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

April 27 2020

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

Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy