Life & Culture

The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics from the Bible to Covid-19

A deep dive into a world of medieval superstition


In March 2020, as the first wave of Covid-19 swept through Israel, three seemingly unconnected events among the flurry of responses to the pandemic took place.

The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau declared a half-day fast. “As Jews … we know that the hand of divine providence is behind all of this,” he said. “It comes to ask something of us.” He repeated the call the following January.

The Shas political party, which represents Orthodox Sephardi and Mitzrahi Jews and forms part of the current Israeli government coalition, handed out amulets, promising they would protect the bearer from coronavirus. (They didn’t protect Shas from being fined NIS 7,500 by the Central Elections Committee.)

And in the strictly Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, a wedding took place in the Ponevezh cemetery, beneath a chupah with several dozen guests in attendance.

These events may have appeared unrelated but there was indeed a link between them: they were all traditional Jewish responses to plagues (as pandemics used to be called), harking back hundreds or thousands of years to times when there were few or no medical or public-health measures that could halt the spread of deadly diseases such as bubonic plague (the Black Death), cholera and smallpox.

All people could do was turn to religion or superstition in the hope of saving themselves.

Jeremy Brown, physician, historian of science and medicine, and director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the US National Institutes of Health, has written a survey of these Jewish responses, which is both scholarly and readable.

He starts, of course, with the flight from Egypt, and the ten plagues we were recently reminded of during Passover. The 11th plague of the book’s title takes in all the subsequent epidemics that have devastated the world up the present day, as we have all recently experienced.

The command to fast during an epidemic goes back to the Talmud and has been regularly invoked by the rabbis ever since. But, Brown points out, it is not just a Jewish tradition: Britain proclaimed four national fasts to combat bubonic plague between 1593 and 1636, while as late as 1832 William IV did the same in a (vain) attempt to head off cholera.

Amulets, as weapons against plague and illness, also date back to the Talmud but again reflected a wider belief in their efficacy. Amulets containing the word “Abracadabra” were recommended as a guard against malaria by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla in the 3rd century CE, and stayed popular for 1,500 years.

The origin of the word came from a demon’s name — written down, it lost a letter line by line, and when it was down to “A” the demon was believed to have disappeared. Rashi, too, was a fan, and indeed the amulets were popular during bubonic plague outbreaks in 17th-century London, according to Daniel Defoe.

In addition, the Chasidic communities of Eastern Europe would sometimes hold “Plague weddings” in cemeteries. The couples being married might be orphans or poor, homeless people.

The reasoning behind them is obscure: one theory is that poor couples were being offered up as sort of scapegoats, another is that children represented hope for the future.
Like fasting and amulets, there is no evidence the weddings were in the least bit effective. But there was good reason for Jewish communities to do whatever they could to fight plagues because they were often blamed for them in the first place.

Jews were frequently the first to suffer in epidemics because of their poor living conditions; this in turn led to them being blamed for the spread of the disease.

It happened again with Covid: Rick Wiles, founder of a US Christian TV channel, accused Jews of starting and spreading the virus for “opposing Jesus Christ”.

To this day, some Jews believe that they themselves are indeed to blame for epidemics as divine retribution for their sins.

But as Jeremy Brown explains throughout his fascinating work, Jewish scholars and physicians have since the earliest times worked to combat plagues and supported non-Jews engaged in the same task, such as Rabbi Israel Lipschitz (1782-1860) of Danzig, who praised Edward Jenner and other non-Jewish scientists who “have improved the fate of all humanity, like the pious Jenner who invented the smallpox vaccination, as a result of which thousands were saved from illness, death and disfigurement”.

The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics from the Bible to Covid-19
By Jeremy Brown
Oxford University Press, £22.99

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