Sunday 24 May 2020



The plethora of imaginative explanations and audacious reasons for the Coronavirus by some members of contemporary rabbinic leadership has been overwhelming if not alarming.

In this article, we will explore some early Talmudic responses[1] to pestilence - which usually followed periods of drought - and the Reader will make up his or her mind as to how far the parallels can or should be extended to our current ‘pestilence’.


A widespread and devastating famine hit the Holy Land just after the sages had transitioned from the Mishnaic to the Amoraic (Talmudic) Period. This had a severe impact on all the people living through it and is duly recorded, as are the reactions to it, in the early Talmudic literature of the time.

The gradual decline in agricultural productivity had already begun to be felt from a century earlier (during Mishnaic times). Interestingly, from the literature, we see that the diminution of rain was immediately ascribed to the sins of the people.


A Beraita[2] records:

“Said R. Eleazar ben Perata (floruit circa 110-135): From the day the Temple was destroyed the rains have become irregular in the world. There is a year which has abundant rains, and there is a year with but little rain. There is a year in which the rains come down in their [proper] season and a year in which they come out of season ... (Ta'anit I9b).

In the period of the Second Temple the rains came on time and as a result the crops were of far better a quality.

Our Rabbis taught...that "in their season" (Leviticus 26:4) means that the rains will fall only on the eves of Wednesday and Friday. For so we find that in the time of Simeon b. Shetah (floruit circa middle I century B.C.E.) the rains fell on the eves of Wednesday and Friday with the result that wheat [grains] became as [big as] gold dinars. 

And the Sages preserved samples of them for [future] generations in order to demonstrate how much [loss] is caused by sin, as it is stated, "Your iniquities have turned away these things and your sins have witholden good from you" (Jeremiah 5:25).”

This early text sets the stage for all future reaction to agricultural, climatic and even global calamities. These are clearly seen as a result of, and punishment for sin. The burden of such disaster and its ‘ownership’ is placed squarely on the shoulders of the people experiencing them and is said to be a punishment and retribution for their misdeeds.


From the late 2nd-century, droughts begin to feature regularly in Talmudic literature. The droughts became so severe that people started using water as a commodity to trade with.

According to the Midrash Tanchuma:

“Said R. Levi (floruit circa 255-300): It so happened that once a certain person, who used to separate his tithes faithfully, had one single field, and the Holy One Blessed be He put it in his heart to sow half of it and make the other half a water reservoir. 

There came a year of drought, and he sold a se'ah of wheat for a sela and a se'ah of water for three selahs. What brought him to it (i.e. this good fortune)? [The fact that] he separated his tithes faithfully.”[3]

This Midrash emphasizes the notion that while drought comes about as a consequence of our sins, the corollary is also true and good fortune comes as a consequence of good deeds, such as tithing in this instance.

From the late second century onwards, throughout the whole of the third and fourth centuries, we find frequent references to droughts.


In Palestine, according to Talmudic law, prayers for rain begin on the 3rd (or 7th, if one follows Rabban Gamliel) of Marcheshvan (around November). This is because the rains begin to fall at around that time.

However, if by the 17th of Marcheshvan the rains have not yet fallen, the people have to embark upon a program of fasting twice a week, on a Monday and Thursday, until the rains begin to fall. At first, only a select few are chosen to fast, but as the weeks pass, more of the community begin to participate and the stringencies become more severe[4].


We read about a certain rabbinic elitism that originally took place when it came to handing out scarce provisions during a drought:

“Rabbi (Yehuda haNasi) opened his store-houses in years of drought. He said: Let those who have studied the Scriptures enter, those who have studied Mishna, those who have studied Gemara, those who have studied Halacha, those who have studied Agada; but ignorant people (literally: Amei haAretz, people of the land) may not enter.

R. Jonathan b. Amram pushed [his way in] and entered. He said to him: Rabbi, give me sustenance. He said to him: My son, have you read [the Scriptures]? No, he answered. Have you learned [Mishna]? He said: No. If so, with what shall I give you sustenance? Give me sustenance like a dog or a raven. He gave him.

After he went out, Rabbi (Yehuda haNasi) sat down and felt troubled. He said: Woe is me, that I gave my loaf to an ignorant man.

Said R. Simeon the son of Rabbi to him: Perhaps Jonathan b. Amram is your disciple, but that he does not ever wish to gain benefit by [virtue of] the glory of the Torah (i.e. his knowledge of Torah). They examined the matter, and found [that this was so].

Said Rabbi: Let all [people] enter (as there may be others who hide the fact that they are true Torah scholars).”[5]


Apparently, the scholars would have been considered freer of sin than the sinful masses who were considered to have caused the drought in the first place.

Rabbi Yehuda haNasi puts this in no uncertain terms:

“Suffering comes to the world only due to ignoramuses.”[6]

The lack of Torah study is, accordingly, the reason why suffering is visited upon the earth.


In the following section, we see the notion of certain sages holding more sway in the heavenly spheres than others:

“R. Chanina ben Chama ordered a fast. He prayed [for rain], but no rain came. They (i.e. the local inhabitants of the northern town of Tzipori) said to him: Surely when R. Joshua b. Levi ordered a fast rain came! He replied to them: I am [I], and he is the son of Levi, (meaning, I am not as great as R. Joshua b. Levi). 

They sent and called for him (R. Joshua b. Levi). [R. Chanina] said to him: Come let us put our minds [in the right spirit of prayer], perchance the community will become contrite and pray, and rain will come. They prayed but no rain came...”[7]

This was obviously a devastating drought since R. Yehoshua ben Levi - a southerner rabbi - was brought in all the way from Judaea in the south to Tzipori[8] in the northern Galilee. Still, the rains did not fall.

Again we see that rains are perceived to be withheld as a result of human sin and certain individuals are tasked with the formidable duty of expiating that sin. We also see the notion of communal culpability with the group as a whole having to become ‘contrite’ before the drought can end. (At the end of this narrative we are told that eventually, the rains did fall.)

Another version (from the Talmud Yerushalmi) records the same event as follows:

When the rains did not immediately fall, R. Chanina ben Chama was prompted to say:

“[It is] not R. Joshua b. Levi who brings down rain for the Southerners, nor [is it] R. Chanina who prevents rain from [coming to] the Tziporeans (from the northern town of Tzipori), but that the Southerners, their hearts are soft and they hearken to words of the Torah and are humbled, [while] the Tziporeans, their hearts are hard and they hear words of the Torah and are not humbled...

[Eventually, the rains came but] he swore [to himself] that he would not do so again, (i.e. not ask for the Lord's mercy in this manner). He said: Why should I tell the creditor not to claim his own debt, (i.e. why should I tell the Lord not to punish the Tziporeans who deserve to be punished)?”

Again the community is blamed for being unworthy.


Here is a recorded instance where a certain pestilence was prevented from entering a market place and affecting a large group of people due to the piety of one particular individual (R. Chanina ben Chama):

“There was a pestilence in Tzipori. [But the pestilence] did not enter the market-place, for R. Chanina [ben Chama] dwelt in it. And the Tziporeans [murmured] saying: What is this old man [doing] amongst us [living] in health, he and his neighbours, while the city ['s condition] is going and worsening.

And he (R. Chanina ben Chama) went and said before them: There was only one Zimri in his generation,(cf. Numbers and [nonetheless] twenty-four thousand [men] of Israel fell. And we, how many Zimris are there in our generation, and you murmur in complaint.”[9]

This is yet another instance where the community is deemed blameworthy, this time not for drought but for pestilence.


Around the 3rd-century we read of how the entire generation was blamed for no rains falling:

“R. Judah Nesiah [once] ordered a fast. He prayed but no rain came. Said he...Woe to the generation which is thus placed! Woe unto him in whose lifetime such happens. He became very upset, [whereupon] rain came.”[11]

In this case, the rains came only because R. Yehudah Nesriah got upset. The rains fell despite the unworthy generation who were considered to have been the cause of the drought in the first instance.


Another text shows how the giving of charity can assuage a drought. Charity is often given as penitence for wrongdoing, again implicating the community for the drought:

“In the days of R. Tanhuma Israel was in need of rain. They went to him and said to him: Rabbi, order a fast so that rain should come. He ordered a fast a first time and a second time and the rains did not come down. 

On the third [occasion] he went up and preached. He said to them: All the congregation should give charity.”[12]


It was very common to ascribe reasons for drought[13]. In this instance it was theft which was the cause of a particular drought:

“Said R. Ami: Rain is witheld only as a punishment for violence, (literally: theft) ... What is the remedy? People should pray more fervently.”[14]

This is an interesting text because it suggests both the reason (theft) for the lack of rain and the solution, in this case not charity but extra and more fervent prayer.


In this text another reason is put forth as the cause of the drought:

“Said R. Simon b. Pazi: Rain is witheld only on account of the slanderers, as it is said, "The north wind bringeth forth rain, and a backbiting tongue an angry countenance" (Proverbs 25:23).[15]


R. Ami expressed the belief that droughts and assuaged and rains only fall as a result of worthy men:

“And R. Ami said: The rains only come down for the sake of the men of good faith, as it is said, "Truth springeth out of the earth and righteousness (i.e. rain) hath looked down from heaven" (Psalm 85:12)[16]


Here is a text which seems to deal with such a dilemma:

“In the days of R. Samuel b. Nahmani there was [both] famine and pestilence. They said: How are we to act? One cannot pray [at once] for [the occasion of] two [afflictions] rather let us pray for [the staying of] the pestilence and we will suffer the famine.

[But] he said to them: Let us pray for [the cessation of] the famine, for when the Merciful One gives plenty, he gives it to the living, as it is written, "Thou openest Thy hand and satifiest every living thing with favour" (Psalms 145.1 6).”[10]

This text stands out from all the others as it seems to limit the culpability of the people somewhat and appears to suggest that we can't be liable for everything at the same time.


The common thread running through these Talmudic texts is that drought and the pestilence which usually follows, are brought about as a result of man’s sins. Hence, in one way or another, people are to blame for such afflictions.

There is no doubt that this belief system found its way through to the present day where the same criteria are extrapolated to apply to pestilence today. Thus some continue with the same pattern we have seen of holding the community accountable.

It’s interesting that the common notion of ‘they could do it but we cannot’ - where earlier generations were said to be closer to spiritual reality and could thus affect more change in the natural order, but today things are different - is not applied here.

Is it fair, never mind true, that all forms of pestilence are brought about because of our sins?
Is it productive to make the community always feel personally responsible for matters beyond their control and beyond their sphere of influence?

One Talmudic sage raised this very objection:

“In the time of R. Judah Nesiah there was distress. He ordered thirteen fasts, but the prayers were not answered. He thought [therefore] to order more [fasts].

Said R. Ami to him: Surely they said: One does not trouble the community too much.

Said R. Aba the son of R. Hiyya b. Aba: R. Ami was thinking of his own convenience, (i.e. he did not want to fast).”[17]

R. Ami believed that it was not correct to lay this huge psychological burden on the community – but he obviously touched a nerve because he was immediately attacked personally and not philosophically as one might have expected in an intellectual debate.

R. Ami’s challenge, however, still stands: - is it always helpful to hold the community accountable?

As a community rabbi and having taught in religious high schools for some time, I have seen the fallout from making the community and young students, feel personally responsible for communal tragedies. They are sometimes made to feel that it is they who hold the keys, with their prayers and Torah study, to bring about a healing to the sick, comfort to mourners and redemption to the world.

However, when these redemptive results are not met in reality, many are faced with a religious crisis. 

You can only explain this away to the very naive but it sits on the minds of young people who still have their capacity to think. The same can be said of the community at large.

Rambam, for example, had some very interesting ideas about Providence [See ‘A Leaf Fall from a Tree’ – Accident or Providence?] and, according to him, sometimes things just happen in a way that doesn’t fit into narrow parochial worldviews. (Although in Mishneh Torah in Hilchot Ta'anit 1:1-3, Rambam speaks of Hashgacha for communities. This may be different from his view in The Moreh).

I would like to suggest a possible reason for this ethos of holding the community accountable for almost everything. The teachings from which we have quoted earlier stem predominantly from the 2nd and 3rd-century. The Reader will recall [See Why is Masada Absent from Halachic Discussion?] that after the tragic defeats of the Jewish rebellions against the Romans culminating in the Bar Cochba revolt in 135 CE, the sages of the Talmud intentionally created a culture of passivity and submission in order to stop the rebellious tendencies of Jews who had been warriors, not just scholars, since the time of the Tanach.  

To put this into perspective, it has been said that per capita, more Jews lost their lives in the century following the destruction and the Temple and the ensuing rebellions than during the Holocaust.

The early Talmudic sages decided it was time to change some of the old values. Thus the sharp ‘sword’ of dialectic Talmudic debate had now replaced the real sword. We became a nation of the ‘sicha’ rather than the ‘sica’ (dagger). This change in ethos was engineered to save Jewish lives and keep Jews safe in the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the Second Temple and the defeats of residual rebellions. Thus by encouraging the Jews to keep the laws of the state in Babylonia as if they were Torah laws, and by recording Chanuka as a miracle of oil and not a military battle [See: The Fight or the Light?] we were able to eventually produce the Babylonian Talmud without too much distraction.

It is possible, therefore, that in order to save lives and as part of creating a necessary culture of exilic submission and passivity at that important juncture in Jewish history, the community as a whole should also be held accountable for their actions. 

Acts seen as irresponsible have consequences and cost lives. 

After Bar Cochba, the sages felt that the age of revolution was over for the Jews. This new culture of communal culpability extended to and spawned the idea that our sins always have immediate and real consequences, cause droughts and create all manner of pestilence.

The new war was to be the war against the Yetzer haRa or evil inclination. (Who is mighty? He who conquers his Yetzer.) And just as there were casualties in a real war, there were casualties in the spiritual war, and defeat came in the form of pestilence.

Can we, today, glibly follow this same path and ascribe (or better, invent) reasons for our current pestilence, the Coronavirus? Many say yes. But this is not even a unique Jewish reaction as it is happening across the board with all religions acting in a similar manner.  

For many Jews, though, the glut of grievous sins we have committed (like talking in synagogue, lack of modesty, etc.) forms a long and varied list of apparent spiritual causes for the global pandemic.

Not wishing to add to the symphony of wondrous elucidation and besides my obvious lack of qualification to speak on such matters - my personal view is simply that only someone who has the knowledge and expertise to find a cure can expound on the cause (and even that would be tenuous). 

As some stage culpability must end. Surely some things must be beyond the responsibility of mere mortals!

We reach a point where our alleged culpability is simply unwarranted and where it becomes silly - never mind grossly unfair and irresponsible - to impose on people who are desperate for leadership under trying circumstances.

[1] A helpful source for Talmudic references to drought during the early centuries of the common era is Daniel Sperber; Drought, Famine and Pestilence in Amoraic Palestine.
[2] A Beraita is from the same period as the Mishna but is regarded as less authoritative as it was excluded from the canon of Mishnaic literature.
[3] Midrash Tamchuma, Re’eh 9.
[4] See Mishna Ta'anit 1.2-7.
[5] Bava Batra 8a.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ta’anit 25a.
[8] Tzipori was the capital of the Galilee, the seat of the Sanhedrin and the place where the Mishna was completed.
[9] Yerushalmi Taa’anit 3:4.
[10] Ta’anit 8b.
[11] Ta'anit 24a
[12] Vayikra Rabba 34.I4
[13] Rephael Patai's,The Control of Rain in Ancient Palestine", HUCA, 14, 1939, pp. sections 6, 'Sins cause draught', pp. 264-69.
[14] Ta'anit 7b 
[15] Ta'anit 7b.
[16] Ta'anit 8a.
[17] Ta'anit I4a-b

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