The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pan­demics from the Bible to COVID-19

January 8, 2023

A physi­cian and his­to­ri­an of sci­ence and med­i­cine at the Nation­al Insti­tute of Health tells the hid­den sto­ry of how plagues and pan­demics shaped the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple.

Plagues, pan­demics, and infec­tious dis­eases have shaped the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Of course, there were the ten bib­li­cal plagues that famous­ly smote the Egyp­tians — from the rain of frogs to the deaths of the first­born — but that is just the start of the sto­ry. For the Tal­mu­dic Sages infec­tious dis­eases were part of the fun­da­men­tal fab­ric of God’s cre­at­ed world. In lat­er times, how­ev­er, dis­ease was often thought to be caused by malign spells and incan­ta­tions. A counter-mag­ic devel­oped to com­bat them. Amulets were deployed and mir­a­cle work­ers sought out. Sur­pris­ing­ly, Jere­my Brown shows, Jews some­times even vis­it­ed Chris­t­ian shrines and beseeched the inter­ven­tion of their saints. In 1348, when the Black Death swept through Europe, Jews fell vic­tim both to the dis­ease, for which they were blamed, and to the anti­se­mit­ic vio­lence that fol­lowed. At least 235 Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties were per­se­cut­ed even as Pope Clement IV ruled that any­one join­ing or autho­riz­ing the per­se­cu­tion would be excom­mu­ni­cat­ed.

In The Eleventh Plague, Brown inves­ti­gates the rela­tion between Judaism and infec­tious dis­eases through­out the ages, from pre­mod­ern and ear­ly-mod­ern plagues, to rab­binic respons­es to small­pox and cholera, to the spe­cial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties Jew­ish immi­grants faced in the US as result of prej­u­dice, and to the curi­ous prac­tice of Black Wed­dings” in which two orphans are mar­ried in a ceme­tery. Pop­u­lar­ized dur­ing the 1918 influen­za pan­dem­ic the prac­tice was revived in response to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, show­ing that the intrigu­ing rela­tion­ship between Judaism and infec­tious dis­ease remains rel­e­vant today.

Discussion Questions

Writ­ten in the shad­ow of COVID-19The Eleventh Plague offers a much-need­ed his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive on pan­demics and the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Jere­my Brown, a physi­cian and his­to­ri­an of sci­ence and med­i­cine, takes the read­er on an expan­sive jour­ney through this his­to­ry, from the Exo­dus sto­ry of the ten plagues, to out­breaks of small­pox and the Black Death in medieval Europe, to influen­za and COVID-19 in more mod­ern times. Well-researched yet acces­si­ble, Brown’s book helps the read­er under­stand the spe­cif­ic ways in which rab­bis and oth­er lead­ers of Jew­ish thought respond­ed to moments of plague” and how Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy devel­oped in light of these events. Equal­ly impor­tant­ly, Brown notes how the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty itself has been affect­ed not only by pan­demics and plagues, but also by the anti-Jew­ish blame that often accom­pa­nies these crises. The Eleventh Plague serves as a mag­nif­i­cent, deeply infor­ma­tive exam­i­na­tion of the impact of plagues and pan­demics on Jews and Judaism through­out his­to­ry. In that way, it pro­vides impor­tant con­text for all who are still strug­gling to under­stand the impact of our most recent pandemic.