Magefah: Pandemics throughout Jewish History

After a year of COVID-19, a pandemic hopefully receding for good, three professors at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies shared some varied reflections related to pandemics. Over fifty participants joined in the virtual event on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, titled “Magefah: Pandemics Throughout Jewish History.”

Dr. Richard Hidary

Dr. Richard Hidary, associate professor of Judaic studies, presented “Talmudic Teachings on Loss and Survival during a Pandemic.” He collated sources from the Talmud which recommend introspection, repentance and prayer in the face of a plague. Interestingly, he also showcased a Talmudic source, Bava Kamma 60b, which recommends notions of quarantine (“Come in your rooms and close your doors…”[Isaiah 26:6]) and social distancing (“Do not walk in the middle of the road..”).

Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies and direct of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, spoke about “Dancing with Death: Life and Death and the Plague in Sepharad.” He analyzed the words of the Danse Macabre, a popular song in Spain after the Black Death that personified Death and described Death dancing with all different characters in Spanish society. Dr. Perelis argued that the specific descriptions of Jews and Muslims in the song evince the real social familiarity the different religious groups shared in medieval Spain.

Dr. Jess Olson, associate professor of Jewish history, commented on “1919 to 2020: Jews and Two Centuries of Pandemics.” He compared the influenza epidemic of 1919 to the COVID-19 pandemic of today. He mentioned that though our medical knowledge has advanced considerably in the century, the Unites States has suffered disproportionately in the pandemic. On a positive note, Dr. Olson suggested that the global position of Jews is more secure now than it was a century ago.