In the first third of the 19th century, a massive cholera pandemic swept across the world, killing hundreds of thousands. By the summer of 1831, it reached eastern Europe and ravaged its Jewish communities. The despairing rabbi of Poznań, in Poland, wrote to his teacher to ask for advice. And Rabbi Akiva Eiger (pictured) wrote back:
With regard to prayer in synagogue, in my opinion it is honestly not right to gather in a confined space. But it should be possible to pray in very small groups, 15 people only. They should begin at dawn, then another group, and each person should be given a specific time to come and pray.
And to make sure that more people than this maximum do not push their way in, you should station a police officer to enforce the rules [the first covid marshal?]. Whenever there are already this number inside, this guard must not allow anybody else in until after the existing group has left.
And be careful to stay warm, and everyone should wear clothes of flannel tied tightly around the waist. And do not eat bad food, especially gherkins.
Limiting attendance at Shabbat services, and calling on the secular authorities to help enforce this, was radical enough. (Not to mention imposing a boycott of Mrs Elswood.) But of course, the High Holy Days were just around the corner. Rosh Hashanah that year, 5592, fell on 8 September, and plans had to be made. In a follow-up letter, Rabbi Eiger was clear that social distancing was more important than celebrating the new year in its full glory. He was equally clear, though, that this must be done in the fairest and most inclusive way possible:
In every synagogue, in both the men’s section and the women’s section, it is only permitted to fill half of the seats on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – so that, next to every occupied seat, the seat adjacent to it should be empty.
Given this, only half of the members will be able to enter the synagogue on these holy days. And given that all the members have an equal right to attend, the half who attend on the two days of Rosh Hashanah should give way to the half who attend on the evening and day of Yom Kippur, and vice versa.
In order to achieve the goal that half of the seats will be empty, and in order to decide who will attend on Rosh Hashanah and who on Yom Kippur, behold, the av beit din will draw lots. All the seats are to be numbered 1 or 2. Anyone who draws a number 1 will attend on Rosh Hashanah, and anyone who draws a number 2 will attend on Yom Kippur.
The synagogue administrators shall take care of printing tickets, in a different shape for each festival. For the maintenance of order, a military guard will be stationed at every entrance to the synagogue. Attendees must show him their tickets. Furthermore, police community support officers [yes really] will take care of order inside the synagogue.
Because those who are not attending synagogue will need to form minyanim in private houses, those organising said minyanim must ensure that the number of participants is limited in the same way, consistent with the area of the venue. Supervision with this directive will be enforced by the health police [again, yes really].
Now, if Rabbi Eiger were around in 2020, he might have drawn the line at using Zoom – or he might have embraced it. Who can tell? Still, enough for us to know that we are not the first generation of Jews struggling to reconcile our communal activities with the demands of a pandemic.
We do what we can to preserve both life and Judaism, trusting in science and in our own creativity. We willingly make a temporary sacrifice of our usual High Holy Day gatherings in the service of God, who brings life and sometimes death.
And in honour of the medico-halachic pioneering of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, we enter the year 5781 in his footsteps – gherkin free.
The two responsa excerpted above were published separately:
- Igrot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 71 (also appears in Sefer Igrot Sofrim 29)
- P’sakim v’Takkanot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 20
See also this excellent compendium of halachic responses to pandemics (compiled by Rabbi Professor Abraham Steinberg), and this article by Rabbi Elli Fischer primarily because it has the truly wonderful title Rav in a Time of Cholera.