camiel, “For centuries.”
34 Today, of course, Jews are hardly powerless in the world. Israel is a nation with a standing army and a seat at the United Nations, affording Jews clout unavailable in earlier ages. The option of aliyah for Jews living under antisemitic violence is a reality today.
35 Nina Strochlic & Riley D. Champine, “How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic,” National Geographic, March 27, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/03/how-cities-flattened-curve-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic-coronavirus/; Loyola University Health System, “Lessons from the Spanish flu: Early restrictions lowered disease, mortality rates,” Science Daily, March 30, 2020, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200330110344.htm; Becky Little, “When Mask-Wearing Rules in the 1918 Pandemic Faced Resistance.” History, May 6, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/1918-spanish-flu-mask-wearing-resistance.
36 Samuel Kline Cohn, “Social and institutional Reactions to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20,” September 10, 2020, (refutes common notions that the plague triggered distrust, social violence and blame of others).
37 Howard Phillips, “’17, ’18, ’19: religion and science in three pandemics, 1817, 1918, and 2019,” Journal of Global History 15:3 (Cambridge University Press, Nov 6, 2020): 434–43, doi:10.1017/S1740022820000315.
38 For a summary of the Jewish response to plagues throughout history see Camiel, “For centuries.”
39 Jeremy Brown, “The Plague Wedding,” TRADITION Vol. 53:1 (Rabbinical Council of America, 2021): 65. In a sense joy comes in the mourning (my word play on Psalm 130:5).
40 Steven Windmueller, “Jewish Responses to Pandemics,” .
41 Windmueller, “Jewish Responses.”
42 Windmueller, “Jewish Responses.”
43 Windmueller, “Jewish Responses”; Sophie Panzer, “History’s Lessons: Jewish Couple Wed in Graveyard to Stop 1918 Flu Pandemic,”
44 This was recognized as far back as the 12th century by the prominent Jewish physician (and philosopher), Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides). S.R. Simon, “Moses Maimonides: medieval physician and scholar,” Arch Intern Med. 1999 Sep 13;159 (16):1841–5. doi:10.1001/archinte.159.16.1841.
45 For a recent article detailing the history of the Black Wedding, and listing nineteen sources in its Appendix (75–76) see Jeremy Brown, “The Plague Wedding.”
46 Sara Barnea, Segula (Issue 53, July 2020), https://segulamag.com/en/articles/black-canopy/ (“. . . T]hey would go to bury worn-out holy books containing God’s name, accompanied by a festive crowd all the way to the graveyard, where [the books] were consigned to the ground,” cited from Rabbi Avraham Hershovitz, Compendium of Customs of Jeshurun (St. Louis: 1918), ch. 42 (Hebrew).
47 Jeremy Brown, “The Plague Wedding,” 65–66, fn. 49.
48 Jessica S. Merlin, “A Silent Killer of Epidemic Proportions: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community,” https://kilthub.cmu.edu/articles/journal_contribution/A_Silent_Killer_of_Epidemic_Proportions_The_Influenza_Epidemic_of_1918_in_Pittsburgh_s_Jewish_Community/6711044
49 “How we navigated the Spanish flu of 1918-19 in Dayton,” The Dayton Jewish Observer, Aug 26, 2020, https://daytonjewishobserver.org/2020/08/how-we-navigated-the-spanish-flu-of-1918-19-in-dayton/
50 “How we navigated” (The Dayton Jewish Observer). Another unsigned editorial read: “It is not how long we live, but how we live that counts . . . in these times, when so many hearts are overwhelmed with sorrow because of the loss of our dear ones, let them ponder deeply over the words of the prophet and they will find in them the thought that is healing and strengthening. The grief that looks down into the grave will then look up unto the heavens.”
51 Roni Robbins, “The 100-Year Pandemic” (Oct 28, 2020), https://www.atlantajewishtimes.com/the-100-year-pandemic/
52 Rose Riegelhaupt, “Memoir, Flu, 1918,” Jewish Currents (June 14, 2021),
53 Mike Smith, “Looking Back: Pandemics Throughout History,” The Detroit Jewish News, . For a summary of biblical and modern plagues see Rabbi Elliot Klayman, “COVID -19: An End of Days Plague?” Teaching From Zion, Issue 41 (Nov 2020): 10–15.
54 Camiel, “For centuries.”
55 Sefaria, bT., Baba Batra, 60b, 11-16 (I have unbolded the Sefaria additions that put a gloss on the original to make it easier to follow).