World of the Sages: Bless you

While a sneeze is a reflexive response to an irritation in the nose, it is also an opportunity to privately thank the Almighty for our soul.

The Talmud offers a list of six things that are propitious signs for the ill: sneezing, perspiration, loose bowel movements, seminal discharges, sleep and dreaming (B. Brachot 57b). What is so encouraging about these physical, almost uncontrollable, actions? Let us look at the simple sneeze, a mere twitch in the nose that results in a reflex action from the lungs. To answer this question we need to explore the history of the sneeze as it has been transmitted in our literature. Our sages tell originally there was no sickness in the world (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 52). Thus the universe was created: When people's sojourn in this world was over and the time of their demise arrived, wherever they were and without prior warning they would sneeze and the force of the exhalation would expel their inner soul and they would die. Just as the Almighty granted life by blowing a soul into an earthly body, a sneeze would expel that godly life-force, sending it back to its maker and returning the body to its previous state as a clump of earth. Our forefather Jacob turned to the Almighty saying: "Master of the universe, don't take my soul from me before I have the opportunity to give final instructions and guidance to my children and to my household," and God acquiesced to his request. Indeed, Jacob is the first biblical personality to fall ill before dying, and when he lies on his deathbed, he promptly calls his grandchildren and then his children to be blessed before he dies (Genesis 48-49). Our sages describe the astonishment of various leaders, as they had heretofore never encountered a sick person on his deathbed. In a parallel source, a different explanation of Jacob's request is offered (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 874). The opportunity for the sneezer to prepare for death by offering parting blessings is not the focus of the request. Rather, Jacob saw how children quarrel after a parent's demise. With the occasion to offer parting words, the parent can clarify final wishes and try to prevent arguments between children; an understandable concern for Jacob, given his family history. Sneezing - without dropping dead - is therefore a sign of life. In this light we can understand the biblical passage where Elisha revives the son of the Shunamite woman, and he awakens with seven sneezes before opening his eyes (II Kings 2:35). With this background we can also understand the grandiose statement of one of the talmudic sages - a habitual sneezer - who reported the following tradition, adding that it was equal to all the rest of his learning: It is a good omen when one sneezes during prayer, for just as the sneezer feels relief in this world after sneezing, thus the sneezer shall feel relief in supernal worlds after praying (B. Brachot 24b with Rashi). The aggadic account of the history of the sneeze concludes with a practical instruction: In light of this change in human nature, when a person hears someone else sneeze, they should respond with the blessing "Life!" While blessing someone with good health after a sneeze is a courteous and considerate response, some sages were against the practice. Two reservations about such a blessing were voiced (T. Shabbat 7:3). One concern was that calling out "Bless you!" after a person sneezes would disrupt Torah study. This was the practice in the royal household of Rabban Gamliel (B. Brachot 53a), though it is unclear how widespread this stricture was. Even so, outside the beit midrash this reservation does not appear to apply and a blessing following a sneeze is acceptable. A second concern was that offering a blessing after a sneeze was reminiscent of non-Jewish pagan practices and as such circumscribed. Indeed we have much evidence that offering a blessing after a sneeze was a prevalent practice in ancient times among non-Jews. The Greeks, for instance, assigned much importance to the sneeze, telling tales of how the sneezes of their deities foretold events or served as omens. It is not difficult to understand why some of our sages were concerned that saying "Bless you!" after a sneeze was perilously close to pagan beliefs. Despite these concerns, later codifiers recommend offering the sneezer a short blessing. As one authority outlined, the appropriate blessing for a sneeze is "Health" and the sneezer should respond by first saying "You should be blessed," and then offering a short prayer in the form of a biblical verse (Genesis 49:18): "I yearn for Your salvation, God" (Maharshal, 16th century, Poland). Another talmudic passage warns against blessing oneself after sneezing during a meal, lest the sneezer-blesser chokes on the food (J. Brachot 10d). From this passage it is obvious that it was acceptable for people to offer themselves blessings after sneezing, though not while eating. Returning to the aggadic explanation of the origins and development of the sneeze: It is not uncommon for ancient traditions to offer metaphysical accounts that explain natural phenomena. These narratives do not aim to historically explain the phenomena of the natural world. Indeed, a critical scientific eye would quickly dismiss them as nonsense. Their goal, rather, is to frame our reality in a meaningful manner. Such narratives, therefore, tell the story of the beliefs and aspirations of those who retell the story, carefully passing it from one generation to the next. As such, these narratives can - and should - be mined for meaning by all those who hold the narrative sacred. This endeavor seeks to reveal the truth; albeit not the historical or scientific truth. This truth hidden within is the story of our identity, it is our collective memory, it reflects who we are. While a sneeze is a reflexive response to an irritation in the nose, an involuntary expulsion of air from the lungs, it is also an opportunity to bless one another and to privately thank the Almighty for the soul that we have inside of us. This soul is an integral part of our being that cannot be merely expelled like a dusty irritant. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.