What Would the Sages Say about Coronavirus?

Yesterday, I came upon a video of televangelist and Conservative Pastor Kenneth Copeland “healing” his viewers of coronavirus through the television:

… Put your hand on that television set. Hallelujah. Thank you, Lord Jesus. He received your healing. Now say it: “I take it. I have it. It’s mine. I thank you and praise you for it…

Obviously this is an example of the outliers in our world, those who hold onto fundamentalist charismatic denominations of faith; however, it should give Jews (and members of all faiths) pause as both the idea of healing through prayer and the denial of science have become far too mainstream over the last half-decade.  I thought it prudent, therefore, to remind all of what our sages had to say about illness and health and how they relate to faith and practice.  The most notable quotation comes from the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116, which states:

One must refrain from putting coins in one’s mouth, lest it’s covered with dried saliva of those afflicted with boils. He should not put the palm of his hand in his arm pit, lest his hand touched a metzorah or a harmful poison. He should not put a loaf of bread under his armpit, because of the sweat. He should not put a cooked item or drinks under the bed, since an evil spirit rests on them. He should not stick a knife in an esrog or a radish, lest one fall on its edge and die.

Hagah: Similarly, he should be careful of all things that cause danger, because danger is stricter than transgressions, and one should be more careful with an uncertain danger than with an uncertain issur. They also prohibited to go in a dangerous place, such as under a leaning wall, or alone at night. They also prohibited to drink water from rivers at night or to put one’s mouth on a stream of water and drink, because these matters have a concern of danger. It is the widespread custom not to drink water during the equinox, and the early ones wrote this and it is not to be changed. They also wrote to flee from the city when a plague is in the city, and one should leave at the beginning of the plague and not at the end. And all of these things are because of the danger, and a person who guards his soul will distance himself from them and it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.

While there is a great deal to unpack here, but most importantly is the “hagah” the edit from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, which deals specifically with idea of danger and performing acts to avoid that danger.  The matters of not putting coins in our mouths, protecting ourselves from knives, not getting sweat on our bread, are all well and good, but Isserles sums up what we should truly take away from this passage and what is most essential:

And all of these things are because of the danger, and a person who guards his soul will distance himself from them and it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.

These last words should be what guide us through this new pandemic of the coronavirus: “it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.”  Even the rabbis of old knew that there were some things we could not pray away, and that faith alone would not stop the spread of disease on our hands, or in the air.  Additionally, by stating, “one should leave at the beginning of the plague and not at the end,” Isserles tells us to act now, rather than later.  As we have seen in places such as Washington State, taking action when infection has spread is already too late.  While I don’t intend to take Isserles’ advice literally here, to leave, I do think it practical to protect ourselves and others by acting now.  I’ll add to these words, those from Rabbi Bernard Fox, who speaks to the words of Rav Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 192:3:

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains that a person who refrains from consulting a physician and instead relies on Hashem’s intervention is making the implicit assumption that he is a righteous person deserving of a miracle.  Kitzur Shulchan Aruch points out that this is a shockingly haughty attitude.  The Torah distains haughtiness and requires that we conduct ourselves with humility.  Humility demands that we do not regard ourselves as tzadikim – as righteous people deserving of a miracle from Hashem.

We must never be arrogant enough to think that we should not see a doctor, or think that a miracle will save us from the very real scientific dangers of our world.  Let’s go a little farther back and take a look at Mishnah Yoma, chapter 8, which states:

If one is seized with a pathological craving [for food], he is to be fed even with unkosher food, until he recovers. A person who is bitten by a mad dog must not be fed any of the dog’s liver, but Rabbi Matya ben Charash permits it. Moreover, Rabbi Matya ben Charash said, If a person has a sore throat, it is permitted to put medicines into his mouth on the Sabbath, because of possible danger to his life, and whatever threatens to endanger life supersedes [the observance of] the Sabbath.

Again, let’s avoid the preamble about mad dogs and dog’s liver, and look to the teachings of Rabbi Matya ben Charash who invokes the idea of S’fayk N’fashot, that which endangers life or threatens to endanger life.  Observance of Sabbath, indeed observance of any commandment is superseded by the choice to preserve life.  Therefore, if we have the choice of attending a Shabbat service or staying home during this time of pandemic, we should feel no guilt, and understand no violation of halacha by staying home and keeping ourselves and our family’s safe from possible infection.  With the grocery stores emptying and food choices becoming possibly more limited, those who keep the dietary laws should consider suspending kashrut in order to nourish themselves safely in their home.  Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Sabbath, chapter 2) speaks to this Mishnah ruling as well:

Like all the other commandments, Shabbat is overridden by danger to life. Hence we  execute all of the needs of an ill person in mortal danger according to the word of an expert physician in that place on Shabbat. When there is a doubt whether there is a need to profane the Shabbat for him or there is not a need, and likewise if [one] physician said to profane the Shabbat for him but another physician said he does not need [it], we profane the Shabbat. For [even] a doubt about [danger to] life overrides the Shabbat….

The last words should be, again, our mantra: “For [even] a doubt about [danger to] life overrides the Shabbat….”  Maimonides teaches that we should over-react, not underreact to danger, and thoughts and doubts in our head are valid and should be taken seriously during these times.  More notably, Maimonides puts the responsibility to determine the danger in the hands of the “physician,” not the spiritual leader.  It is doctors to whom we should listen, and if their orders or recommendations contrast with our Jewish traditions and rituals, we should listen to the doctors and override our commandments.   I think it also noteworthy to mention another teaching by Maimonides, this time from Mishneh Torah (Murderer and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11):

There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard — — he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.

Once again, the last lines should be what we take from this text: “any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.”  What would be an obstruction that is a danger to life?  One might argue that it is the slow or poor response from government officials, the lack of adequate health care and sick-leave, or the misinformation streaming from our leadership and media outlets.  All of these must be changed if we are to preserve life.  We must remove all obstacles in the way so what we can adequately preserve life in our communities and in the nation.  I should like to end with words from the Talmud, Sanhedrin, 73a:

From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river, or being dragged away by a wild animal, or being attacked by bandits [listin], is obligated to save him? The Torah states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another.” The Gemara answers: Yes, it is indeed so that this verse relates to the obligation to save one whose life is in danger.

During this time of uncertainty and danger, the rabbis and sages teach us that we cannot stand idly by as others are exposed to infection or remain unprotected.  There are those in our community who lack the funds for adequate healthcare, those whose children rely upon school lunches for their meals and are now without them with school closures, and those must make the terrible choice of going to work to provide or a family or stay home to provide childcare.  Make no mistake, these issues rest under the obligation to save a life in danger.  We are taught that we must not stand idly by.  While we must preserve our lives and the lives of those in our family, we cannot shut our doors to those who are also in danger.  It is my sincere hope that during these times of pandemic and uncertainty, we not only rely upon the directions from physicians and CDC because we are in the 21st century, but also because our sages from the Medieval period and before, many centuries ago, knew where to draw the line between faith and fanaticism.  The rabbis of old knew that a religious people can and should seek medical attention and trust in the scientific knowledge of physicians and secular experts.  By following the rules set forth by the CDC and others, we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, who knew that to preserve life is of the utmost importance, and that this is no time for blind faith or miracles.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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