Cracovia (Cracow) in a 1493 woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’; view facing west, with Casmirus (Kazimierz) on the leftWikipedia
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Is It Permitted to Flee the City?

The coronavirus creates an unsettling tunnel in time between 21st-century New York and the world of 16th-century rabbis

Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg
April 20, 2020
Cracovia (Cracow) in a 1493 woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's 'Nuremberg Chronicle'; view facing west, with Casmirus (Kazimierz) on the leftWikipedia

The longer the current COVID-19 ordeal unfolds, the more the word “unprecedented” is repeated. Beyond the many dangers of this virus, one of its most unsettling aspects is the fact that we are dealing with a threat for which we have insufficient tools or data, with inscrutable proportions, rules, and repercussions. Our lack of any reference point to evaluate this situation is profoundly troubling on so many levels—personal, medical, financial, ethical, practical, and social.

In the religious Jewish community, which relies upon tradition for its internal fortitude, this unprecedentedness has caused its own brand of upheaval. The closure of houses of worship, ritual baths, and other institutions has been painful for a community to whom these places are an anchor. Many religious authorities—like most other leaders of businesses, towns, or other institutions—were at first not disturbed by early threats of the virus. As the situation deteriorated and the gravity became clearer, these leaders were forced to change their decisions. This notion too, that wise and saintly rabbinic leaders could be wrong, that they could be facing something that was too foreign to properly understand, is frightening.

As a Jewish historian of the early modern period, I always live in two parallel time zones. There is the time zone I share with my contemporaries, and the era of the sources that I study. I seem to find more and more grounding in my alternate time zone as the constant stream of frightening contemporary developments continues. Call me a masochist, but these days I have found myself to be particularly drawn to rabbinic sources about viruses and epidemics, or “bad air,” as they called it, based on miasmatic medical theories at the time, which attributed disease to putrid air rather than germs and contagion. These texts reveal to me that humanity often had to deal with such challenges, and that they did so with the same strange mix of anxiety, practicality, and hope as I observe among us in 2020. If anything, my 16th-century rabbis come across as confident and experienced compared to today’s bumbling decision-makers.

The rabbis and community leaders at the time knew all too well what they were dealing with, usually from grim past experience. They had mechanisms and systems in place for epidemics, ranging from community rules about alerting local leaders as soon as a household member showed signs of disease, to legal principles about annulling rental agreements and labor contracts in case of a threat. The preferable courses of action in times of plague were weighted, from self-isolating to fleeing. Early modern Jews had to deal with risks of lawlessness, material damage, and looting, as well as the all-too-recognizable hatred against foreign groups and minorities that intensifies in times of fear.

Reading about the irritated Venetian tutor, wondering if he would still get paid in full after his student fled in fear of the plague; about business in Prague grinding to a halt, bolts of fabric going purchased and unsold, and debts remaining unpaid; about the poor left behind in Cracow’s epidemic-stricken Jewish quarter with only the community secretary to advocate for them via ever more desperate epistles to the community’s wealthier leaders, who fled for safer pastures; and about rabbis who, separated from their books because they could not return to their houses of study, were nonetheless finding solace and seeking connection through their scholarship, I feel a sense of kinship. But I cannot truly say that this comforts me.

The last thing you want to feel when reading about the disasters of a premodern civilization is a sense of recognition. As a denizen of the 21st century, I took comfort in considering myself immune—in every sense of the word—from such distinctly outdated threats. The world being brought to its knees by a virus feels vulnerable in a disturbingly premodern way, despite the app-enabled contactless deliveries, web-based camera meetings, and continuous news updates. But recognizing our situation in the spectrum of ways humans have devised to deal with such vulnerability nonetheless heartens me in its own strange manner.

As I go about my day in this new reality, I find myself toggling back and forth between two time zones. Arba Turim (four columns), a 14th-century code of Jewish law divided into four volumes, contains a section in the part on prohibited foods that prescribes “things forbidden due to danger” that reads like a mixed catalog of good advice, superstition, common sense hygiene, and old wives’ tales. Do not drink water left uncovered overnight for fear of snake venom. Do not eat fish and meat together. Beware of any human sweat, for it is like the potion of death—except for facial sweat. Do not put coins in your mouth, or carry loaves of bread near your armpit. Do not drink any filthy or repulsive liquids, and do not drink from utensils that are filthy or repulsive, such as utensils from the outhouse or glass vessels used for bloodletting. Do not eat with dirtied hands or upon soiled dishes.

Beware of any human sweat, for it is like the potion of death—except for facial sweat.

These admonitions occupy a strange zone between the usual legal prohibitions of religious law, or Halacha, and a realm simultaneously more and less stringent than religious law. On the one hand, they are listed among legal prohibitions, together with nonkosher food and other religious laws. Inevitably, these prohibitions undergo the legal negotiations typical of halachic reasoning, as rabbis are wont to do. How large an opening on the vessel renders it “uncovered,” and does it apply to all liquids? Do fish and meat require separate dishes? Is danger annulled given the correct ratio of safe to dangerous matter, just as it is with nonkosher substances mixed into kosher ones? These acts of legal reasoning are reassuringly familiar to those acquainted with Halacha. Ultimately, though, the rabbis insist that “danger is more serious than legal prohibitions.” While these risky actions are prohibited with the same weight as any other legal transgression, one should not toy around with them the way jurists love to do with their laws and loopholes.

Some of the rabbinic warnings, precautions, and caveats that used to elicit internal eye rolls or a chuckle now remind me of my own attempts to protect myself and my loved ones, and our stabs at bargaining with danger. I want to think reasonably, without hysteria, but am not sure what “reasonably” means in this case. Are my children at risk, is this virus dangerous for pregnant women like me, did my husband just cough? Should we be wearing masks? Are we washing our hands often enough? If we meet up with others, but are less than 10 people, is that risky? How about if everyone washes their hands? Do I need to disinfect the delivery boxes, or is it OK as long as I wait 24 hours? I find myself bargaining and arguing, going from the feeling that this is not something you can reason your way out of and attempts at finding some livable middle ground.

Our sons’ school experienced an early COVID-19 scare (which, thankfully, turns out to have been a false alarm) and announced its closure, days before the other schools in New York City. Now, we are all cooped up in the same small Manhattan apartment. I keep checking the news and speculating about restrictions. Will state borders or airports close? Should we leave the city while we still can? Among the many glosses written on this Arba Turim is Darkhei Moshe, an abridged version of the many notes and remarks by Rabbi Moshe Isserles’ of Cracow in the first half of the 16th century.

Rabbi Isserles cites the following, from the responsa of Rabbi Yacov Moellin, a rabbi who lived in 15th-century Rhineland: “Rabbi Moellin wrote in his responsa that it is good to flee at the time of a plague, may God preserve us … This despite the fact that, in the Talmud, it says ‘if there is plague in a city, go inside, etc.’ [tractate Bava Kama 60b], and it appears to me that, in any case, fleeing is best, unless he can go inside without anyone leaving, but if not, he must flee—and the custom of the Jewish people is the law [Torah].”

Is it better to stay or to go? The rabbinic answer is, as usual, not straightforward. The Talmud says that one should stay indoors during an epidemic. The 15th-century rabbi says one should flee. The Ashkenazic tradition is known for respecting its local customs as much as its legal texts: “the custom of the Jewish people is Torah.” By inserting this 15th-century advice into a legal code, Rabbi Isserles is bringing it up to par with divine law. He tries to reconcile the contradictory advice: If you can remain isolated and “go inside without anyone leaving,” do so. Otherwise, leave.

Do not put coins in your mouth, or carry loaves of bread near your armpit.

Epidemics provoked fear in the hearts of even the staunchest believers. An older contemporary of Rabbi Isserles, Rabbi Shlomo Luria of Lublin, lays out the contradictory halachic sources regarding epidemics in his Talmudic commentary Yam Shel Shlomo (Sea of Solomon). “We learn in the Talmudic discussion, the rabbis teach, if there is plague in the city, keep your feet inside. As it says, ‘and thou shalt not leave from the opening of your houses until the morning.’ [12:22] This does not mean specifically at night, rather, even in the daytime, as it says: ‘Go, my people, enter your rooms, and close your door behind you.’ [Isaiah 26:20] And Rava, too, at time of God’s wrath, that is, the plague, he would close off the windows so that the sickening air not enter. And this is derived from the verse ‘for death rose in my window’ [Jeremiah 1:20] …”

I am startled by the prooftext for these statements. The coronavirus threats were coming to a head right before the holiday of Passover, when Jews commemorate God’s salvation from Egyptian slavery. The verse “thou shalt not leave from the opening of your houses until the morning” regards the final one of the 10 plagues, when the firstborns were smitten. The Jews in Egypt were commanded to shelter safely indoors while God carried out his punishment. A verse that always evoked an atmosphere of protection and safety suddenly sounds ominous.

While trying to make sense of the idea of attempting to escape death, the question of fate emerges. If we believe that no one dies before God decides they should, there is no point in fleeing or trying to escape one’s fate. The sources in Yam Shel Shlomo consider this idea: “Additionally, it says in [Sanhedrin 29a], ‘There was a pestilence for seven years, yet no man died before his time.’ On the other hand, I found it written in the name of our great teachers, that fleeing is permitted.”

Why would one flee if everything is divinely ordained? Rabbi Luria expounds: “And this is how they explain it: The statement from [tractate Sanhedrin about no one dying before their time] is irrelevant, for that is but a general saying. However, in the first chapter of [tractate] Ḥagiga [4b], we say: ‘There are those who are swept along without justice.’ [Proverbs 13:23 ]… All the more so here [in the case of plagues], when permission is given [to the angel of death] and he does not distinguish between the righteous and the evil.”

Epidemics, Rabbi Luria explained, fall under the category of events where one could die regardless of one’s prescribed fate or desert. Not much comfort, then, regarding the arbitrariness of this virus. Yes, everything is ordained by God, but there are times when the angel of destruction is permitted free rein, and no distinction is made between the righteous and those deserving of punishment. Anyone is fair game. “Therefore,” Rabbi Luria concludes, “there is overwhelming reason to flee in times of plague once it is decreed upon a city or a country.”

Yet as much as I want to escape New York, I am also worried about leaving my community behind, with all the support it provides. I am concerned about not having access to kosher food or my OB-GYN, and of being a stranger in an unknown place at a risky time with not many people around us, let alone anyone we know. Leaving the city also feels callous, as though we are abandoning our fellow denizens in distress. On the other hand, there is not much we can do for them other than isolate ourselves, which we would do better being somewhere less densely populated. Rabbi Luria explains that the advice to flee is true for the plague and for any similar danger, but only if nothing can be done:

“However, if he can rescue with his body or property, God forbid that he should refrain from doing so and thus remove himself from the troubles of the congregation and [as a result] not witness the consolation of Zion. But if there is nothing to be done, in all such situations we say ‘One should not stand still at a time of danger.’ … And so we saw many great rabbis who left and escaped to another place … And that which it says, collect your feet, etc., that is after the plague began and grew strong, but it is permitted to go [before],” Rabbi Luria concludes.

We decide to leave ahead of time, before the city announces any strict measures, which, surely enough, come a few days later, and to self-isolate when we arrive, so as not to spread any risk of contamination further. But the roads, too, hold risk. Airports seem particularly dangerous. Rabbi Luria’s discussion continues: “And we also say, all the roads are considered places of peril. If so, it is not good to flee, especially after the plague gets worse, there is more danger to those who escape among the gentiles than the plague itself, as is known, for our many sins.”

Some of the more high-profile, because early and visible, epicenters of coronavirus were among the Orthodox Jewish community. In a letter from 1588, a Shmuel Meisels informs his relatives that he fled Cracow’s plague to Tinburg, on the Hungarian border. Since the epidemic started among Jews, “no Jew could show himself in the town or field, because the hajdu [mercenaries] knock everything down.” Historical tropes about Jews as cancers and their religious gatherings as breeding grounds for illness now sound uncomfortably literal to my ears, and I wonder about traveling with my sons wearing their recognizably Jewish garb. Thankfully, unlike in premodern times, this threat is not as immediate as the virus itself. In the darker corners of the internet, where those who already harbor hatred spew their venom, anti-Semitism and other forms of hateful speech increase. Age-old loathing finds new forms of attack such as “Zoombombing” and in Facebook comments.

Thankfully, unlike in Rabbi Luria’s time, this danger is not nearly as threatening. The majority of society, at least those we encounter, show no signs of prejudice. Although we are all wary of, and worried for, each other (Why do the workers cleaning the plane not have protective gear?) everyone is calm and friendly. The taxi driver who takes us to the airport gives us face masks to wear for the flight. We all try to be careful not to touch anyone or anything, and the first thing we do anywhere is make a beeline for the bathrooms to wash our hands. Rabbi Luria’s conclusion: If the plague visits a city, flee early if you can. Moreover, he adds “he who contracted the plague and was healed need not flee, for one says that he is no longer at risk.”This is a guarantee we are still hoping for, as we wait to find out whether those who recovered now have antibodies and are immune.

As the virus spreads, we watch leaders scramble for policies. Guidelines from the president, the mayor, the governor; they all seem to contradict one another. Clearly, no one has experience with this threat. The 16th-century sources suggest another reality. One of the distinctive traits of early modern Jewry in Eastern Europe was its strong communal organization. Lay leaders ran Jewish communities through a complex administrative and bureaucratic structure that, in part, mirrored similar structures and practices in the world around them. The so-called “Council of the Four Lands,” which, at its peak, encompassed 16 territories in Poland-Lithuania and existed for almost two centuries, controlled everything from education to market days. The leadership structure involved layers of officials of different ranks and responsibilities chosen from among the wealthy and prominent community members, such as the parnassim (benefactors), the tovim (good ones), and the rashim (heads), none of them religious designations, and there was a rotating system of those in charge.

Among the regulations of Cracow, as recorded in the community notebook and preserved by historian Israel Heilprin, who collected these sources in Pinkas Va’ad Arba Araẓot, is a telling section about epidemics: “Concerning the harmful air, may God preserve us from evil: As soon as any homeowner becomes aware of any suspicion in his house, he must immediately make this known to the parnas of the month, and he, together with the rest of the rashim and tovim will confer and arrange instructions for the homeowner and all the inhabitants of the house regarding what they must do, and everything should be done as they command without deviating left or right, and everyone who is in that house, be it the owner or the kamernik, [a komorniki, tenant or boarder in Polish] man or woman, bachelor, servant, or cook, they must immediately announce it as soon as they find out about any hazard, God forbid, to the parnas of the month, as noted.”

Whether these “instructions” involved quarantine or social distancing is not detailed. At the same time, these leaders also wished to avoid hysteria and mass exodus due to panic and rumors. Therefore, this regulation continues: “Every person, small or big, should also be careful not to have any casual conversations about considering to travel and uproot his domicile from here, or to send members of his household outside the city without permission from the rashim and tovim, under penalty of fifty red coins payable to the minister, may he be exalted, and fifty red coins for charity.”

We self-isolate as soon as we arrive, and many days pass without us seeing anyone beyond our household. At the same time, communication with others increases. Texts and emails to old friends go out. Phone calls to colleagues become a lifeline, and the family group chat is unusually active. In early modern times, such communication was far less simple, and even written messages still needed to be materially transmitted. Hence, many early modern letters contain warnings on their envelope: “Pass the letter through the smoke of gall before reading this writing, to counteract the contaminated air ...” Although I still need to contemplate spraying my packages with antibacterial liquid, at least digital communications are safe.

A rare bundle of 16th-century letters from Jews was preserved for posterity because—lucky for us, and less so for the addressees—they were confiscated, and never made it to their destination. Many of these letters, all from 1588, tell of the plague that hit the area in that year. One of them is from Shmuel Meisels, the Cracow trader. Unfortunately, the plague arrived there first, afflicting 12 homes in three days, and causing many deaths.Therefore, he and his wife had to flee in their wagon, together with some others, to Tinburg, on the Hungarian border, leaving all his possessions in a vault in Cracow. It is clear from his letters to his relatives that they were also investors, and Shmuel’s reassurances about his whereabouts and well-being are also apologies about the business he was supposed to conduct for them. He explains that nobody paid him, and he had to leave everything behind. “God only knows what will happen to me with all those debts.” Although he hopes that he can move on to Prague soon, he fears that “God forbid, the air might linger for a long time.”

Another letter, from the secretary and community scribe of Cracow to “the wise, the dear generals and leaders,” who fled the plague-infested city for Alkush, a more rural area nearby, sounds despondent and angry, despite the many honorary salutations. In 16th-century Yiddish, he continues: “what should we write to you … we are begging of you, for the sake of the mercy and charity of God, you should consider this well.” He asks the leaders to speak to the authorities and see if anyone can appeal to City Hall. One of the local Cracow Jews already tried doing so, but, as the scribe explains, “one cannot rely upon him because he is–may we be spared–not healthy.” Those who remained in the city were trying to advocate for themselves, but many fell sick.

I want to think reasonably, without hysteria, but am not sure what ‘reasonably’ means in this case.

“You must also help,” he continues, “with money,” detailing the many financial crises that resulted from the plague, “especially since no one is allowed to go into the city.” The Jewish area of Kazimierz, it seems, was quarantined, and Jews were not permitted to conduct business or go to work in Cracow, the center, thus bringing the flow of money to a standstill and condemning many to poverty. “The expenses are, for our many sins, too numerous, the expenses for those burying the dead and those for the non-Jewish guards and Jewish guards …”

As I read the scribe’s rebuke to his community leaders, describing how he remains in the city “in such fire and flame and in such danger, may the Blessed God preserve the Jewish people,” I grow ever more appreciative of the first responders and medical professionals, but also the others, from sanitary workers to delivery people who are putting their lives at risk for those in isolation. “You know,” the scribe goes on, “that we also want to run away,” and, with more than a hint of threat, he adds, soon, “we will no longer be able to guard your houses.”

While my husband is on the phone in the background, discussing business deals that fell through, purchases going unrefunded, and the uncertain economic future of mortgages, debts, banks, and the stock market, I think of the Shmuel the trader, whose relatives lent him money to purchase beautiful bolts of velvet which sat useless in a vault somewhere. Did he survive and sell the fabric later on? Or was there a downturn after this crisis, and no one had funds available to buy?

When we call our building’s landlord, he sounds stressed. No wonder—the government is talking about suspending mortgage payments, and rent will not be far behind. With people out of work, it is unclear how rents can possibly be paid. Rabbinic responsa from the 16th century deal with similar problems.

Rabbi Isserles responds to a case of a homeowner who closed a rental agreement subletting part of his house. However, before the renters moved in, the owner wants to renege on his rental: “the wife became ill with fever, called geelzucht [jaundice] in German, may God preserve us … the owner … prevented them from moving in, saying that he had not agreed to rent with the prospect in mind that the wife should get such a disease in his home, for it is a contagious disease.” Rabbi Isserles responds that their agreement cannot be retracted. According to Halacha, even in extreme circumstances, such as if the renter’s own abode had collapsed, leaving him with nowhere to live, he would still be prohibited from kicking out renters he had already accepted.“ Finally,” Rabbi Isserles concludes, “Even if we do consider the fact that the wife fell ill an extreme and unforeseen circumstance, it is most certainly not the kind of extreme unforeseen circumstance for which one can renege on a rental contract.”

He then dismisses the homeowner’s fears: “For that which he says that this is a contagious disease is utter nonsense, and only those whose heart is niggling at them say this, for God Almighty is the savior and the healer …” The instinct for self-preservation must be balanced with our duty toward others, and not every anxiety can count as a valid excuse. Rabbi Isserles then explains his reasoning further: “All the more so in our case, for this disease is common because of the bad air that is frequent in this town. It is a common phenomenon, there is no home where it does not appear, every person takes it into consideration, and one can thus argue that the homeowner was conscious of this risk and accepted it.” Rabbi Isserles suspects that the owner was singling out these particular renters and using the plague as an excuse to annul the contract, which is why he was so dismissive of the owner’s protestations of fear.

If historians of science used to posit a sharp shift away from miasmatic theories about “air” to ideas of contagion around the 16th century, more recent studies imply that the two paradigms actually functioned simultaneously for a long time, rather than being considered irreconcilable. Rabbi Isserles is certainly comfortable with the existence of both types of transmission, navigating among air and contagion for the theory that best fits the question he was facing.

Contemplating my sons’ teachers, who are going to incredible lengths so as not to leave their students without daily learning, I think of a responsum in the writings of Rabbi Meir Katzenelbogen of Padua. He is asked about a teacher in Venice, whose student fled for fear of an upcoming plague. Can the student subtract the missed days, or must he pay the teacher in full? The rabbi answers by citing the laws of contractual labor elaborated in the Talmud. If this was a risk that both parties could equally have foreseen, then they knowingly took this risk. As a result, it is considered the loss of the laborer, and whatever was not paid can be withheld, following the principle of “he who claims money from the other has the burden of proof.”

The questioner, so it appears, considered appealing to the idea that in the case of a makkat medina, an unprecedented national affliction, workers must be paid in full regardless. A few days after different world leaders declare a national emergency, I read Rabbi Meir of Padua’s discussion of whether the plague in Venice could be considered a “makkat medina”: “It does not seem reasonable to me to call this case a makkat medina— did all the inhabitants of Venice flee and abandon their studies?—after all, only a small minority fled.” Rabbi Meir of Padua is of the opinion that the plague in question cannot possibly be all that bad, since most Venetian Jews stayed put. Therefore, it could not be considered a makkat medina. If the teacher was not paid ahead of time, he could forget about receiving his payment for the remaining lessons.

My attention is caught by Rabbi Meir of Padua’s concluding remark. He rejects the possibility that the student’s fear of plague is altogether baseless: “Even when many are brave-hearted and unafraid, regardless, those who are afraid are at risk, and they should flee for their lives.” Anxiety, he seems to be writing, can have a very real impact on how a plague affects people, and these fears should not be dismissed. In that case, perhaps the tutor can claim that he was misled at the time of the contract and claim his full pay. Rabbi Meir of Padua rejects this objection: “That is untrue, for even he who is brave-hearted, sometimes terror strikes in his heart suddenly, and he does not know this about himself.” None of us truly know, Rabbi Meir of Padua seems to say, how we will act in times of danger.

The 16th century was still an early stage for authors who chose to publish their own books in print. Previously, rabbis would publish their own writings in manuscript by allowing others to copy from their writings or having them professionally transcribed and sharing them with relatives, friends and colleagues. With print, this personal world of circulation transformed into a much more public form of publication. At first, mainly canonical works and writings by authors from the past were printed, but in the 16th century, authors began to print their own books, some of whose introductions feature highly personal glimpses into the authors’ lives and travails.

Rabbi Isserles’ commentary on the story of Esther, the scroll read in commemoration of the miracle of Purim, was written in lieu of mishloaḥ manot, the gifts of food that are traditionally given to friends and family on the holiday. As he explains, “I was in exile, for we were exiled from our city in the year 1556 because of the bad air—may we be spared—and we were living in a foreign place, in the city of Shidlov.” Due to the scarcity in this foreign location, “we could not fulfill the days of Purim with feasts and rejoicing.” In 2020, the reality of the virus hit us right around Purim time. People were unsure whether they should celebrate as usual or not. Purim parties on the Upper West Side were canceled. People still distributed food to friends, but jokes about giving out hand sanitizer and toilet paper instead of hamantashen and wine were also circulating, and speculations were growing ever more disturbing.

In one of his responsa, Rabbi Isserles apologizes for not having all the required sources at hand, “for at the moment my books are not with me, they all remained in the holy community of Cracow, and I am separated from them.” When Harvard’s library closed, it felt like losing a phantom limb. Thankfully, all the digital resources remain accessible, and some online libraries such as Otẓar ha-ḥokhma, a repository of countless Jewish books even threw their doors open to all, allowing access to members and nonsubscribers alike.

As I contemplate our isolated future, I can’t help but wonder how long this would last, and how long we could keep this up—weeks, months? How would people who were alone survive this, and how were mentally ill people going to fare? Harvard’s School of Public Health sends me an invitation to a video lecture on mindful parenting. When I write to a professor, he replies that he is busily reading and writing. Every evening, my husband calls his ḥavrusa, his study partner, to study Talmud over the phone. He sinks into the talmudic discussion and his melodic recitation of the words brings a sense of calm. I aspire to finish all kinds of projects, parent my children like never before, read all those articles I had put on the back burner. But it is hard to focus amid the stream of scary decisions, speculations about the future, and uncertainty.

Rabbi Ḥayim of Friedburg had similar plans. Desperately, he tried to burrow himself into the Halacha, the legal sections of the Talmud called the “disputes of Abaye and Rava,” in order to escape his sorrows. He was appalled, however, to find himself too preoccupied with worry to properly concentrate on the legal discussions, “… and when I tried to save my soul and flee to the town of books, which is like a screen against hardships and a shelter from the angel of death, the thick fog of worry prevented me from breathing the fresh air and rejoicing in the joys of Abaye and Rava, to study the law, for ‘Halacha requires clarity like a day when the North wind blows and the sky is clear’” [tractate Megillah 28b]. Terrifyingly, he could not focus enough to study Halacha. The alternative, however, was too horrible to contemplate: “But to sit idle from Torah—God forbid!—for it is our life and the length of our days!”

At this frightening time, however, another type of text came to the rescue: The Agadah, the portions of the Talmud relating not the law but stories—tales and occurrences. In the past, Rabbi Ḥayim had rejected his students’ pleas to write down his teachings about those tales, because they were considered less serious than the more demanding halachic sections. In these desperate times, however, Agadah was precisely suitable.

Just as the clarity and shining sun is perfect for studying Halacha, he writes, “so too, the appropriate time for studying Agadah is a time of darkness, when the human spirit is clouded from the worries of the time and his sorrow is like a thick mist, the muddied cloud of human thoughts.” In those cases, he concludes, “there is nothing better than letting one’s heart be pulled to the words of Agadah (אגדה), instead of da’agah, (דאגה), for their letters are the same.”By scrambling and unscrambling this anagram, he takes the letters of “worry” and rearranges them to spell “Agadah,” substituting stories for worries.

Hearing the call of the Agadah, Rabbi Ḥayim’s spirit is restored to him, and he decides to write down his insights on the topic, “among these words all those burdened with turmoil can enjoy and wander, and they, too, will find relief for their worries.” Amid all this dire news, I, too, am trying to perform this trick of swapping out the letters of “worry” to spell “story”—or, “history”—instead. I hope all this will soon be behind us. In the meantime, I am sharing these sources with you, so that you may wander among the stories or histories and perhaps find some relief or distraction.

Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg, a historian of Early Modern Jewry, is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.