The seemingly hackneyed phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same” appeared to be the overarching theme in Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman’s recent Zoom presentation, sponsored by the Dr. Bertram z”l & Ann Newman Adult Education Program of the Young Israel of Teaneck. Throughout his lecture, Rabbi Dr. Reichman addressed the halachic issues that have been raised during the past almost 10 months as compared with discussions of these same topics as far back as the Black Death in 1347.
Rabbi Dr. Reichman is highly qualified to tackle a topic as overarching as “Precedented Times: The History of Pandemics in Rabbinic Literature.” Rabbi Reichman is a professor of emergency medicine and professor in the Division of Education and Bioethics in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva University and M.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In addition to his full-time clinical practice in emergency medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, Rabbi Reichman lectures internationally on Jewish medical ethics and has authored many journal articles on Jewish medical ethics and Jewish medical history.
In providing a history of past pandemics, Dr. Reichman defined a pandemic as being a “worldwide epidemic” such as what we are currently experiencing. Past pandemics included the Black Death in 1347-1351, the London Plague of 1665, the Italian Plague of 1629-1631, and six cholera outbreaks from 1817 through 1923. The death toll from these historical plagues was in the tens of millions. The more recent plagues were Yellow Fever and the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.
Masechet Ta’anit (3:4) defines a plague as a city with 500 residents that has experienced three deaths in three days. In Gemara Bava Kama (60b) we are told that when a plague hits we are to “shelter in place.” However the Rama (116:5) during the years 1500-1600 suggests fleeing the infected city to a place where the air will not be “putrified” by the transmission of germs. The Rama took his own advice and fled to Shidlov from where he sent his family a sefer of halachot in lieu of mishloach manot on Purim. Rabbi Jacob Sasportas fled London in 1666 during the Great Plague claiming he was “fleeing from the fear of the destroying hand of the Lord.”
In terms of mask-wearing, the earliest source can be found in the Torah itself. When outlining the laws pertaining to the leper, Sefer Vayikra tells us that the afflicted must “rent his clothing, bare his head and cover his lips,” most likely referring to wearing a mask. He must also sit outside the camp, in “bidud,” isolation. Ibn Ezra backs up this recommendation by adding, “In this way he will not cause damage with his breath.”
In Hilchot Tisha B’Av the Mishna Berura teaches us that if a fast falls during a pandemic, one should not fast. If one decides to fast nevertheless, he must not leave his home unless he places a covering over his nose and mouth.
During the plague in Italy in 1631, isolation houses called lazarettos were designated, where infected people were isolated. This practice is not too dissimilar to the isolation hotels that have been set up around the globe including in Israel.
In terms of synagogue closings, during the Venice Plague of 1576-7, one third of the population numbering 50,000 people succumbed to the plague. The entrance to the Jewish Ghetto was closed as were all the shuls within. Interestingly, in London, during the 1665 plague, the shuls remained open.
Displaying a recent photograph from Israel of a religious figure addressing a group below from his balcony, Reichman suggested that davening and teaching from a balcony is also not a new concept. During the 1656 plague in Rome, Dr. Yaakov Zahalon delivered a sermon from his porch on Tuscany Street to those assembled below. The rules of the day included not leaving home except to visit the doctor and buy food. Strict curfews were imposed and gallows were built to punish those who had ignored the decrees.
The Chida is attributed with having responded to a question regarding the status of a minyan of 10 men when four were in lazarettos in isolation and six were in separate houses. The Chida determined that if they can all see each other, their group can constitute a minyan for davening.
In terms of social distancing while davening, during the Italian Plague of 1629, young, unmarried men davened in the courtyard while more senior men occupied the ladies’ section within the synagogue to maintain social distancing within and without the shul. During the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, Rabbi Akiva Eiger sponsored a lottery for seating within the shul during a plague. Half of the congregation could come into the shul on Rosh Hashana and the other half on Yom Kippur. Dr. Reichman shared an image from 1642 of social distancing at the Kotel.
A precedent to the question being posed to Rav Asher Weiss as to whether the COVID vaccine can be taken on Shabbat, Reichman cites a response to the same question coming out of the 1754-1826 plague. Rabbi Eliezer Fleckles handed down that if the vaccine is only available to the community on Shabbat, they should avail themselves of it as it is a matter of pikuach nefesh. Rav Weiss suggests walking to the clinic if possible.
The issue of re-burying a niftar in Eretz Yisrael after local burial due to COVID was addressed to Rav Herschel Schacter. His response was positive and is based upon a historical precedent where bodies were exhumed after a year at least and re-buried in Israel at the request of the deceased.
Fortunately for our Orthodox community, four contemporary poskim have been responding to the deluge of halachic questions being posed during the pandemic. Rav Herschel Schacter, Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Dr. Avraham Steinberg and Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon have been at the forefront of responding to current COVID-19 questions in their writings and through Zoom presentations.
Among the uppermost questions being posed to them currently is the issue of being vaccinated, often posited as “Can a Jew claim religious exemption from vaccination?” In response to this question, Rabbi Reichman related a recorded incident from the 1800s in London. A religious Jew refused to be vaccinated, claiming that the vaccine would inject non-kosher “cowpox” into his body. As a result he was jailed. The prosecutor, himself an observant Jew, went to ask the then Chief Rabbi Hertz if he was right to incarcerate his fellow Jew. Rav Hertz responded that he had been in the right as there is no religious exemption from taking a vaccine, even considering its non-kosher ingredients. Today, this question is answered by most poskim with a resounding YES to taking the vaccine, especially since the newly created vaccines are highly attenuated doses of live viruses and should pose no danger of tumah and a minutiae of a chance of being harmed by it.
To access the presentation by Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, go to www.yiot.org/adult-education-and-shiurim.html. The recording link is under the flyer.
Zoom ID for all shiurim is: 985 6096 1398.
By Pearl Markovitz