Social Distancing during Epidemics Has Ample Precedent in Rabbinic Law

March 25, 2020 | Jeremy Brown
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In recent weeks, there has been much discussion in synagogues and Jewish communities about how to enforce the measures recommended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which in some locales are being enforced by police. While some rabbis courted controversy by insisting that schools and yeshivas stay open, others have issued rulings unprecedented in their halakhic leniency in order to ensure that religious life can continue without increasing risks of contagion. Jeremy Brown turns to talmudic and medieval writings to see how rabbis responded to plagues in the past:

The Talmud emphasizes not the isolation or removal of those who are sick, but rather the reverse—the isolation of those who are well. “When there is an epidemic in the town,” [states Tractate Bava Kama], “keep your feet inside your house.” Of course the effect is the same: there is no contact between those who are ill and those who are well, but since there are usually many more well than there are sick, the effort and social disruption of isolation of the healthy will be much greater.

In the 14th century, when Europe was ravaged by several waves of bubonic plague that killed one-third of the population, many towns enacted measures to control the disease. Around 1347, the Jewish physician Jacob of Padua advised the city to establish a treatment area outside of the city walls for those who were sick.

Jewish behavior during an epidemic is even regulated in the Shulḥan Arukh, the 16th-century code of law deemed authoritative by Jewish communities the world over, [which states that] “one should flee from a city in which there is an epidemic. . . . To save yourself you should stay far away. It is forbidden to rely on miraculous help or to endanger yourself.” The suggestion made by the rabbis—to isolate yourself from others during an epidemic—is a basic part of public infection control. We’d be wise to listen.

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