How to beat the virus? It’s in the Talmud

Sanitising a synagogue. (Vladimir Gerdo/TASS via Jewish News
Sanitising a synagogue. (Vladimir Gerdo/TASS via Jewish News

Right, we have a problem; 500 of us have died of the virus and that’s considerably more than should have. Why the disaster, with 500 families in mourning.? The classic Jewish answer is to ask a rabbi; you get an answer – a responsa – and the rabbi might well quote a Rabbi who died a thousand years ago. there is no time limit to a responsa in Judaism.

So where do we look for an answer to today’s problem? How about the 6th century Talmud. You think I’m joking. How can a body of laws, 1,500 years old, have relevance today, when we’re dealing with a previously unknown virus?

Well, we have something like 600 plus laws and over 200 of them are to do with medicine. The Egyptians, the Romans and the heathens believed that if you caught a disease, it was the punishment of the gods and nothing could be done about it. The Biblical Jew, though, set out to find cures and a lot of the doctors were rabbis. Good Queen Bess had three Jewish doctors and popes, emperors and kings followed suit over the years.

How good were they? If you look up the book of Samuel you’ll find that the Jews were warned that the plague which was hitting the Philistines, was being brought by the rats; they didn’t know that in Britain till the early 20th century.

So what are we told to do to avoid something like this virus?

First of all we are told to wash our hands. Sounds familiar? Remember Seder night? Well, we’re supposed to wash our hands pretty regularly. Most people didn’t wash. There was one bathroom and two toilets in the whole of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The Rothschild’s had a bath and used to lend it to Kings in Germany, having it trundled through the streets to everybody’s surprise. Mostly, though, nobody washed

You could still get a nasty virus. What to do then? The Talmud is clear; you isolate the patient. Sounds familiar again? Isolate them and there’s a good chance they won’t pass it on to somebody else. We’ll never know how our 500 victims caught coronavirus, but somebody had to give it to them. Today you can get a test if you have any kind of coronavirus symptom. Do what the Talmud says.

Then there are two further relevant laws in the Talmud. One is dina de malchuta dina. That means that the law of the country in which we Iive is to be the law of the Jews. The government didn’t make it a law that everybody should stay home to avoid the R level going over one, but we should have done it because it was as near a law as they could make it.

There is one more law in the Talmud which is particularly valid in the present crisis. That’s pekuach nefesh. That you can break any Jewish law if there is a danger to life. Those people who are taking part in services in the hotel in Bournemouth are breaking pekuach nefesh.

Maybe it won’t result in fatalities. Please G-d that will be the case. It might not be, however. Those 500 fatalities caught coronavirus from somebody. If they’d stayed home, they might well have still been with us.

As Jews, we’ve been accused over the centuries of bringing the plague because we often didn’t get it as badly as the neighbours. Jewish houses had to be scrupulously clean; look at getting rid of the hometz before Passover.

As many as 50,000 Brits will have died from this pandemic and, percentagewise, we’ve lost more of the community than our numbers justify.  Is there any doubt that if we’d  followed the laws in the Talmud we would have done better.

It isn’t about what kind of Jew you are; from Charedi to Liberal. It’s about a lot of very clever ancestors who came up with the right answers. They went so far as to make it a law that every Biblical Jewish soldier had to be given a spade to bury their effluent. We will not go into what happened at the Palace of Versailles. At Balmoral after the First World War, the Prince of Wales didn’t have a bathroom.

I’m staying locked down until the virus has disappeared. The vast majority of the Jewish fatalities were over 65.

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book