Should cause for dissension present itself, be slow to accept the quarrel; seek peace and pursue it with all the vigor you command. Even if you suffer loss thereby, forbear and forgive, for God has many ways of feeding and sustaining His creatures. ... In trade be true, never grasping at what belongs to another. For by avoiding these wrongs - scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing - you will surely find tranquility and affection. And against all evils, silence is the best safeguard. ...
Be very particular to keep your houses clean and tidy. I was always scrupulous on this point, for every injurious condition and sickness and poverty are to be found in foul dwellings. Be careful over the benedictions; accept no divine gift without paying back the Giver's part; and God's part is humanity's grateful acknowledgement.
On holidays and festivals and Sabbaths seek to make happy the poor, the unfortunate, widows and orphans, who should always be guests at your tables; their joyous entertainment is a religious duty. Let me repeat my warning against gossip and scandal: just as you speak no scandal, listen to none. For if there were no receivers, there would be no bearers of slanderous tales; therefore the reception and credit of slander is as serious an offense as the originating of it. The less you say, the less cause you give for animosity. ...
From the last testament of Rabbi Eleazar of Mainz, c. 1357
In the year 5108 (1348), a terrible pestilence raged from sunrise to sunset, and not one city remained untouched. ... A pitiful outcry rose from one end of the earth to the other, unequaled until now: for a town evacuating one thousand sick people had only one hundred persons left, and a town of one hundred had a mere ten survive. And if a single Jew took ill and died, then one hundred people of the land took ill and died, the Gentiles were filled with rage and would no longer fraternize with the Jews ...
In these days, no king ruled in Aragon; had God not stood by our side, not one Jew from Aragon or Catalonia could have escaped or run away. Out of sheer spite, accusations were leveled against us: "All of this has come to pass due to the guilt of the Jews; they have brought this deadly poison into the world; they have caused it, and only because of them has this horrible plague come upon us." As they voiced this rumor, the Jews panicked, mortified their bodies through fasting, and cried out to God. This year was a desperate time for Israel, a time of grimness and of punishment. On a Sabbath eve, the Gentiles rose up against God's people in Barcelona and killed twenty people...[some of] the Jews went out to the nobles and dignitaries of the city to save the rest from the attackers...but they were powerless to save them; too many had risen against them, saying: "Let us destroy them, so that they will no longer be a nation, and the name of Israel will no longer be remembered..."
Yosef HaKohen, Emek HaBacha [The Valley of Weeping], 1557
In medieval Europe, Jews were blamed so often, and so viciously, that it is surprising it was not called the Jewish Death. During the pandemic’s peak in Europe, from 1348 to 1351, more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, their inhabitants accused of spreading contagion or poisoning wells.
Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a historian who is chairman of medicine at New York University’s medical school, offers an intriguing hypothesis for why Jews became scapegoats in the Black Death: they were largely spared, in comparison with other groups, because grain was removed from their houses for Passover, discouraging the rats that spread the disease. The plague peaked in spring, around Passover.
During the Black Death, Pope Clement VI issued an edict, or bull, saying Jews were not at fault. He did not, of course, blaspheme by blaming God. Nor did he blame mankind’s sins. That would have comforted the Flagellants, the self-whipping sect who were the bull’s real target; they often led the mobs attacking both Jews and the corrupt church hierarchy, and were considered heretics. Nor did it blame Möngke Khan or Yersinia pestis. It would be 500 years until the “germ theory” of disease developed.
No, the pope picked a target particularly tough to take revenge upon: a misalignment of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Donald G. McNeil Jr., "Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike," New York Times, Aug. 31, 2009; accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/health/01plague.html.
Rabbi Israel Salanter Prohibits Fasting on Yom Kippur 1848
The other Yom Kippur tale taught a lesson about first principles, too. Cholera is a dread and terribly incapacitating disease, and it was rampant one particular year in that area of Europe where R’ Salanter and his congregants lived. Anyone who suffered from it could easily become seriously, mortally ill; and one had to replenish fluids and nutrients to replace those lost in the course of the illness in order to get well.
But on Yom Kippur? To eat and drink when, as everyone knows, the Torah forbids that? Wouldn’t it be in our best interests to fast then anyway, and to pray that G-d have mercy on us?
R’ Salanter took another tact. In order to prevent tragedy and forestall the rapid deterioration of those who’d be exposed to cholera, R’ Salanter forbad his congregants from fasting that year (to ensure their resistance to the disease), he ordered that the prayer service be shortened (so no one would tire himself out and be more susceptible to it), and he ordered that people hold services in the open air rather than in the synagogue (so that no one come into close contact with others and thus not to spread the disease). In fact, after the Morning Prayer R’ Salanter himself ascended the pulpit with a piece of cake in hand, said Kiddush over wine, and ate and drank in everyone’s sight.
Knowing full well that actively avoiding a danger to one’s life trumps nearly everything else according to the Torah, as most observant Jews know, still and all the stark application of that in the course of the Holy Day of Yom Kippur seemed to belittle the moment. So some people looked askance at what he did. But R’ Salanter knew that what needed to be done and what mattered most of all rather than what we’d ordinarily be expected to do had to be done, so he set out to do it despite appearances.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
|The Black Wedding to End a Plague
The memorial book for Apt recounts how a holy rabbi helped the town during a cholera epidemic in 1892. Every few days someone died. In a community of about six thousand, that was a calamity. Prominent citizens went to the holy rabbi, imploring him to say a few prayers to the Almighty. Maybe the epidemic would subside. The rabbi thoughtfully replied, "Let's try a wedding on the Jewish cemetery. Perhaps the dearly departed will intervene with the Holy One to help." It is considered a great mitsve, or good deed, to help the poor to marry. All that was needed was a bride and groom.
The matchmakers got busy. In town there was a young bachelor who was supported by the community. His job was to clean the communal bath. Each week he drained the water and replaced it with a fresh supply. He also kept the fire going in the mikve, the ritual bath, so that the water would always be hot. He lived in the hegdesh, a room where the burial society kept the implements for cleaning the dead for burial. Itinerant beggars also slept there. On being approached, the young man gladly accepted.
Now a bride was needed. There was in town a young lady, an orphan. In Yiddish, it is enough to have lost one parent to be an orphan. This woman had lost both parents. She was what is called a kaylakhdike yesoyme, a round orphan, because she had absolutely no relatives. In exchange for a place to sleep on top of the oven, her daily bread, and a few cast-off clothes, she did the housework for a well-to-do family. She received no wages. On being approached she also gladly agreed.
A proclamation was issued in the synagogue, the houses of study, and the Jewish schools that a black wedding, a shvartse khasene, would be held on the cemetery at a designated time. Everyone was to attend. On the appointed day, the whole town, including people from the surrounding villages, streamed into the cemetery. They gathered near the oyl, the little building housing the graves of holy rabbis. The sexton brought a wedding canopy. The bride wore a donated wedding dress. The rabbi conducted the ceremony. Many people shed a tear on this solemn occasion.
The community donated gifts and food. A table was set up with a small barrel of vodka, glasses, and large joints of roasted mutton. Everyone wished each other a long life. When the assembly was already a little tipsy, Yankl Krokowski, the badkhn or master of ceremonies, stood on a stool and announced that the time had come to call out the wedding gifts. Seeing as this poor couple had no home, the appeal went out for cash donations. Everyone reached into their pockets and in a short time the iron pot was full of money. When it became too heavy to hold, Yankl set the pot down on the table. He regaled the company with jokes and songs. The band struck up a lively tune, and everyone, men, women, and children, danced. Reb Zvi Hirsh, who officiated at the wedding, stepped into the large circle of dancers. Small in stature, head held high, his eyes looking toward the sky, his beard and sidelocks flying, Reb Zvi Hirsh began to dance. He invited the newlyweds to join him in the obligatory mitsve tants . The merriment continued late into the night. Sure enough the epidemic subsided in a few days.
The dark chuppa in the Mt. of Olives cemetery held aloft with four poles
Picture from Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/matpc.04804/
Spanish Flu 1918
On November 15, 1918, The Jewish Exponent announced another shvartzse khasene and was well-received by the Jewish community of New York City:
In a Mount Hebron Cemetery Miss Rose Schwartz, No. 369 East Tenth street, stood beside Abraham Lachterman, No. 638 East Eleventh street, the other afternoon, and before them stood rabbi Unger, who performed a marriage ceremony.
The tradition on which the couple acted is one which declares that the only way to stop a plague is to hold a marriage ceremony in a cemetery.
When Miss Schwartz and Lachterman consented to offer themselves to stop the influenza epidemic, the neighbors were so grateful that they provided food, taxicabs, a wedding gown and even the furnishings for a flat. Two thousand persons cheered the courageous pair as they started for the cemetery.