This is Not the Eleventh Plague

This is not the 11th Plague.

Too many Jews and Jewish educators are talking about the current pandemic as the “11th Plague”, suggesting that it could be appropriately joined with the historic Ten Plagues that we will recall at Seder.

But this is the wrong parallel.

Let’s remember: the Ten Plagues were delivered by God deliberately as a punishment for Pharoah’s obstinacy. While we are sorry for the suffering of the Egyptians, the Plagues had an outcome that we celebrate: we got out of Egypt.

Does anybody seriously believe that God deliberately delivered this current pandemic as a punishment? I don’t. No thoughtful Jewish theology would support such an idea.

Here’s the far more significant historic parallel: between Pesach and Shavuot, we Jews will go through the period we call the Omer. The Omer is a time of mourning, during which we count the days. Why is it a period of mourning?

Here’s what the Talmud says (Yevamot 62b):

“Twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students all died in the period from Passover until Shavuot. Rav Ḥama bar Abba said, and some say it was Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin: They all died a bad death. The Gemara inquires: What is it that is called a bad death? Rav Naḥman said: Diphtheria.”

That’s right. In the period between Pesach and Shavuot, 24,000 rabbinic students died from a terrible infectious sickness that spread through them. And, ever since, we have been mourners at this season of the year.

In my view, if you are looking for historic Jewish parallels at this season, this is the correct one.

I urge you not to refer to the current pandemic as a plague to be listed at Seder.

Rather, prepare for the grim reality that we will shortly enter a period of somber mourning on the Jewish calendar – mourning for thousands who were felled by transmissible sickness centuries ago. Sadly, this year, that mourning, and that horrendous historic parallel, will be palpably real for us all.

Rabbi Danny Schiff

If you have thoughts or reactions in connection with this piece, I would be pleased to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment below or continue the conversation by contacting me directly at [email protected].

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