Throughout history, epidemics have caused death and disruption in varying scales, some massive but most local. Why do they happen? How should we respond? As would be expected of this not uncommon experience, the Sages of the Talmud discuss this issue. In 1576, Rav Moshe of Trani (Mabit) in Israel published his philosophical work Beis Elokim, in which he explores the concepts of prayer, repentance, and fundamental beliefs. Within his discussion of prayer, he devotes a section to epidemics in Jewish thought (Beis Elokim, Sha’ar Ha-Tefillah ch. 16). In particular, he also addresses the seeming contradiction between divine causes and scientific causes, a contradiction which loomed large even based on the pre-modern science of his times.
Mabit begins by quoting the Talmud. The Mishnah (Ta’anis 18b-19a) prescribes fast days or special prayers for a variety of communal woes, including pestilence (plague or epidemic), collapsing buildings, dangerous beasts, and enemy warriors. Why do fasting and praying help? Mabit explains that these are all messages from G-d about our spiritual flaws, our lackings, our sins. G-d sends us these messages so that we respond appropriately — changing ourselves through repentance and prayer so G-d can mercifully saves us.
This might be obvious, Mabit continues, when a Jewish city or neighborhood is solely affected. But when Jews and gentiles live together, and particularly when Jews are a minority, the troubles could be due to the sins of other people, not the Jewish community. Over the centuries, this kind of thinking has led Jews in the Diaspora to refrain from fasting when troubles like those listed above arise. However, even if true, we would not be affected if we did not deserve the punishment. The Torah promises that in a righteous age, “neither shall a sword go through your land” (Lev. 26:6). The Gemara (Ta’anis 22b) says that this refers to “a sword of peace.” Mabit explains that this means a sword between other nations, an army out to fight another nation and not us. This means that if we experience the collateral pain of other nations fighting each other, it is because we do not merit this blessing due to our sins. Therefore, we should always respond to communal woes of the nature we are discussing with repentance and prayer.
However, Mabit adds, for technical reasons he thinks that the biblical commandment to pray in response to communal trouble applies only when the trouble faces Jews alone. In such circumstances, the entire episode demonstrates divine providence. A trouble befalls the Jewish community, they repent and pray, and the trouble dissolves immediately. However, throughout our exile, divine providence operates in a hidden mode. Even though our troubles are sent by G-d, they arrive in a way that those affected can deny their divine origin. People can plausibly, if incorrectly, suggest that these troubles are due to chance or nature, and even that their resolution is also due to chance. The lack of clarity to the onlooker constitutes hester panim, the hidden face of G-d (Deut. 31:17).
How Do We Respond?
However, Mabit continues, a person must know in his heart that everything that happens to him is from G-d. He guides us even more in exile than when living in Israel, but does so in hidden ways so that the skeptic has room to question divine providence. This is highlighted by the three main differences between exilic and biblical epidemics. In the Bible, divine plagues occurred immediately and stopped abruptly when people repented (“and the plague was stayed,” Num. 25:8), and they only applied to adults. In contrast, Mabit says, his contemporary epidemics grew over time. Many of those afflicted healed and survived, and the majority of those who succumbed were innocent children. Biblical punishments displayed unequivocally divine providence because they occurred at the time of sin, affected the sinners directly and cleared immediately on repentance. In our prolonged exile, divine providence is hidden and therefore epidemics cannot show clearly the divine hand behind them. We do not know why some people are affected while others are not. Only when looking at the long trend of history can we see the clear divine providence over the Jewish people.
This is why epidemics and other troubles allow for scientific explanation. It’s not that the science is wrong — it is correct to the best of our knowledge but it does not explain why the scientific possibility of an epidemic became a reality. G-d can start or prevent an epidemic and save us from it after it begins. Mabit says that it is our job to extinguish the epidemic through charity (“charity saves from death,” Prov. 10:2), repentance and good deeds. Now, as we face our own epidemic that differs from those in the Mabit’s day (children seem to be largely protected in a biblical way), we must find ways to donate to charity remotely and to help our neighbors in any way we can. We need to improve our actions, do mitzvos more carefully, and pray. Mabit adds that the ketores incense offering in the Temple guarded against epidemics (Num. 17:12-13). While we cannot bring the actual ketores, we can fulfill it by learning its laws. Therefore, Mabit says, we should recite the pitum ha-ketores twice daily (found in the siddur at the end of Shabbos morning services).
If G-d-willing we merit the “flattening of the curve” as the epidemic plateaus, we will know that our charity, prayers, and good deeds pushed away the divine decree.