Plague, Passover, and Perspectives on Social Distancing (Dr. Joshua Teplitsky)

This essay was written by Joshua Teplitsky (Stony Brook University) for the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies’ Spring 2020 Magazine.  The full magazine can be downloaded on the IIJS website.

As the global pandemic gains momentum and the human toll rises, many religious communities around the world are striving to balance physical health with spiritual, religious, and cultural fulfillment. In Rome, Pope Francis will undertake the liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday without the presence of the faithful. Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to forestall their travel plans to the pilgrimage site of Mecca for the Hajj festival (this year in late July). And Jewish rabbinical organizations in the United States, Europe, Israel, and beyond have issued guidelines that limit gatherings such as the quorum of ten demanded by religious law for communal prayer and, distressingly for many, the conviviality of the seder table at Passover, a hallmark of the Jewish holiday cycle.

These actions feel unprecedented. Yet they echo more distant historical moments when religious ritual had to be accommodated to the needs of the hour during times of disease. Chroniclers of Jewish life in the seventeenth century, which saw the recurrence of plague, offer salient, striking, and timely examples.

‘Olam Hafukh (X893 Ab8)

In 1630–1631, plague ravaged Italy. During this epidemic, religious and state authorities often clashed as official boards of health sought to limit social contact and religious leaders, especially Catholic bishops, openly resisted encroachment on their prerogatives and sacred responsibilities. 1 The impact of the epidemic on Jews in the city of Padua was captured in the Hebrew account of Abraham Catalano titled Olam hafukh (“The World Overturned”), a manuscript of which is held by Columbia University Libraries. 2 [Note: Columbia also holds an Italian version of the manuscript, also by Catalano, entitled Libro della Peste che fu in Padova nel an[n]o 5391]

Catalano was one of a four-man commission tasked with overseeing the health and welfare of the Jewish community of Padua during this crisis. His account is rich with detail about the events of that fateful year, both in Jewish attempts to maintain normalcy and efforts to adapt to their circumstances. When the month of Adar arrived and the Passover holiday drew near, the commission delivered flour to a rabbi Jacob Lendanara to prepare matza for the community for the coming holiday. When it came to communal prayer, on the other hand, Catalano and his colleagues instituted distancing measures, decreeing that:

every unmarried [male, who attended prayer services] was to stand outside of the synagogue of the Ashkenazim, in the courtyard of the synagogue, and the Italians [should stand] in the women’s section [of their synagogue], to allow space between the people at prayer, and we instructed to pray on Shabbat at the break of dawn, before the heat of the day. 3

Catalano’s health board sought to spread people out from each other, commandeering the women’s section of the Italian synagogue on the Piazza delle Legne to give more space to the men at prayer, and relegating unmarried men of the Ashkenazic synagogue on the Contrada San Canziano to the outer courtyard for a similar reason. We can observe the not-so-subtle social hierarchies at work here as priority was given to married men and heads of households, then unmarried men as auxiliary; finally, women’s presence in the synagogue was treated as dispensable. 4

Early modern European Jews understood the necessity of social distancing even at moments when normative law and customary practice would have otherwise demanded solidarity and communality. The pain of this decision emerges acutely in the writings of another early modern Jew in a different part of Europe, the memoirist Glikl of Hameln, who lived in the northern German port city of Hamburg-Altona. In the 1660s, Glikl’s four-year-old daughter, Tsipor, displayed symptoms of plague during the family’s visit to Hannover for the festival of Sukkot. Left with no choice but isolation, they sent their daughter (along with a trusted caretaker who bore the task of tending and the risk of exposure to the sick) to a village on the outskirts of town for the duration of the holiday. Glikl recorded that when her husband traveled with a small cohort to deliver festival food to his quarantined daughter and her escort,

the young girl was filled with joy and wanted to run to her father, as any child would. Reb Lipman, my brother-in-law, shouted out to them to hold the girl, that the old man should come get the food. They had to restrain my husband too, as with a rope, to keep him from approaching the dear child. Now both he and the little girl were wailing, because my husband, of blessed memory, could see that she was safe and sound, thank God, but he was not permitted to go to her. 5

Glikl’s heart-wrenching scene evinces the pain of distancing and isolation at times usually reserved for coming together, like religious festivals. Yet the needs of the moment call for such drastic measures to ensure that the most vulnerable among us can remain “safe and sound.” As Jews prepare for a seder night that will be palpably different from so many other seder nights, we may take small comfort in knowing that others before us have weathered similar storms, and that, with precaution and care, lives can be saved by these difficult decisions.

Libro della Peste che fu in Padova nel an[n]o 5391 (General MS 308)
1 Carlo M. Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979).
2 A relatively under-studied text, the work was published by Cecil Roth in 1946 Kovetz al yad 4 (14). (Jerusalem 1946): 67-101. A partial translation into English, Alan D. Crown, “The World Overturned: The Plague Diary of Abraham Catalano,” Midstream (January 1973): 65-76, should be used with some caution. Catalano’s chronicle has been treated most recently in Susan L. Einbinder, “Poetry, Prose and Pestilence: Joseph Concio and Jewish Responses to the 1630 Italian Plague,” in Shirat Dvora: Essays in Honor of Professor Dvora Bregman, ed. Haviva Ishay (Beer Sheba: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2019), esp. pp. 76-80. A digitized copy of the manuscript can be found here:
3 Abraham Catalano, Olam hafukh, Cecil Roth, ed. Kovetz al yad 4 (14) (1946): 78. The rendering into English is my own.
4 The Ashkenazic synagogue appears to have had a women’s section as well, although not all early modern synagogues did. On the synagogues of Padua, see Stefano Zaggia, “Die Deutsche Synagoge in Padua 1603–1779,” Zeitschrift für Religions-und Geistesgeschichte 46, no. 1 (1994): 44-58.
5 Chava Turniansky, Glikl: Memoirs 1691-1719, trans. Sara Friedman (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2019), 112.

Joshua Teplitsky is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Program in Judaic Studies at Stony Brook University. He is a founding member of Footprints, a Judaica digital humanities project run out of Columbia University Library. He specializes in the history of the Jews of Europe in the early modern period, 1600-1800. He earned his PhD from New York University’s Departments of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and History and has held fellowships at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies of the University of Oxford, the Katz Center for
Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Library of Israel, and Harvard University. His first book, Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, was published by Yale University Press in 2019. He is currently writing a book about Jews and plague in early modern Europe.