Plagues and Perseverance

The Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.

How the Jewish community of Prague, the largest Jewish settlement in pre-Modern Christian Europe, coped with a devastating plague in 1713

Plagues pervaded much of European history. While the Black Death (bubonic plague), which took place in the mid-fourteenth century is very well known, it was far from an isolated event (although it was the most deadly).

There were times when Jewish communities experienced a plague as often as every decade. From the 1340s to the 1720s, plagues were simply a part of life.

Dr. Joshua Teplitsky, assistant professor in the Department of History and the Judaic Studies program at Stony Brook University in New York, is currently working on a book about the epidemic of 1713 in the city of Prague, and how it affected the Jewish community. Little did he know when he began researching the topic that only a short while later, the world would be experiencing a global pandemic and his work would take on “fresh urgency and new meaning.” No longer would this episode be an interesting historical footnote, but a deeply relevant story of survival and rebuilding that echoes our present. “It’s surreal,” he says.

In the Jewish Quarter of Prague: 1713
With an outbreak in late July, the plague appears to have hit the Jewish community harder and earlier than its Christian counterpart. Government officials spring into action, putting in place public health measures to stem the spread.

The consensus, says Dr. Teplitsky, seems to be that this was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, a particularly horrific sight that often involved swelling of large sores (buboes) at the joints. This particular epidemic appears to have swept through Eastern Europe and into Central Europe. It was part of the last decade of the bubonic plague; the last major outbreak took place in Marseille in 1721, thus ending the long period scholars refer to as “The Second Pandemic” (1348-1721; though the bubonic plague still appeared in limited scope until 1830).

The most likely reason for the heavier outbreak among the Jewish population, suggests Dr. Teplitsky, is because the Jewish community lived in tight, cramped ghetto quarters. Eleven thousand Jews in a city of 45,000 (a veritable metropolis for the Early Modern period) lived in just 365 buildings. At three or four-stories high, these structures each contained approximately thirty people, with each unit housing about ten. Reports suggest multiple families, or generations of families, lived in the same space, with crowding being the obvious result. “There seemed to be an awareness and fear that this was striking the Jewish Quarter with particular intensity,” says Dr. Teplitsky, “but that’s not to say the Jews were blamed for it.”

The Hapsburg monarchy in Vienna issues a dual set of instructions, one for the city as a whole and one focused on the Jewish Quarter. These contain directives about how to clean the dead, methods on limiting contagion, and specific restrictions regarding the Jews. Segregation measures are implemented, and a few weeks later, the Judenstadt, the Jewish Quarter, connected to the rest of the city via six gates, is sealed off. Movement in the Jewish Quarter comes to a halt.

While this would seem to paint a grotesque image of anti-Semitism, Dr. Teplitsky shies away from describing it as that. “There was a complicated relationship between Jews and Christians,” he says. For the most part, documents suggest a congenial working relationship between the two groups, with people going between the neighborhoods and workers laboring alongside each other.

“We’re not talking about violent persecution,” explains Dr. Teplitsky. “There was no official persecution from the top, nor was there popular scapegoating.” There is even evidence that without the government directives, Christians would not have elected to shun the Jewish Quarter. For example, one official letter, issued in late July during the early days of the plague, forbids Christian washerwomen from entering the Judenstadt, where they would often go on the Jewish Sabbath to help with the cleaning, indicating that without the ordinance they might have continued doing so.

Another document which indicates the relatively positive state of Christian-Jewish relations is the ban against Christians safeguarding the possessions of wealthier Jews who might flee the city. This suggests that there existed a level of trust between the two groups, and interestingly, it also demonstrates that officials were cognizant of an infection’s ability to spread via objects.

They often recited these prayers before their lost ones as an apology, essentially saying, we beg forgiveness for failing to do a proper taharah for all of you.

Illness and epidemics were, of course, still misunderstood during that period, with two dominant narratives emerging. One claimed the plague was a “stench,” a mushroom of bad air that caused people to sicken (in fact the Yiddish word for plague, ipush, is “stench”), while another claimed it was a contagion that passed from person to person. Both theories were popular and widespread.

With panic and uncertainty running high at the start of the outbreak, there seemed to be one ideal option: to flee. As instructions were issued to close the ghetto, some escaped to another city (which, since the fourteenth century, was a common way of responding to plagues). This no doubt created a new level of chaos and disorientation within the Judenstadt as some critical members of the community, including community activists, leaders and rabbanim, may have chosen to leave in order to protect their families.

Consider Anshel Wiener, a transplant to Prague who had already left his previous residence “out of fear of the pestilence,” who is now once again leaving his residence, fleeing from the risk of infection.

Seeking financial safety for his family in the event of his death, he appears before the Jewish court in Prague for the purpose of transferring his belongings to his wife Mirel, citing the parting comment from Kohelet: “For man cannot know his time” (9:12). This is recorded in a pinkas (a record book used by Jewish communities throughout the Middle Ages) which, although it says little, reveals much about what average individuals were thinking during that time, the fears they harbored, and the arrangements they made.

The plague ushers in chaos. Communities and governments force doctors to treat patients despite the risk of personal harm. There is difficulty securing gravediggers for burying the dead. Rulings are issued that Jews cannot use the cemetery in the center of the community (where the Maharal and other famous personalities rest). Bodies are sent downriver to an auxiliary burial ground; along the way, many bodies are disfigured by the rough waters.  

The plague of 1713 lasted for six months with a couple of peaks and valleys, until finally ebbing away. Thirty percent of the population, which amounted to 3,400 deaths in the Jewish community, perished.

Looking Forward
What interests Dr. Teplitsky are not only the challenges and the difficulties, but also the rebirth and rebuilding. “How did people weather a storm like this?” he asks.

There is much documentation about the devastation, but also about the rebuilding. Jewry had an eye on its future, on a time of revival, even during the height of the contagion.

Rabbinic responsa is an optimal place to start when researching the Jewish community’s attempt to rebuild. “The rabbinic authorities got a number of different questions related to the plague,” says Dr. Teplitsky. “One of them, for example, is about someone who had died a few years before and had left a bequest to be used for pidyon shevuyim. Was this money allowed to be repurposed for the community’s welfare during the plague?”

As instructions were issued to close the ghetto, some escaped to another city (which, since the fourteenth century, was a common way of responding to plagues).

While many questions deal with issues directly related to managing the crisis, others reflect a more longitudinal view. With the cornerstone of Jewish continuity being marriage and children, an oft-pursued ambition for medieval and early modern Jewry despite many thwarting factors, one man asks if he should fulfill the commandment of peru u’revu. This married man wonders if this is an appropriate pursuit under the circumstances (not unlike many in our community who were grappling with questions surrounding dating and wedding ceremonies during the height of the pandemic). His concern is double-edged. “On the one hand he wants to have a child because he is afraid his life might end without fulfilling this mitzvah,” says Dr. Teplitsky, “but on the other hand, he is concerned about bringing children into the world who might possibly perish, and about jeopardizing the life of his wife who may become pregnant during the epidemic. Caught between the present and the future, he is not sure how to plan. ‘Should I wait, or should I act quickly since everything is so precarious?’”

The response: Hold off for now. But in the letter, the rabbi essentially leaves the options open, saying, if my answer pains you and you feel weighed down by not fulfilling this commandment, then you may go ahead.

“The rabbi’s response shows me that they weren’t sure how long this plague would last and if this man would be around after the plague to support his wife and child,” says Dr. Teplitsky.

As for an economic revival, that is, of course, front and center in the story of this plague.

Stumbling upon a ledger written in 1714, Dr. Teplitsky was at first unsure of what the volume actually was. “It took me time to figure it out, and I’m still not sure, but I think it is a record of sixty-three testimonies, accompanied by sixty-three inventories, all made by women,” he says.

These women, whose husbands had perished, came before the officials of the community to discuss which items were theirs before marriage, which were part of their husbands’ estates, which belonged to creditors and which belonged to their children. “They were seeking to rebuild their lives! They were taking stock and figuring out how to provide for the future,” he explains.

Plague pillar erected to mark the passing of an epidemic on Hradchanskaya Square, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo: Katsiuba Volha/Shutterstock.com

The women in this ledger are clearly from across the social class spectrum—they are widows of doctors and wealthy businessmen as well as widows of the poor. And these women discuss everything from their fish pots to their designated seats in shul. “All of this is about resuming and rebuilding, even with the complete acknowledgement that the family makeup has changed and everything is different,” says Dr. Teplitsky.

And a final area of focus—making peace with the past. Coming to terms with loss is a central part of this story as the community tries to recover from such a large-scale upheaval.

In one responsum, the questioner asks whether his father, who has recently died, should be buried in the cemetery, or rather in the forest. During the epidemic, bodies were covered with lime powder to make them decompose faster; the son asks if it is halachically problematic to cover the body with this substance and should he therefore make a private burial outside of the cemetery, perhaps in the forest. The rabbinic response is to bury the father in the cemetery, as being buried in a forest is disrespectful to the body.

Throughout the various responsa, concerns are raised about not having a proper Jewish burial; there is an emphasis on eternity and a focus on preparing the body for the ultimate experience of techiyat hameitim.

A book of techinot, women’s homiletic prayers, bound and printed in Prague in 1719, is full of prayers which women recited at the cemetery. They often recited these prayers before their lost ones as an apology, essentially saying, we beg forgiveness for failing to do a proper taharah for all of you. “It’s heart-wrenching and also beautiful,” says Dr. Teplitsky, “perhaps a form of survivors’ guilt, if you will.

“It’s about rebuilding but not forgetting,” he stresses. “People moved on despite the hardship, but they did not discard the past. They maintained and honored the people who were lost, even as they moved their lives into the future in a poignant and delicate balance.”

This rings especially familiar, as we too collect ourselves after the devastating losses of this year, and as we too stand before the many who passed away and beg forgiveness—forgiveness that we could not be with them during their final days of illness, forgiveness that we could not bury them with a fitting ceremony, forgiveness that we could not properly comfort their mourners, forgiveness that we did not fully eulogize their lives when they passed on. Yet with a promise that we will not forget their legacies as we too move forward into the future.

Faigy Grunfeld teaches English and history. She lives in Detroit, Michigan with her family.


More in This Section:

Jewish Resilience: Holding Strong in a Time of Crisis by Jacob J. Schacter

Crusades and Crisis by Sholom Licht

Life After the Holocaust: How They Rebuilt with Rabbi Berel Wein

Finding Light in the Darkness: The Art of Jewish Humor by Steve Lipman

The Ability to Bounce Back: The Psychology of Resilience by Shana Yocheved Schacter

This article was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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