As we hunker down in our homes, sequestered from society and gripped by uncertainty about what the future may hold, it is tempting to succumb to the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything mankind has ever known, an idea that only further exacerbates the situation.
But such thinking is not only feckless and unhelpful, it is also patently untrue. And while the coronavirus has indeed taken a devastating toll in human life and agony, it is important to view things in the proper historical perspective, if only because doing so may help to alleviate, even somewhat, the anxiety that many people feel.
No less crucial is the fact that by casting a glance backwards, we can see that there is much to be learned and even an element of reassurance to be derived from how our ancestors contended with far graver epidemics.
But first let us assess the cold, harsh facts.
It is undeniable that the annals of mankind are filled with countless examples of contagion and pestilence.
Among the most infamous is the Black Death of the 14th century, which halved the population of Europe.
In the Great Plague of London in 1665-6, nearly a quarter of the city’s population perished, while the Third Plague Pandemic, which struck beginning in 1855, led to more than 1 million deaths in China and over 10 million in India.
Sadly, there are numerous other instances as well.
But we should not lose sight of how fortunate we are to live in an age where medicine, science and public health are more advanced than ever, providing us with policy tools and solutions that previous generations could not have imagined.
Indeed, as deadly as the coronavirus has thus far proven to be, both in absolute numbers and in percentage terms it does not even remotely approach the outbreaks mentioned above.
That may seem like small comfort, but when compared to living in medieval Europe while the bubonic plague swept the continent, our overall situation is significantly more encouraging.
Consider the following. Among the “cures” that were tried to stem the Black Death, medieval medical practitioners would engage in blood-letting, where they intentionally cut a vein to drain “hot blood” from the body, or instruct those stricken with the disease to sit in the sewer in the hopes that doing so would drive away one’s symptoms.
We have thankfully come a long way since then.
In terms of the Jewish approach to contagion, it is instructive to see how prescient our tradition was with regard to ways with which to grapple with infectious disease.
In Bava Kamma 60a, the Talmud says, based on a verse in Isaiah, “Our Sages taught: If there is plague in the city, gather your feet”, meaning that you must limit the time you spend outside your home, “as it is stated in the verse: ‘And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning.’” This is further elucidated to mean complete, round-the-clock seclusion until the danger has passed.
As if to underline the importance of self-quarantine, the Talmud goes on to note that the sage Rava would close the windows of his home during an epidemic.
Similarly, in Tractate Ketubot 77b, while discussing an infectious skin disease known as ra’atan, the Talmud states that, “Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra’atan,” which clearly indicates the need to be careful around those who have contracted the disease.
It further states that, “Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan”, suggesting the need for social distancing, “and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived”, possibly out of fear that the illness could survive on surfaces for a period of time.
More recently, in 1831, when a cholera epidemic struck Poland, Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher of the community of Pleszew wrote to his teacher, the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who was the spiritual leader of Poznan’s Jews, asking him what to do.
Rabbi Eiger, who is best known for his glosses and commentaries on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), answered with a series of directives that included imposing strict limits on the size of public gatherings such as prayer services, urging people to stay clean and maintain proper hygiene, and asking the police to enforce the necessary restrictions on the public.
To say that many of the recommendations adopted by Israel’s Health Ministry in recent weeks echo those espoused by Jewish tradition would be an understatement.
But no less crucial, particularly now as we find ourselves confined to our homes for prolonged periods of time, is to ensure that we maintain our mental fortitude and refuse to give in to despair.
“Do not worry, and stay away from all forms of sadness,” Rabbi Eiger advised, and his words are equally relevant to our current situation.
A simple yet profound tip as to how to do just that, and make the most of our social isolation, beyond just catching up on Netflix and sharing funny internet memes, is one that dates back more than 2,500 years, when the prophet Isaiah (26:20) wrote, “Go, my people, enter into your rooms and close your doors about you; hide for a moment, until the wrath passes”.
In one of his explanations of the verse, the great medieval commentator Rashi, quoting Rabbi Tanhuma, explains, “Think about your deeds, in the chambers of your heart”.
So rather than just staring at the four walls all day and bemoaning the world’s fate, we should all strive to keep things in perspective and utilize to the fullest the time that we now have whether for personal introspection and improvement or for reaching out and helping others.
That, in a nutshell, is how Jews have always responded to crisis and, in this respect, corona must be no different.
The writer is founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.