A number of Jewish prayers have been composed since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic at the end of 2019. Their contents reflect differing approaches to prayer and the practice of medicine.
Over the course of the 1,200 years since the writing of the first known siddur (daily prayer book), Siddur Rabbi Amram Ga’on (circa 850 CE), many prayers have been written throughout the Jewish world.
In my opinion, the Jewish prayer book is the “memoir” of the Jewish people. A praying Jew sometime in the future will one day read the prayers that were written in our present times – even if they are not formally incorporated into the siddur – and will be able to recreate the events of the pandemic in 2020. The prayers that I have chosen to present here reflect different religious worldviews among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, dozens of Jewish prayers for a cure and salvation have been written. In this context, I will present several new prayers that I consider noteworthy. Of course, even before turning to prayer, one must follow the guidance of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and make sure to adhere to the instructions provided by medical professionals as to how to avoid infection and transmission of the disease as much as possible.
Prayer of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef
This prayer makes prominent use of quotes from the siddur and the High Holy Day prayer services, as well as quotes from various verses. The prayer begins with the words, “Yehi Ratzon” (May it be your will), a common opening for prayers since the time of the Mishna. A number of words appear frequently in the text, emphasizing the focus of the prayer and the difficulty in coping with the disease. The request for healing and the reference to God as the healer appear seven times, and the request for compassion appears five times; synonyms for disease appear seven times, and decrees are mentioned four times.
May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that You be filled with compassion for all of the inhabitants of the world and the inhabitants of this land, and protect them from all harsh and evil decrees that rage and come upon the world. And save us from all harm, plague, disease, and sickness. And heal all the sick who have contracted the disease with a complete recovery. Yours, O God, are greatness, might, splendor, triumph, and majesty – all that is in heaven and on earth; to You, O God, belong kingship and preeminence above all.
In Your hand is every living soul and the breath of all mankind, and in Your hand lies the strength and the power to make great and strengthen and to heal one whose soul has been brought to utter dismay, and nothing is too difficult for you.
Therefore, may it be Your will – O faithful God, merciful Father, the One who heals all of the illnesses of His nation, Israel, O faithful Healer – to send healing and succor and to deal with great kindness, grace, and compassion with all those who have contracted this disease. We beg of You, O God – may Your mercies be upon all the inhabitants of the earth and upon all of Your nation, Israel. Rise, we beg, from the Throne of Justice and sit on the Throne of Mercy; act beyond the letter of the law and nullify from upon us all the harsh and evil decrees – “Phineas stepped forth and intervened and the plague ceased” And decree upon us decrees of good and salvation and comfort, for the sake of Your compassion, and rip the evil decrees of punishment against us, and may our merits be brought before You. Rise up and help us and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.
Listen, we beg, to the sound of our pleas, for Your are the One who listens to the prayers of every mouth. Blessed is the One who listens to prayer.
May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.
“I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.” Amen.
World Organization of Orthodox Synagogues
On March 8, 2020 (12 Adar 5780), the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues published a special prayer to be recited “during the Shabbat services of the upcoming weeks.” This prayer begins with the well-known opening “Mi She-Berakh.” It makes a direct request for the health of “those who are ill with the coronavirus,” that God “send them a complete recovery from Heaven” and that He “protect us and all those who are ill.” Like the previous text we examined, this prayer includes many phrases taken from well-known prayers, such as the reference to “the One who makes peace and creates everything” from the Shacharit service and “a complete recovery from Heaven” from the blessing of Rosh Hodesh (new month). The author or authors of this prayer clearly wanted the text to be easily adopted by those reciting it.
It is notable that the authors of the prayer seemed to be under the impression that the pandemic would last only a short time, as they instituted that the prayer should be recited only on Shabbat “of the upcoming weeks.”
A Prayer for the Jewish People and the Inhabitants of the Entire World
The One who blessed the forefathers of the world and the forefathers of Israel, the One who makes peace and creates everything, should bless all the creations of His hands, those who are ill with the coronavirus that is presently raging throughout the world. May God listen to the prayers of all of His creations and respond to them, as Solomon prayed: “May You hear in Your heavenly abode and grant whatever the foreigner appeals to You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel” (II Chron. 6:33). May God send them a complete recovery from Heaven, and may He strengthen and cure them.
May it be Your will to renew the order of the word as it was before. Protect us and all those who are ill, so that they will become healthy, so that we will merit to thank You and praise You, and so that the world will be filled with Your glory. For the kingship belongs to You and You will rule in glory forever, as it states in Your Torah, “God will rule forever and ever.” May this be Your will, and we will say, Amen.
‘Mi She-Berakh’ for the wellbeing of those ill with coronavirus
The prayer composed by hazan Prof. Joseph Malovany, a native Israeli who has served as the chief cantor of the Orthodox Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City for more than 40 years, is a prayer on behalf of those who have contracted the coronavirus. An experienced hazan who teaches liturgy in Yeshiva University, Malovany connects his new text with the “Mi She-Berakh” on behalf of the ill recited during the Torah reading on Shabbat morning. In an adaptation for modern times, he adds the foremothers alongside the forefathers in the introductory line. Like the previous two prayers, this prayer also requests healing for non-Jews as well: “May He swiftly send the ill of His nation Israel and all the inhabitants of the world a complete recovery from Heaven.” He who blessed our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David, and Solomon, and our foremothers, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the Healer of broken hearts who binds up their wounds, the One who makes salvations sprout, the Creator of cures – I call out to You, and You will heal me. He should bless and cure all those afflicted by the coronavirus in every place in the world, because we are all praying for them and their wellbeing.
In that merit, may the Holy One, blessed be He, be filled with mercy for them to cure them and to heal them, to strengthen them and to revive them, and may He swiftly send the ill of His nation Israel and all the inhabitants of the world a complete recovery from Heaven, to their 248 organs and 365 sinews, a healing of the soul and a healing of the body.
May this terrible plague be swiftly obliterated, and may He save us from all suffering and anguish and from all afflictions and illnesses. [On Shabbat – On Shabbat we refrain from crying out, but the cure will come soon] [On Festivals – On festivals we refrain from crying out, but the cure will come soon] Now, swiftly, and soon – and we all say, Amen.
The non-Orthodox movements have also produced creative liturgical solutions in response to the pandemic. In the following prayer, Rabbi Zev Keinan of the Conservative movement presents a request for healing for all of humanity and emphasizes the request for protection from illness and the hope that the pandemic will come to an end: Answer us, Lord our God, for we are in great distress. Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously, distance from us all injury and disease and save us from all suffering and anguish. Fulfill the words, “No plague will destroy you… and He will not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” Eliminate, in Your great kindness, all destruction and disease from among Your sons and daughters. And fulfill in us and in every man and woman in the world the words of the verse, “No harm will befall you, no disease touch your tent.” Give of Your great power, “For I am the Lord, your Healer,” upon all the inhabitants of Your world and upon all healers of the sick, wherever they may be, that they have the wisdom to heal the sick and prevent the disease from harming the creations of Your hand. Give them wisdom and knowledge to find a vaccine for the virus, speedily in our days. Guard our going out and coming in, for life and peace, now and forever. And fulfill in us soon the words of the verse, “And the plague ceased.” May it be your will, Amen.
A very different prayer was composed by Bini Talmi of the Niggun HaLev community in the Jezreel Valley. Talmi makes widespread use of language from the Bible and prayers to create a new liturgical text:
Happy are those who dwell in Your house, exiled now through no fault of their own/ The captives who are bound, who have been expelled from their work/ The unemployed who are anxious regarding their livelihood/ The fathers and mothers who are with their children in their homes/ Whose sustenance is provided in a gift at their doorstep / Their hearts go out to the members of their family/ And no one comes to their home to be there with them/ Only the wonders of the computer remain to comfort them/ When they lack their community/ And they recite a pure prayer for their health./ Hear Israel and give blessing to those who are tired on their watch/ To the medical and security forces, who bend under the weight of their obligation/ Give us hope that the evil will pass and the foundations of the world will return to their sanity/ Open once again the borders of hope between nations in their countries/ Seek the peace of nations and destroy their weapons of war/ May their comfort be only man to man and man to his world/ May a new friendship sprout in the world that will heal after their death/May the produce of the field shower upon them only good/ The innocent human melody has not yet passed, has not yet concluded/ Then men will rise from their beds and the path will straighten as they walk/ The aged will walk in the streets, leaning upon their canes/ Young boys and girls will return to their celebrations/ And like the north star will their righteousness shine./ God of the quarantined and the lonely, please, hear their prayers!
The following prayer was composed by the Pardes Institute’s liturgist-in-residence, Alden Solovy, in both Hebrew and English:
May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers, that You cast the light of health and wellbeing on those who have been exposed to coronavirus, those who have contracted the disease, and those who contract the disease in the future, God forbid. Bless them, protect them, and bring them speedily to full recovery. Send them healing of soul, healing of body, and healing of spirit. And let us say, Amen.
The final prayer was composed in English by Reform Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah. The Jewish component is not emphasized in this prayer, but the distress caused by the pandemic is very evident:
Eternal One, Rock of our lives, we turn to you in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, seeking refuge and a foothold – and also encouragement as we try to find our own courage.
As social distancing prevents us from experiencing the joys of life in community, may the need to withdraw and stay well be accompanied by the urge to reach out to others with compassion and care and to forge and renew connections, even in the absence of physical contact.
Recalling the trials of those who went before us and their endurance and survival, may we find the strength to endure even in the face of pain and loss, and the insight to know that this challenging time will pass.
As the natural world renews itself, may we be inspired by the wonders and marvels of the Earth to discover through this crisis pathways to renewal and new hope.
And let us say, Amen.
THE PRAYERS we have cited here are a small sample of the myriad of prayers that have been composed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to challenge physicians and researchers to stop the infection, heal the sick, and discover a cure and vaccine.
Although Judaism is an ancient religion that may seem to be so rooted in the past that it does not advance at all, these prayers reflect that Judaism has its “finger on the pulse” of contemporary life. In addition to pursuing medical treatments, faith continues to lead the Jew from his birth until his dying day.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that the longer the pandemic lasts, the more prayers will be composed and recited in synagogues and by individuals, expressing the hope for healing and protection from the coronavirus. The effects of this ongoing pandemic are what will determine the status of these prayers in the future.