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Fasting? Not So Fast: Cholera vs. COVID–19

History, Halachic Consequences, and Comparisons

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most widespread plague that our generation has experienced. It simultaneously affected 213 countries and territories across the, accessed 2 June 2020. The effect of COVID-19 on individuals and economies is still unfolding.

We are witness to the receding of the still-current COVID-19 pandemic. Governments are starting to ease the tough restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Easing of restrictions would seem to be a good thing if it is in line with the guidelines of halacha.

COVID-19 cannot be consigned to history yet, but it prompts us to reflect on history:  About two centuries ago, there was a pandemic that had several peaks. We are referring here to the Blue Death.

Many of us are familiar with the bubonic plague of the 14th century, known as the Black Death. The 19th century plague of cholera, in contrast, was called the Blue Death due to the phenomenon of the body of an infected person turning blue, the result of rapid, extreme dehydration.

Let’s explore the history and halachic ramifications of cholera, and, by extension, similarities and differences between cholera and COVID-19.

Cholera Today

The World Health Organization (the WHO) writes the following about the cholera, accessed 20 May 2020.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by eating or drinking food or water that is contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.  Cholera remains a global threat to public health…Researchers have estimated that every year, there are 1.3 to 4.0 million cases of cholera, and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths worldwide due to the infection.

Cholera is an extremely serious disease that can cause severe acute watery diarrhea with severe dehydration.  It takes between 12 hours and 5 days for a person to show symptoms after consuming contaminated food or water.  Cholera affects both children and adults and can kill within hours if untreated.

Most people infected with Vibrio cholerae do not develop any symptoms, although the bacteria are present in their feces for 1-10 days after infection.  This means the bacteria are shed back into the environment, potentially infecting other people.

Cholera is often predictable and preventable. It can ultimately be eliminated where access to clean water and sanitation facilities, as well as good hygiene practices, are ensured and sustained for the whole population.”

In comparison, the WHO writes the following about the coronavirus, accessed 26 May 2020

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.

Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment.  Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is to be well-informed about the COVID-19 virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads.  Protect yourself and others from infection by washing your hands or using an alcohol-based rub frequently and not touching your face.

The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow).

At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments. WHO will continue to provide updated information, as soon as clinical findings become available.

Thus,  we see that cholera isn’t an artifact of past history, but is still very much active, claiming tens of thousands of lives annually.  Baruch Hashem, in developed countries, cholera has largely been eradicated.  We also see that understanding how a disease spreads, can help stop it spreading.

Description: Portrait of Galen. Date: 18th century Author: Georg Paul Busch Credit: Wikimedia Cםmmons

The Encyclopedia Britannica provides the following information on the history of, accessed 20 May 2020.

Although the ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates (5th–4th century BCE) and Galen (2nd–3rd century CE) referred to an illness that may well have been cholera, and there are numerous hints that a cholera-like malady has been well known in the fertile delta plains of the Ganges River since antiquity, most of what is known about the disease comes from the modern era.

Gaspar Correa, a Portuguese historian and the author of Legendary India, gave one of the first detailed accounts of the clinical aspects of an epidemic of “moryxy” in India in 1543: “The very worst of poison seemed there to take effect, as proved by vomiting, with drought of water accompanying it, as if the stomach were parched up, and cramps that fixed in the sinews of the joints.”

Cholera became a disease of global importance in 1817.  In that year a particularly lethal outbreak occurred in Jessore, Bangladesh, midway between Calcutta (today Kolkata) and Dhaka (now in Bangladesh), and then spread throughout most of India, Burma (today Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  By 1820, epidemics had been reported in Siam (Thailand), in Indonesia (where more than 100,000 people succumbed on the island of Java alone), and as far away as the Philippines.  At Basra, Iraq, as many as 18,000 people died during a three-week period in 1821.  The pandemic spread through Turkey and reached the threshold of Europe.  The disease also spread along trade routes from Arabia to the eastern African and Mediterranean coasts.  Over the next few years, cholera disappeared from most of the world except for its ‘home base’ around the Bay of Bengal.

The second cholera pandemic, which was the first to reach into Europe and the Americas, began in 1829.  The disease arrived in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1830, continuing into Finland and Poland.  Carried by tradesmen along shipping routes, it rapidly spread to the port of Hamburg in northern Germany and made its first appearance in England, in Sunderland, in 1831.

We see that cholera existed centuries ago, starting in a particular location and then spread further, carried along by travelers and merchants.

The Nature of Cholera

Alisha Kramer, writes on the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), accessed 20 May 2020.

Vibrio cholerae is the causative agent responsible for cholera. It is a bean-shaped bacterium with a long tail that it uses for self-propulsion.  The bacteria are transmitted between humans through the fecal-oral route; a bite of contaminated food or a sip of contaminated water can cause infection.

The “fecal-oral route” was initially also considered the method of transmission for COVID-19, until that was disproved. With cholera however, doctors were of the opinion that as long as people had access to clean water and food, and they didn’t touch one another, people were protected from being infected by the cholera bacteria.

A leaflet on cholera published by the Center for Disease, Control and Prevention, includes recommendations:6Cholera Prevention and Control,

Protect yourself and your family from cholera and other diarrheal diseases:

Drink and use safe water.
Safe water is water that is bottled with an unbroken seal, has been boiled, or has been treated with a chlorine product.

Wash hands often with soap and safe water.
If no soap is available, scrub hands often with ash or sand and rinse with safe water.

Use latrines or bury feces, do not defecate in any body of water.

Cook food well (especially seafood), eat it hot, keep it covered, and peel fruits and vegetables.

Clean up safely—in the kitchen and in places where the family bathes and washes clothes.

This information takes account of a modern lifestyle.  We see that there are fixed standards of hygiene whether a person is in a developed country, or is in an under-developed country.

When we go back in time, we get a whole different picture of how cholera was perceived and controlled.

In comparison we understand how COVID-19 spreads, from the CDC, accessed 26, May 2020.

COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person. Some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus. We are still learning about how the virus spreads and the severity of the illness it causes.

Person-to-person spread

    • The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
    • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)
    • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
    • These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
    • COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.

The virus spreads easily between people

How easily a virus spreads from person-to-person can vary. Some viruses are highly contagious, like measles, while other viruses do not spread as easily. Another factor is whether the spread is sustained, which means it goes from person-to-person without stopping.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading very easily and sustainably between people. Information from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this virus is spreading more efficiently than influenza, but not as efficiently as measles, which is highly contagious.

A Medical Snapshot from the 19th Century

There is a very interesting and vivid description of cholera written during the 19th century cholera epidemic by an English doctor who practiced in the Warsaw Hospital.  In 1831, Dr. Charles Edward Searle published a booklet by the name Cholera, it’s Nature, Cause and Treatment, in London.  He signed his name: “Charles Searle, Esq. of the hon. East India Company’s Madras Establishment, and lately in charge of the Principal Cholera Hospital in Warsaw.”

In Chapter 1, entitled “Cholera — its Symptoms And Ordinary Mode Of Attack,” Dr. Searle describes what happens to a cholera victim:

First Stage—The invasion of cholera most frequently takes place in the night or towards morning. The patient is either suddenly seized with giddiness, windy rumbling in the bowels, and purging, or, purging, with a sense of weakness, fullness and oppression at the precordia,8A medical term for the part of the body in front of the heart. and symptoms of indigestion for some hours, or even days’ duration.  These are followed by vomiting, which, with the evacuations from the bowels, soon assumes a sero-mucous or barley-water-like appearance.  Great prostration of strength follows, and generally tremors or twitching, with pain and numbness, or cramp in the extremities.  A dusky, sunken countenance, ringing noise in the ears or deafness, subdued voice, cold damp skin, and feeble pulse become now very constant and characteristic symptoms.

Second Stage—At this period of the complaint, efforts of the system would appear to be made to bring about febrile excitement, and which is accomplished under proper treatment; but otherwise, the partial excitement of inflammation only takes place.  When, from the sense of precordial oppression, heat becomes developed in the part, the patient complains of inward burning, attended with great thirst, and insatiable desire for cold water.  The irritability of the stomach is now usually increased, and there is often extreme restlessness.  With the development of this partial excitement, tonic spasms or cramps, if they have not previously taken place, but too frequently follow, commencing in the feet and legs, and gradually increasing; they often extend to the upper extremities; and occasionally involve the muscles of the belly and chest.  The exhausting influence of these spasms or sense of internal anguish is followed by collapse.  Or this state succeeds to the symptoms of the first stage, without the development of heat and this stage of excitement.  Or, in weak persons, the latter stage is but feebly developed, the sickness of stomach, pain at the precordia, and desire for cold water only existing.

Third Stage— Of Collapse. On this taking place, the stomach and bowels, which continued before irritable, retain whatever is administered either by mouth or clyster; save that an involuntary oozing in general takes place from the bowels; the spasms cease, the extremities are livid, the skin is cold and damp, and the fingers are shriveled; the eyes are suffused with blood, or flaccid and inanimate, and in general half open, with the whites turned up, and the countenance death-like: coma and dyspnea ensue; and life gradually leaves its frail tenement, occasionally in ten or twelve, but generally within eight-and-forty hours from the period of invasion.

Should, however, remedial means have been timely and judiciously employed, as I have before observed, the first stage is gradually succeeded by the excitement of fever, though seldom to any very active degree, developing, however, but too frequently, the inflammation of some vital organ, in which predisposition existed, or susceptibility of structure disposes, to be in this way attacked; the bowels and brain are the most obnoxious to this effect, but the lungs not liable to be affected.

As with COVID-19, most people who were infected by cholera survived it, even those who had a very bad case.

Dr. Searle relates:9Page 38.

The following case offers an illustration:

Szymon Drzeweiki, a strong-built man of about 35 years of age. 26th July, admitted at 11 a.m.  Skin universally cold, and extremities livid, pulse scarcely perceptible; tongue and breath cold, countenance death-like; evacuations have ceased.

Szymon wasnt at all dead. He was treated, and a mere week later Dr. Searle reports, “On the 2nd, he was discharged, cured.”

We find that R’ Moshe Sofer, in his sefer Chasam Sofer, writes about a similar situation, where a person could be nearly dead, but not quite, if infected by the cholera disease:10Sheilos uTeshuvos Chasam Sofer, vol. II Yoreh Deah §338.

…and with the disease cholera r”l, where one has only a pulse at the temples or at the neck, but there is no breathing…

A Carajillo and a Biscuit

The Chasam Sofer, in response to a shaila about cholera, discusses the topic of fasting on Yom Kippur. Responding to a certain R’ Yuda Brandiburg from Triesch [Třešť, Czech Republic],11HaChasam Sofer uVnei Doro a.k.a. ‘Ishim’, page 145 in the summer of 1836, during the last waves of the second Cholera outbreak, the Chasam Sofer writes:12Sheilos uTeshuvos Chasam Sofer, vol. VI, §23.

Since the doctors have warned not to exit one’s threshold whilst fasting, it’s understood that when enclosed at home, fasting wouldn’t do them harm, therefore, they should fast, and be enclosed, and daven beyechidus.

We find the same ruling given by R’ Yosef Hahn from Frankfurt, many years before the cholera outbreak:13Yosef Ometz, §334.

…especially in times when the air is not good [=epidemic] chas veshalom, it’s very dangerous to go to the streets without tasting something…

We find that Dr. Searle gave similar instructions:14Page 27.

Where cholera is prevalent, it is particularly advised that you should not leave home in the morning on an empty stomach. A cup of coffee, with or without a teaspoonful of brandy in it,15“A carajillo is a Spanish hot coffee drink to which a hard liquor is added, often brandy, whisky, or anisette.” Wikipedia. and a biscuit is indispensable.

Method of Transmission and Social Distancing

Let’s turn to the topic of the ‘method of transmission’ of cholera. Dr. Searle writes the following, from his personal experience:16Page 28.

I have only to add my most entire conviction, that the disease is not contagious, or, in other words, communicable from one person to another, in the ordinary sense of the words; a conviction which is founded not only upon the nature of the disease, but also upon observations made with reference to the subject during a period of no less than fourteen years.

It is impressive that Dr. Seale came to that conclusion after 14 years of observations.  His understanding is not far from the method of transmission described by the CSIS, mentioned above: “The bacteria are transmitted between humans through the fecal-oral route; a bite of contaminated food or a sip of contaminated water can cause infection.”

The idea of closing places of worship, or any places of gathering, was never practiced before.  Even after the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, and during the 1918 influenza pandemic, people continued to work in their regular workplaces, as usual.  The reason for this is that it was not necessary to practice social distancing since transmission of cholera occurs via direct touch. People kept to themselves; their attitudes and habits were different from those of today.

Interestingly, in the case of COVID-19, the transmission was initially believed to take place via touch, whereas later, it became apparent that transmission occurred through the air.  For this reason, there is a need for more stringent protection.  From studying history, we understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time that social distancing and self-isolation as we know it, is being used on a mass scale.17“This is the first time in history that we have seen social distancing and self-isolation at this level, across continents. The only thing we did in the past that looks like this would have occurred when a ship arrived in town. It had to pass medical inspection and could be quarantined.”, accessed 21 May 2020.  Although, people did flee the city to the outskirts, which technically caused them to self-isolate.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger on Social Distancing

Our master Rabbi Akiba Eger, z”l, at the age of 74 years on the streets of the city of Posen accompanied by two dayanim of the city: the rabbi, R’ Yaakob Kalwari and R’ Moshe Landsberg, z”l

The cholera outbreak of 1831 in the European Jewish community makes for an interesting subject of study. Several letters of instruction as to how to reduce the transmission of the disease, were written by R’ Akiva Eiger of Poznan (Posen).

What is of particular interest about the letters is the response of community members. For some people, the instructions brought home the severity of the restrictions, while others didn’t see anything other than R’ Akiva Eiger’s efforts to keep shuls functioning.

It was believed that cholera was contracted via touch.  Yet, R’ Akiva Eiger was not agreeable to people gathering in shul and merely restraining themselves from shaking hands.

The stringent safety measures that R’ Akiva Eiger writes about during the cholera outbreak of 1831 are quite amazing.  We see that according to the standard of that time, praying in shul during an epidemic was acceptable to doctors and local governments.  However, R’ Akiva Eiger introduced the rather novel idea of social distancing during an epidemic.  He responded to a shaila from Rabbi Eliyah Guttmacher of  Greiditz [Grodzisk Wielkopolski, Poland], who at the time was the Rav of Pleschen [Pleszew, Poland].

R’ Akiva Eiger writes:18Igros Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Jerusalem 2019, §71

Your letter has reached me. Regarding Tefillah BeTzibur, in my opinion, it’s true, that the gathering in a tight place isn’t right.  But, it’s possible to pray in groups, and each time, with a small amount [of people]. T hey should start early in the morning, and thereafter the next group.  [Groups] should be specific to these people, what time they should come to pray there.  And the same with Mincha…

They should watch out that more people than allowed should not push themselves in to come to shul.  It is possible [to control] by placing a police officer to watch, so that after the group has reached the quota, they shouldn’t allow anyone in until this group has finished.  Please write to your magistrate, and say that I wrote to you to do so.  If they deny you, then turn to the Government here, and you will surely succeed if you will mention my name, that I warned you…

Rabbi Chaim Palache mentions a very similar custom, practiced during an outbreak five years later.  People continued going to shul, but practiced social distancing. In his words:19R’ Chaim Palache, Sheilos uTeshuvos Chikekei Lev vol. I §5.

Due to the fear of not touching a single other person, as the gentile custom is… and as warned by Rabbi Chaim Vital.

Practically speaking, their social distancing was about literally not touching each other, rather than staying 2 meters or 6 feet apart.

Yeshivas – Open or Closed?

During the cholera epidemic, as in the case of the outbreak of war, families brought their children home from distant places of study, which caused most yeshivas to close their doors.20See Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat, 334:10.  This was the experience with COVID-19 as well.

Title: Moses S. Schreiber Oberrabner der israel. Gemeinde in Presburg Author: Ferdinand von Lütgendorf-Leinburg (1785–1858) Year: 1827

On 18 Av, 5591/1831, the Chasam Sofer gave a general eulogy for the passing of several rabbanim  in which he commented that, as is the practice of the sly fox, some bachurim “slyly” left yeshiva, but that he had chosen to keep his yeshiva open. Recently, some have sought to make practical decisions regarding yeshivas based on the Chasam Sofer’s decision to keep his yeshiva open21He does mention, however, the advice of the government to reduce the number of students. during the cholera outbreak, against the directives of the government and doctors of his generation.  Perhaps, they reasoned, in the case of COVID-19, they too could keep their yeshiva open.

It must be noted, however, that keeping his yeshiva open was permitted from a medical point of view, since in the case of cholera, it was enough that no one was touching anyone else.  Furthermore, the Chasam Sofer was never told to close his yeshiva.  Although parents did ask their children to come home, they did so in order to be close together in difficult times, not for fear of contagion.

By contrast, the regulations pertaining to COVID-19 required that yeshivas be closed. According to doctors, the transmission of the coronavirus disease takes place by aerosol particles traveling through the air.  This makes social distancing the best way to ensure safety and prevent the disease from spreading.

If Dever, No Fasting!

As mentioned above, the question arose of whether to permit fasting on Yom Kippur during the cholera epidemic and that the Chasam Sofer has a discussion about the advice of the doctors on that matter.

The Magen Avraham writes:22Magen Avraham, 576:2. “In our days, one does not fast in times of dever.

In addition, the Rema in Hilchos Aveilus cites a view that mourning is also not observed during such times: “Some say that during the time of a ‘dever’ one does not observe mourning rites out of fear, and I have heard that some have adopted this practice.”

What is the meaning of dever? In the Shulchan Aruch, a Mishna is quoted,23Taanis 3:4. which gives the details of what defines a situation as dever:24Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 576:2.[/mfn] “What constitutes dever? If in a city which has five hundred footmen, three deaths occurred on three consecutive days, behold this constitutes dever. Less than this is not dever.”  Thus, a determination of dever requires a steady, daily death rate of one person for each five hundred inhabitants for three consecutive days.

Based on these figures, several cholera epidemic outbreaks did not reach the mortality rate necessary to be considered a situation of fever!24In some cities, they might have reached these figures during the peak of the 1831 outbreak, but clearly not at the later outbreaks. By way of example, in Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s city of  Poznan, there were a total of 521 deaths recorded due to cholera. That is approximately 0.2% of its population of 31,000 inhabitants in 1831.25Wikipedia:, accessed 20 May 2020.   It bears noting too that the ratio of Jewish deaths during the epidemic outbreaks, were in general much smaller than that of the non-Jewish population, often by around 50%!, accessed 20 May 2020.

Cholera epidemic mortality figures were not high enough to be considered as dever.  Therefore, theoretically the rules of no fasting and no mourning, would not have been applied.

Yet,  according to Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach this is not so. In his sefer Chavas Yair, he explains his view:27Sheilos uTeshuvos Chavos Yair, §197.

It seems that not specifically dever, this is the case with each contagious plague and sickness… since the word dever isn’t specifically referred to the known plague [Bubonic], rather each and every sickness which kills and spreads from one person to another, and from house to house.  And in the Mishna in Taanis, our sages say: “What constitutes dever?  If in a city which has five hundred footmen…” it is understood, that every unnatural mass human death rate in a short period of time, is called dever, and also, in such a case they said, when dever is in town, one should flee.

This introduces the concept that any epidemic qualifies for the halachos of dever. In this view, during the cholera epidemic, the ruling of no fasting and no mourning in a time of dever would have applied.

What About Fasting on Tisha B’Av?

Indeed, we find that the halachos regarding fasting were applied during the cholera outbreak in Poland.

The first mention about no fasting is from a responsa written by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Brody, in which we read the following:28Ha’elef L’cha Shlomo, Orach Chaim §351. This response he wrote, at the 1848 outbreak of cholera.

I was asked by Rabbi Yisrael Halpern of Berdichev, about the fast of Tisha B’Av, as the dayanim ruled, in the time of cholera r”l, not to fast, and one dayan was more stringent and ruled [that people should] fast, and now since his ruling was ignored, he wants to impose several other fasts as a repentance.  But they have ruled excellently.  I was asked what to do, by the community of Dubna before Tisha B’Av.  I answered them in a lengthy response…that when there is a chashash safeik sakana, may one be stringent with himself and fast, [in the case] when it is a [fast that is] d’Oraysa, for example on Yom Kippur, [I answered that] one is allowed. And an adam chasuv should be stringent with himself, as we proved with evidence.  But when it comes to a [fast that is] d’rabbanan, it is assur, one is not allowed to be stringent with himself in the case of chashash safeik sakana.  On the contrary, I instructed their talmidei chachamim, to eat in public, so everyone should see, and follow suit…

R’ Shlomo Kluger, does not mention the ruling of the Magen Avraham, but his ruling is clearly based on the Magen Avraham.  No dayan would rule against a doctor’s advice to eat on Yom Kippur, which is d’Oraysa, let alone Tisha B’Av, which is only a d’rabanan.  Therefore, one can understand his position of being more stringent, and the psak to abstain from fasting on Tisha B’Av.

The position of Rabbi Meier Tzvi Wittmeier should be noted. He holds that one should not be so stringent in any way.29Sheilos uTeshuvos Ramatz, Orach Chaim, §39.  We find that the Shoel uMeishiv ruled that people should fast until chatzos, halachic midday, on Tzom Gedalia of that year.  He also instructed the shaliach tzibbur to say the fasting-prayer of Aneinu, even though the congregation had broken its fast already.30Edus Beyosef, Orach Chaim, Hilchos Taanis, 563 & 566:3.

We need to take into consideration that in each town, the situation was different during these outbreaks, hence the different opinions on the stringencies.

No Mourning or Sitting Shivah

The Shoel uMeishiv writes that during the 1831 and 1848 cholera outbreaks, the general custom was not to sit in mourning.31Yad Shaul, Yoreh Dei’ah, §375, found in Yalkut Mefarshim, Shulchan Aruch, Machon Yerushalayim edition, Jerusalem 2017, page 290.

Some years later, around 1886, there was another wave of the cholera outbreak, although it was not as harsh as that of 1831. Rabbi Malkiel Tzvi Tennenbaum, the rav of Łomża, Poland, debated the rule of no mourning. He started with some statistics:32Sheilos uTeshuvos Divrei Malkiel, vol. 2 §90.

These days, due to our sins the disease called cholera is seen, including in our town…very few who contracted it, died.  Here in town, only three people died in a span of six weeks, one of them being more than seventy years of age. In a nearby village, many more contracted the disease, and eight people died, but in some towns, that disease was more destructive.

I was asked if one should mourn, as it is stated in Shulchan Aruch, some say that in times of dever there is no mourning because of anxiety…

R’ Malkiel delves into the details of his ruling, explaining the anxiety aspect of it.  He writes that if many people will be mourning and sitting shivah, that will cause extreme anxiety, which can be very detrimental to health while facing an epidemic.

Perhaps if widespread mourning were to take place, people would think that the death rate is much higher than it truly is, not realizing  that many families might simultaneously be in mourning over a single death.

The halacha, as mentioned above, states that the ban on mourning applies when there is one daily death in a town of five hundred.  However, R’ Malkiel argues, if the issue is avoiding fear and anxiety, then any high rate of deaths, even less than one daily death out of 500 people, should also be sufficient to suspend mourning practices since any unnatural increase in the number of local deaths are likely to cause panic and anxiety.

R’ Malkiel brings the general contemporary ruling of his time that when a person dies from an epidemic disease, there should be no mourning, but resists issuing a blanket ruling.  In his psak, he separates the various customs of mourning, clarifying where one should be stringent, and where one should be lenient.

Anxiety in Real Life

To analyze further the issue of anxiety in connection with COVID-19 and how it affects us, consider the following section of a pamphlet written by doctors in London:

We are all facing a big challenge and a situation which is causing huge difficulties.  There is a lot of anxiety, worry and panic about coronavirus, which intensifies the problem.  With the added stress of Pesach approaching, it is really important to take necessary steps to reduce this anxiety and fear.

Many of the symptoms of coronavirus are also caused by anxiety.   

The following are symptoms which exist in both anxiety and coronavirus:

    •   Shortness of breath
    •   Weak body/tiredness
    •   Aching limbs
    •   Headaches
    •   Diarrhea

Listen to all the guidelines given out by the doctors, but do not assume that just because you have any of the above symptoms that you have coronavirus. 

The way anxiety works is that the more we focus and check on our symptoms the more worrying symptoms we will find.  When this happens, we get more anxious, feel more symptoms and the vicious cycle of anxiety continues.

Although anxiety, by itself, does not kill, it has a negative effect on the immune system, which in times of epidemic, can be life threatening.  Dr. Jacob Barr, referred me to the following information on the Calm Clinic, accessed 2 June 2020.

Anxiety has a complicated relationship with the immune system, and unfortunately, there is some evidence that too much anxiety can actually weaken the immune system dramatically.

In this light, we can better appreciate  the following words of Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, author of the sefer Ben Ish Chai:34Ben Yehoyada, vol. 4, Bava Kama, 60a.

Dever be’ir kanes raglecha, when ‘dever’ is in town, gather your feet… The Iyun Yakov explains that fleeing from the town is advisable before dever strengthens itself in town, but once the dever is in full power, fleeing will not help, since the dever will go with them to wherever they are going…  This is always the case with dever.  But [especially] with the disease called cholera, fear and anxiety will do damage, and the disease might catch him due to fear and anxiety.  The doctors tell a tale:  There was once a cholera outbreak in a town, and before it hit the peak, a person met the demon controlling the cholera disease, and asked him, “How many people do you intend to take?”  He answered, “Five thousand.”  In the end 15,000 people died from the disease.  This person met the demon on another day, and he asked him; “Why did you lie? You told me you intended to take 5,000, and in the end, you took 15,000?”  He answered, “I didn’t lie, I only took with my sword 5,000.  The other 10,000 died from the fear and anxiety that they had from staying in town!

Taking this into consideration, one can see that anxiety can be as dangerous as the disease itself.  Hence the ruling of no mourning during times of an epidemic.

Another 30 Days

As we have shown, we know how an epidemic starts: when there is an unnaturally high number of deaths due to a contagious disease.  Once this happens, the halachos of dever might be applied.

Until when do the halachos of dever cease to apply, so that a city might receive clearance for things to return to normal according to halacha?

R’ Shlomo Kluger writing about the ban on fasting during an epidemic, writes: “I have also written, as long the epidemic hasn’t relaxed for 30 consecutive days, they are included as safek sakanah!”  The question remains whether this would also apply to the suspension of mourning too.


Perhaps COVID-19 will be named the Invisible Death, due to the invisible nature of the microscopic, virus particles and the ‘invisible spreaders’ of the disease.  What is really not invisible are the guidelines that are circulated by healthcare resources and, lehavdil, our spiritual leaders.

The statistics for COVID-19 seem to be much closer to cholera than to the Mishna’s term of dever, therefore one might have thought that the ruling should have been ‘no fasting and no mourning’. This wasn’t the case in Jewish communities across the globe for various reasons.

The Chasam Sofer stated in connection with an epidemic, “The doctors have warned not to exit one’s threshold whilst fasting.” In our days, the doctors have warned not to exit one’s threshold altogether where possible.  So, we see that there are clear differences between the instructions for then, and for now.

Nevertheless, let’s remember R’ Shlomo Kluger’s warning, that the situation is still one of safek sakana, until 30 consecutive clear days have passed, following the disappearance of the disease.

    • Kankan is not here to rule, or to pasken any halachos, which is something we respectfully leave to the Rabbanim.  But one lesson we can learn from this research is that we must look at an epidemic from a Torah perspective.  The government will lift restrictions in each location, in accordance with their many calculations. However, as Jews, we can examine the situation and make appropriate decisions from the viewpoint of the Torah’s guidelines and halacha.
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