Commentary

Contagious Disease, Moral Behavior, and Prayer: Bava Kama Today 

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Miriam Reisler

The spread of coronavirus is affecting everyone – individuals, families, cities, and countries. People all over the world are grappling with isolation, its economic and social repercussions, and the fear of facing the unknown. The news and bulletins from the Israeli health ministry are the major conduits through which updates are received and information is discussed in the public domain. As a gemara teacher focused on Masekhet Bava Kama this year, I would like to add another dimension to the discourse – the voice of our Sages. This voice is not whispering to me, but calling me loudly to pay attention to their eerily relevant discussions and advice. 

The organization of the ideas which follow is inspired by R. Yitzhak Nafha (Bava Kama 60b), who divided his thoughts into two categories – aggadata (the study of homiletical ideas) and shemayta (the more rigorous study associated with precisely defining the rules of law). As R. Yitchak Nafha did, I too aspire to use these relevant sugyot to offer insight, strength, and hope in these complicated times. 

Contagious Disease in Aggadata: Home Quarantine and its Ramifications 

One of the obvious references to the current situation is the statement the gemara Bava Kama makes that if there is a contagious disease in the city, one should shut himself in his home for fear of the Angel of Death, who is brazenly controlling the main roads. Unfortunately, this idea is only too comprehensible today, as the health ministry encourages people to rethink (or cancel) the routes of their international and daily travels, saying that movement should be limited to the periphery in order to prevent harm, because contagious diseases strike indiscriminately (ibid., 60a). 

In addition to describing the physical dangers inherent to contagious disease, the Sages of the gemara clearly recognized the significance of the emotional state of people living in fear. The gemara describes Rava’s attempt to achieve a high level of quarantine during the spread of a contagious disease, something he described as an “idan de-ritha,” time of God’s wrath. Rava didn’t just sit inside, but he also blocked up his windows for fear that death would seep through them. It is unclear if Rava acted in this way because it was the logical and reasonable way to respond to the situation, or if he acted out of his deepest fears. The latter option is supported by the text quoted immediately prior to Rava’s statement, which explicitly describes the emotional difficulty of quarantine: people try to justify their desire to be with others in moments of fear and uncertainty, even when isolation is clearly necessary to preserve their physical safety. These descriptions also highlight something inherent to the worldview of our sages: our experiences are seen through multifocal lenses which combine the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. 

Interspersed among the derashot about contagious disease are a number of ostensibly unrelated homilies and statements. The sugya mostly describes responses to contagious disease, but in the middle of its discussion it raises the spectre of famine – a different type of problem, as reflected in the Sages’ call for the opposite response to that of plague – “run away.” Why discuss famine in the midst of a discussion about plague? Our current situation sheds light on a phenomenon which our Sages apparently recognized: when there is a plague raging outside, people stay inside, which in turn causes a depression of the economy and food shortages. Even when the plague recedes, its after-effects on the supply chain may remain with us for some time. Our Sages seem to have been cognizant not only of the physical and emotional effects of contagious disease, but also of the additional shockwaves it can create which necessitate other, though equally complicated, responses.

Contagious Disease in Shemayta: Fire as Damage by your Possessions or by your Person 

The ideas and advice described above regarding behavior in a time of contagious disease are discussed in the format of aggadata. The backdrop for the aggadata about plague is the legal discourse about man’s responsibility for the damage done by a fire lit by him for personal needs.  Here too there are significant lessons about how to behave in these complicated times. Importantly, we are presented with a communal opportunity to apply the dictum stated by Rav Yehudah, “He who wishes to be pious should scrupulously follow the laws of damages” (Bava Kama 30a). Our studies of these sugyot give us a deeper understanding of the responsibility of man to contain fires he has lit, and his resulting responsibility towards the damages done when he loses control over such a fire. Since contagious illness is akin to fire, we can all endeavor to behave in accordance with the value of preventing damage in the public domain. 

Fire is very central to our lives. Lighting Shabbat candles is the last thing done before Shabbat is ushered in, and it is the first thing done when Shabbat is over, expressing the centrality of fire in our daily activities. Although we don’t think of fire in essential terms in modern society, that is because it has conceptually and practically been replaced by electricity. 

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns… he who started the fire must make restitution” (Exodus 22:5). The verse which describes damages by fire begins with the inevitable – a person lights a fire in his own domain for warmth, cooking, agriculture, or some other essential need. Despite the fact that fire is necessary, if that fire causes damage to another person’s property, the person who lit it is held responsible to pay. 

In explaining the above verse, R. Yitzhak Nafha suggests two readings which dovetail with one another; in both, he connects the beginning of the verse to its concluding words. In his first reading, which falls under the category of aggadata, he explains the verse as one which offers comfort to the mourners of Zion: since the Holy One Blessed Be He allowed a fire to destroy the Temple, He must assume responsibility and fulfill His obligation to see to its rebuilding. The second reading has a more legal bent: the one who lights a fire is obligated as a person who caused damage and not as one whose possessions caused damage. He is called “the one who lit the fire” to emphasize this additional level of responsibility, despite the fact that the fire was lit without intention to cause harm (“ki tetze eish”). This is a very strong statement: man’s responsibility vis-a-vis his fire is directly connected to him as the primary cause of damage, as opposed to being defined as a secondary damage, one caused by his property. This greater responsibility finds expression in the additional fines he must pay when he or his fire (but not when his pit or ox) cause damage to a fellow human being. 

Contagious Disease as Fire: From Theory to Practice 

The level of responsibility one bears regarding the “wildfire” of contagious disease similarly demands our immediate attention. The issue deserves treatment not only from the health ministry, but also from our batei midrash. The phenomenon of people who don’t take social distancing seriously, for any reason, must be denounced publicly and clearly. This is the time to strictly follow the dictum to distance oneself from causing damage, despite the difficulties posed by this injunction. Just as it is difficult for society to impose upon itself limitations in its use of fire (today electricity), so too are the challenges faced by us all, facing isolation and lockdown. A quarantined world poses a myriad of physical and emotional difficulties which include but are not limited to livelihood, access to food and essential services, taking care of members of one’s household, extended family, and needy neighbors, and fear. Despite these significant hardships, one who does not follow explicit orders is personally responsible for any illness he causes to others, and cannot claim exceptions or exemptions. 

In contrast to fire, in the matter of contagious disease, I would like to suggest that responsibility does not end with the individual, as it is also the domain of the community at large. This principle is suggested in another sugya about the damages of fire, but in a different context – that of Hanukkah candles. According to R. Yehudah (ibid., 62b), during the time that hanukiyyot are lit, and only during that time, the merchant on the road with his camel, and not the store owner who lit the candles, has a clear responsibility to make sure that the candles sitting outside do not cause a fire. In other words, there are times when the brunt of the responsibility is placed on the public, the passersby, and not on the individual. 

The idea that the community must be concerned with its role in the damage that might begin from an unintending individual has great resonance during these difficult times. It is not enough to condemn individuals who are endangering the public health; we must work actively to create an environment, within the limits of our abilities, which supports the individuals who are in full compliance with the law, despite the difficulties imposed upon them. We need to reach out – by phone and other technologies – to all who need support. This group goes beyond those ill or isolated because of Corona, and includes those ill with other sicknesses, grandparents and the elderly, parents of children with special needs, mourners, dysfunctional families, and so many others. Those who can – need to think about those in need even though we no longer see those needs in person. It is the responsibility of all members of the community to marshal their efforts and creativity in order to show concern for the other, while simultaneously taking care of themselves. 

Pestilence and Prayer 

As men and women who share a religious worldview, our struggle with a deep crisis such as this awakens within us the need for prayer. This need is poignantly discussed elsewhere in Bava Kama (80b). In this sugya, an occurrence of pestilence is cited as a legitimate reason to permit fervent prayer on Shabbat; if the disease is severe enough, even the blowing of horns is allowed. It seems that this permission is related to the next line in the sugya, that a door which is closed is not easily opened. It is critical to pray while the door of the possibility of salvation is open. 

Given the importance of prayer in the face of a clear and present danger, the closing of our synagogues and houses of study seems an edict which is almost too hard to bear, despite the fact that on the technical level obviously pikuah nefesh overshadows the imperative of public prayer. Here too it is worthwhile to note that the Sages of the gemara were aware of this frightening possibility and offered a warning which is eerily familiar. The gemara (60b) says that when there is contagious disease spreading, one should not venture into the synagogue alone, because the Angel of Death leaves his tools there. The gemara then notes that this is true only if there is no minyan meeting regularly for prayer in the synagogue. When I first came across this piece, I wondered what kind of community had a person who wanted to come, during a plague, to a synagogue which was generally abandoned. Today, I am painfully aware of how such a situation could come about – and why it is indeed so dangerous to open the doors of this beloved place precisely when people most want to be there, when they are longing to open their aching hearts and pray. As was stated above, rationalizations to do what feels “right” and “good,” like being in the company of others at a time of disease or praying together in a place of worship, sadly must be denied.

At a time when prayer is so necessary for the soul, but the synagogues are closed, we are presented with a seemingly impossible situation. However, this is not a time for despair, but for action, action which can be accomplished through prayer – for individual prayer which is heartfelt, for preparing for prayer mentally and emotionally for a few moments before we begin, for finding personal and communal meaning in each of the blessings in the Shemoneh Esrei, for adding your own words to Shema Koleinu. A few moments of intense prayer can help us reach deeper inside ourselves and find that there is a well of hope within our souls. Just knowing that hope is there can give us strength, strength which can help carry us through the current ordeal, and perhaps, when it is over, will continue to add light and luster to our lives. 

My hope for the future is strengthened by the words and ideas preserved and resonating through the ages, from the time of the gemara to today. Elements of what we are experiencing now were recognized by our Sages two millennia ago. Their words remind us to preserve our commitment to being a community firmly committed to its traditional moral stance toward preventing damages, while simultaneously maintaining our belief that God can and ultimately will bring salvation.

Miriam Reisler
Miriam Reisler lives in Israel and is passionate about teaching gemara to women of all ages. She is deeply involved in post high school and adult education as a Ramit in Yeshivat Drisha, and as a teacher of older women at Migdal Oz and Kulana. She is also committed to encouraging high school age students to experience learning as a lifelong pursuit by preparing them for the challenging Talmud track bagrut at Ulpanat Noga and through an internet learning program she created through Midreshet Afikim, an organization she founded. Currently, she is the only woman teaching towards this bagrut, and her students are the only young women sitting for this test.