What the Straus Center Is Reading — The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics

Book Cover
Jeremy Brown | Oxford University Press | 2022
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics, Jeremy Brown presents a pathbreaking study of how Jews have reacted to, been blamed for, and religiously framed pandemics. Brown, a historian of science and medicine who directs the Office of Emergency Care Research at the NIH, offers a comprehensively researched and engagingly written investigation.

Along the way, readers encounter the strange (cemetery-set weddings attempting to offer the newlyweds as a symbolic sacrifice to ward off disease), the sad (numerous instances of antisemitic violence in response to Jews being blamed for illnesses), and the spiritually fraught (attempts by rabbis to wrestle with the theological implications of innocents dying in a plague). Pandemic prayers, kabbalistic talismans, century-old praise for Gentile vaccination innovators, and strikingly modern Talmudic suggestions of how to avoid air-born disease – including walking in the middle of the street and closing windows in your apartment – appear alongside ripped-from-the-headlines COVID-19 intra-Jewish communal decision-making on the part of rabbis and communal organizations.

Along the way, Brown seeks to counter many antisemitic beliefs. As he writes in regards to the perception that Jews somehow both were to blame for and somehow escaped the Black Plague for example, “in truth, the Jewish death rate during the Black Death and later pandemics was at least as high and sometimes higher than the general population.” As Brown shows, sometimes rabbis gave scientifically sound advice to their flocks, sometimes less so. Sometimes quarantine resulted in scholarly productivity, sometimes sages were shackled from producing new materials due to lack of access to their books. COVID saw some anti-vaxxers and some pro-vaccination advocates. In all this, Jews proved to be similar to other members of the general population.

Focusing on Israel, Brown traces the fraught challenges the modern state faced in the early years of its existence in welcoming immigrants who might be carrying infectious diseases from their home country. As Brown notes, “the new government was faced with an impossibly difficult decision.” Developing complex protocols eventually improved the nascent state initial ad hoc, less-than-ideal measures of containing immigrants perceived to be a public health threat.

Of particular interest in the halakhic decision made by the contemporary Israeli scholar Rabbi Asher Weiss. Rabbi Weiss refused to allow for “zoom Seders” for the elderly unable to join their relative in person over Passover during COVID. As he wrote, this was with the long-term view in mind. “A wise person with eyes in his head, who can see the future regarding everything to do with using electronic products or modern technology on the Sabbath, will understand that any breach will bring down the walls of the religion.”

In stating his aim for the book, Brown notes that “the eleventh plague” is shorthand for the societal afflictions following the biblical ten plagues in Egypt. Until now, there has been no single volume tracing how pandemics have shaped the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual destiny” of the Jewish people. All those interested in Jewish history, the history of science, and general readers looking for the definitive take on a timely, and unfortunately (because of its morose subject matter) timeless topic need look no further than Brown’s fascinating study.

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