The Coronavirus outbreak has been deemed unprecedented, but how unprecedented is it?
It’s hard to ignore the parallel between Covid-19 and the times in which the Jewish calendar finds itself now.
The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot is the period that was set aside to commemorate the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who died owing to a deadly plague.
The Talmud is clear in attributing the cause of the outbreak to the sin of lack of mutual respect between Rabbi Akiva’s students.
The disease, Ascora, affected the lungs until they inevitably died from difficulty breathing, resulting in a daily death toll of 300 to 400.
Consequently, for two millennia, the Jewish people have observed a mourning period, refraining from celebrating weddings, listening to music that may lead to dancing and from having haircuts.
While prophecy has long been abandoned in the Jewish religion and speculation insensitive, the inevitable parallels between the situation in which we each find ourselves and our shared history are hard to ignore. However, let us remember that the story, although tragic, has an optimistic ending, with Rabbi Akiva and his remaining students emblazoned with their mantra, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), rebuilding the Jewish people and introducing the doctrines of Jewish works, like Zohar and much of the Talmud.
It also gave the Jewish people a unique day, Lag Be’Omer, to celebrate both the culmination of the epidemic and the birth of a new society.
Let us utilise the period of mourning, confinement and lack of open rejoicing to strengthen each other, build mutual respect within all areas of humanity and let us see the end of the pandemic speedily.
- Rabbi Shauly Strom is director of northern campuses at Aish UK