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YU News

Magefah: Pandemics throughout Jewish History

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

Dr. Richard Hidary 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 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 which personified Death and described ‘his’ 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 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 Covid 19 pandemic. On a positive note, Dr. Olson suggested that the global position of Jews is more secure now than it was a century ago.