Some Lessons from the Talmudic Plague That Gave Rise to Post-Passover Mourning Rituals

The interval between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot is traditionally a period of mourning, during which the observant refrain from getting haircuts and holding weddings. While these customs took shape in the wake of the Crusades, when many massacres of Jews occurred during this time of year, rabbinic authorities cite as their source an episode described by the Talmud. According to this passage, the great sage Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the early 2nd century CE, had “12,000 pairs of disciples,” scattered throughout the Land of Israel, all of whom died of disease because “they did not accord respect to one another.” Basil Herring discusses some of the questions this story raises, and seeks to answer them:

[Most importantly], we can note the unusual description of these students. Why were they not referred to more simply as “24,000 disciples,” rather than the unusual “12,000 pairs?” And why did they all die “at one time,” i.e. over a period of a few weeks, rather than—as one might have expected—over the course of many months or even years, in staggered fashion? Furthermore, in the aftermath of their death why did Akiva, [as the talmudic passage adds], go to “the scholars in the south” to revive the study of Torah, rather than simply repopulate the existing study halls and . . . with new students?

In the light of the worldwide pandemic that we are currently experiencing I would venture to suggest . . . that these students in fact were felled at the hands of a powerful epidemic that swept through Judea. . . . [B]ecause the paired students engaged in close-contact Torah study they naturally infected one another. [The epidemic’s] spread would have been accelerated when those students gathered in larger groups to participate in classes led by their teachers in a lecture hall, [as described in many other talmudic passages].

It also makes sense that Akiva . . . sought out an area “in the south,” [much of which was then sparsely inhabited desert], that for one reason or another had not been exposed or subject to the epidemic and thus was likely to have been better protected from the disease.

[T]he sad fate of so many of Akiva’s disciples at the hands of a terrible infectious disease in a period of Jewish history that was already so filled with pain, suffering, and death [because of the Roman persecutions], and the response of their near contemporaries to use that traumatic event as an opportunity for personal self-examination, should at the very least give us added reason to engage in our own modest attempts at introspection.

Read more at Torah Musings

More about: Akiva, Coronavirus, Jewish calendar, Talmud


While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy