Why Orthodox Jews believe studying Torah protects from COVID-19 – Haaretz.com

Posted By on October 30, 2020

As the pandemic rages, some in the ultra-Orthodox community continue to cram into yeshivas to study, flouting the warnings of health officials, and to hold mass events. The ultra-Orthodox community knows all too well the dangers of COVID-19. Why then would they put themselves and others at risk?

Of course, as with any decision made by a multitude of people, there is not one single answer. Still, broadly speaking, we may say that there are two main concepts underlying this conduct: though studying Torah may lead to death in a time of a pandemic, its importance is so great that the price is worth it; and the faith that while congregating may be dangerous to some, this is not the case for those studying in yeshivas for they are protected from danger, including deadly viruses, by virtue of their Torah study.

In fact, these two justifications were those cited by the nonagenarian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) rabbis in Israel, who uphold the standards of ultra-Orthodox ideology and piety, when ruling that yeshivas should remain open back in March, despite government efforts to contain the disease. (After contracting the coronavirus himself, in early October he advised worshipers to adhere to safety rules; a few days later he ordered the rabbis of Bnei Brak to stop the minyans, prayer quorums of at least 10 men, throughout the city entirely and to pray individually to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Of the two, the first is perhaps easiest to grasp. We can all empathize with the notion, or at least understand, that there are things worth dying for. While we may not agree that the study of an anonymously codified collection of the musings by second to fifth century sages in what is today Israel and Iraq the Babylonian Talmud meets this criteria, we can appreciate their dedication and resolve in the face of danger.

The basis for this belief is found where else in the Babylonian Talmud itself, which lauds the importance of Torah study repeatedly, in no uncertain terms. For example, the late third-early fourth century Babylonian sage, Rav Yosef bar Hiyya, is quoted by the Talmud as saying, Studying Torah is greater than saving lives (Megillah 16b). The second century Palestinian sage Rabbi Meir is quoted in Ethics of the Fathers (6:1) as saying Whoever studies Torah for Torahs sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but the creation of the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of God, lover of humanity, rejoicer of God, rejoicer of humanity.

According to the late second, early third century Babylonian sage Abba Arikha, God himself spends the first three hours of the day studying Torah: During the first three, the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and engages in Torah study (Avodah Zarah 3b). Indeed, if you believe that something is that important, you may be willing to risk your life or perhaps even the lives of others, for it.

For your own safety

The second form of justification is a bit harder to wrap ones head around, and in some ways even negates the first. According to this justification, it is not studying Torah in Yeshivas that puts peoples lives at risk: it is not doing so that endangers them. This view is often given in a short-form maxim, as the abovementioned Rabbi Kanievsky indeed did: Torah maginah umtzilah, literally Torah protects and saves.

This well-known maxim is based on a Talmud discussion in Tractate Sotah 21a. There a relatively minor early third-century Palestinian sage Rabbi Menaem bar Yosei presents a homily, creatively interpreting the verse For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light (Proverbs 6:23) as meaning that while performing a commandment (a mitzvah) protects you only during the duration of the mitzvah, studying Torah provides lasting protection from misfortune. (Sotah 21a)

This homily is picked up by the abovementioned Rav Yosef, who is quoted as saying With regard to Torah study, both at the time when one is engaged in it and at the time when one is not engaged in it, it protects one from misfortune and saves one from the evil inclination. His contemporary Babylonian sage Abba ben Joseph bar ama, known as Rava, based on the stories of Doeg the Edomite and Ahitophel in the Book of Samuel, amended this, claiming that With regard to Torah study, at the time when one is engaged in it, it protects and saves; at the time when one is not engaged in it, it protects one from misfortune but it does not save one from the evil inclination.

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Either way, according to this Talmudic discussion, studying Torah provides protection from misfortune. This surely is meant to include illness, as is made explicit by the great late second, early third century sage Samuel of Nehardea, who is quoted in the Talmud (Eruvin 54a), as reading the verse For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh (Proverbs 4:22), homilitically to mean Keen scholar, open your mouth and read from the Torah, open your mouth and study the Oral Law, in order that your studies should endure in you and that you should live a long life.

Thus we are told that studying Torah protects you from disease and extends your life. If this is to be taken seriously, and orthodox Jews usually do, it is foolish to stop going to yeshiva at the time of a pandemic, a time in which the protection given by Torah study is most needed: People should be going to yeshivas, for their own safety!

But heres the rub. We all know that at times misfortune befalls even the most assiduous Torah scholar, while those who havent studied a page of Gemara in their life often sail through life unscathed. This well-known conundrum is called by philosophers the Problem of Theodicy, but in Jewish circles, following the Talmud (Brachot 7a), is usually stated: Why is it that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?

Jews have been grappling with this problem since biblical times. The Book of Job is essentially a treatise on this problem, and Ecclesiastes muses All things come alike to all: One event happens to the righteous and the wicked; To the good, the clean, and the unclean; To him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner; He who takes an oath as he who fears an oath (9:2).

If we are to restate this problem in terms of Torah study in the time of COVID, we may ask why do yeshiva students perish, while others are fine? Where is this protective power of Torah study ostensibly promised by the Talmud? Judaism does not have one solution for this problem, but many contradicting ideas. One solution, stated frequently in the Talmud (e.g. Brachot 7a) is that those righteous persons who are punished seemingly unfairly, were actually being done a favor. By suffering for their minor infractions in this world, they are assured a reward in the World to Come. By this logic, the death of a Torah scholar in the prime of his life from a deadly virus is relatively insignificant compared with his just rewards in the hereafter.

A later variation on this idea, which appeared in Jewish thought in the Middle Ages with the adoption of the belief in reincarnation or gilgul among some Jews, is the idea that suffering in this life may be punishment for transgressions in a former life. According to this belief, a virtuous sage dying may be cleansing his soul, receiving his reward in a later life.

Of course there are those, even among the sages of the Talmud, who reject the idea that Torah study or indeed any virtuous action has any effect whatsoever on when one dies. This seems to be what Rava, who we have seen above claimed that Torah study protects, meant when saying Length of life, children, and sustenance do not depend on ones merit, but rather they depend upon the constellations (Moed Katan 28a). Rava, based on the extremely precarious scientific theory of astrology current in his day, seems to be saying that ones death is caused by mechanistic processes, not divine retribution. Perhaps if he had known what we know about viruses today, he would have advised yeshiva students to stay at home and pursue their studies through Zoom rather than risk their own and their loved ones lives.

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Why Orthodox Jews believe studying Torah protects from COVID-19 - Haaretz.com

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