“If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee” (Exodus 15:26).”
Throughout much of history, the Jewish response to plagues was to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are told in the Book of Numbers (17:13) when an epidemic killed Israelites following Korah’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the dying stopped only once Aaron burned incense to assuage God’s wrath.
Later, during King David’s reign, when an epidemic ravaged the Kingdom of Israel only a prescribed sacrifice offered by the king could advert further loss of life.
“The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. did not weaken the conviction that their God, the one true God, controlled epidemics, but it did change the way Jews appealed to him when disease struck. No more could they assuage his anger with animal sacrifice and the sweet savor of incense, so new procedures were developed.”
According to the Mishnah and other rabbinical writings when an epidemic struck a community, its Jewish residents would assemble for communal prayer and fasting.
Several years before the catastrophic influenza pandemic struck the world in 1918, calamitous plagues were killing millions in the Middle East. After 1914, the region suffered from malaria, typhus, cholera, dysentery, smallpox, and venereal disease. The disastrous locust plague that struck the Holy Land stripped the land of crops. What food the civilians had hoarded would be looted by Turkish soldiers. Tens of thousands of civilian residents would perish from hunger and illness.
During the World War I campaign in the Middle East, more soldiers died from epidemic diseases than from bullets. Louse-borne typhus, cholera from contaminated water, and malarial mosquitos were often the lethal agents. One-third of Jerusalem’s population died from the epidemics that struck well before the 1918 influenza pandemic. Hundreds of Jews from Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza who were affiliated with the Turkish military base in Beersheba. When they returned to their homes, the plague spread like wildfire.
The Ottoman army was abysmally prepared for the disease and public health challenges it was unleashing. According to Professor Melanie Schulze-Tanielian of the University of Michigan, “Widespread epidemics consumed Ottoman soldiers and civilians alike during the Great War…. Typhus, malaria, and relapsing fever, transmitted via disease-infected lice, mosquitoes, and ticks were the deadliest assailants, followed by bacterial diseases like dysentery and typhoid.”
Prof. Schulze-Tanielian continued: “The [Ottoman] empire’s poor infrastructure contributed to the spread of disease. Limited trains to and from the fronts were often packed to capacity, meaning that common soldiers and microbes were crammed under unsanitary conditions into freight cars over long stretches of time… The fact that soldiers often had to march to and from the front made it difficult for Ottoman sanitary officials to maintain adequate hygiene. It was during these marches that soldiers would at random mingle with civilians, picking up or leaving behind germs and microbes…”
The Jewish Response:
A century ago, there was, an interesting Jewish response to a life-threatening epidemic.
The Shvartze Chassaneh, the Black Wedding, took place in response to the terrible waves of cholera, typhus, and influenza that ravaged the Jews of Eastern Europe, Israel, and North America. Although its origins are entirely unknown, the Black Wedding had been imported from Eastern Europe, where it had been practiced since the eighteenth century. The earliest recorded Black Wedding was performed in 1785 in the presence of one of the great founders of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Elimelich of ּּLizhensk. It took place in response to an outbreak of cholera.
In 1865 Black Weddings took place in both Safed and Jerusalem, following another natural disaster: a massive plague of locusts that had destroyed the crops and resulted in the deaths of many hundreds. The wedding took place on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and was attended by many. It was described as “a very joyous occasion.” An eyewitness account reported that “the leaders of that holy city 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 the Ari z”l [Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi] and the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Karo]. For this was a tradition that they had, and thanks to God who removed this deathly outbreak from among them.”
This ceremony was also performed in Winnipeg, Canada on November 11, 1918. Under the headline “Hebrews Hold ‘Wedding of Death’ to Halt Flu,” a local newspaper reported that the elaborate wedding had been planned for more than a month. “At one end of the cemetery a quorum of ten Jews conducted a funeral. At the other, 1,000 Gentiles and Jews witnessed the wedding… Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman were contracting parties at the wedding. Rabbis Khanovitch and Gorodsy officiated.”
“The ceremony was simple: a man and women, each unmarried and either impoverished, orphaned, or disabled (sometimes all three) were married together as husband and wife under a huppah – in a cemetery. The couple’s new home was established with donations by the community. With this act of group hesed, it was hoped that the plague would be averted.”
For example, as the Jews of Philadelphia gathered in a cemetery with the goal of defeating the deadly influenza outbreak. By the time it was finally over, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 claimed 50-100 million lives worldwide. In the U.S. over 670,000 people died…”
According to newspaper reports, community leaders in Philadelphia selected Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg as their bride and groom. The two were married at the “first line of graves in the Jewish cemetery” near Cobbs Creek at 3pm on Friday October 25, 1918. More than a thousand Jews watched as Rabbi Lipschutz officiated at the huppah. “And when amid their stark surroundings,” the report continued, “the couple were pronounced man and wife, the orthodox among the spectators filed solemnly past the couple and made them presents of money in sums from ten cents to a hundred dollars, according to the means and circumstances of the donor, until more than $1,000 had been given.”
The Jewish community had chosen this intervention so that “the attention of God would be called to the affliction of their fellows if the most humble man and woman among them should join in marriage in the presence of the dead.”
In 1918 viruses had yet to be discovered. A century ago there were many theories about what we cause “influenza”, whose very name points to its presumed etiology. It comes from the Italian word meaning influence, because it was believed that the disease was caused by an inauspicious alignment of the planets.
As we also know, throughout much of history, Jews were often blamed for such plagues. At the time of the “Black Death” in the 14th Century, many Jewish communities were destroyed as mobs held the Jews for being responsible.
There were other early beliefs as well. The famous seventeenth-century English physician Thomas Sydenham believed these epidemics were related to heavy rains that filled the blood with “crude and watery particles.” Following a devastating outbreak of influenza in the winter of 1889 there were rumors that the epidemic had been brought to Britain by imported Russian oats, which were eaten by horses who then spread the infection into the human population. Other theories of origin included rotting animal carcasses, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and effluvia discharged into the air from the bowels of the earth.
In trying to respond, some used organic remedies: burning orange peels or dicing onions to sterilize the room. Others recommended Friar’s balsam, a small handful of eucalyptus leaves, or tonics containing quinine. Physicians often prescribed laxatives for their patients, while others recommended alcohol. “There is no finer pick-me-up after an attack of influenza,” wrote one American physician, “than good ‘fiz.’”
Some physicians resorted to bloodletting, the practice of draining the body of blood, and therefore, in theory, of toxins and disease. It had been a mainstream medical practice for more than two thousand years. The procedure is frequently described in the Talmud, which mandated a blessing to be made before it was undertaken. In 1918 British doctors had performed bloodletting on ailing servicemen. They claimed it had worked, and published their experience in the British Medical Journal. We look back in horror, but at the time it was cutting-edge science.
As one physician noted: “Let them wear a rabbit’s foot on a gold watch chain if they want it, and if it will help them to get rid of the physiological action of fear.”
In the early nineteenth century and in response to their own outbreaks of cholera, we noted that various communities observed a public day of fasting and prayer “by designation of the civil authorities.”
Combining the skills of his advanced training in pediatrics and his doctorate in history, Howard Markel in Quarantine! analyzes outbreaks of typhus and cholera to document that disease is far more than the simple interaction of human and microbe. He has chosen the population of his ancestors, immigrants from Russia to New York City, to display the complex interactions of class, politics, medicine, nativism, fear and scorn of “the other,” the development of quarantine policy, and the administration of public health in New York City and Washington,
Even today, as conspiracy theories abound identifying Asians, Jews and others for being responsible for COVID-19, fear and fiction still hold a place in how human beings respond to pandemics.