This week’s parasha discusses an issue especially relevant to our times — times of danger, pain, fear and distress: Corona stalking the streets, crazed bloodthirsty mobs, loss of jobs and income.
“If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your G-d, and thus be saved from your enemies” (Bamidbar 10:9).
The passuk mentions an oncoming war as a time for blowing trumpets, but the mefarshim explain that this path of action applies to any type of danger. What is the essence of this “teruah”? Are only trumpets sounded or can a shofar do the job just the same? Does the Covid-19 pandemic meet the criteria to require these prescribed actions? How do we define a “time of danger”? In the following article, we will discuss if and how to implement these tactics in our times and what kind of dangers warrant these actions.
Prayer in Dangerous Times – a Torah-Obligated Mitzva
This week’s parasha lays down the course of action for troubled times – blowing a teruah with trumpets and being remembered before Hashem. The Rambam sees in the sounding of the teruah a source for a Torah level mitzva of prayer. “Since we are [also] commanded to sound the trumpets when we cry out to G‑d (exalted be He) during a time of trouble and distress, the passuk says, ‘When you go to war against an enemy who attacks you in your land…’.”
It is worth noting that the Ramban (Hasagos, Ase 5) agrees with the Rambam that the requirement to daven in troubled times is derived from this verse; however, unlike the Rambam, the Ramban maintains that regular, daily prayer is only a rabbinic mitzva.
How to Fulfill the Mitzva
The Rambam (Hilchos Ta’anis chapter 1, halachos 1-4) writes:
It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any difficulty that arises which affects the community, as the passuk states: “If you go out to war… against an enemy who attacks you, you must sound the trumpets…”. This commandment is not restricted to war; rather the intent is: Whenever you are distressed by difficulties – e.g., famine, plague, locusts, or the like – cry out to G-d because of the difficulty and sound the trumpets.
This practice is a way of teshuva, for when a difficulty arises and the people cry out to G-d and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that the difficulty occurred because of their evil conduct, as (Yirmiyahu 5:25) states: “Your sins have turned away [the rains and the harvest climate].” This realization will cause the removal of this difficulty.
Conversely, should the people fail to cry out to G-d and sound the trumpets, and instead say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a cruel conception of things, and it allows them to maintain their connection to their wicked deeds. Thus, this distress will lead to further distresses.
In addition, it is a mitzva m’drabonon to fast whenever there is a difficulty that affects the community until there is a manifestation of Divine mercy.
On these fast days, we cry out in prayer, offer supplications, and sound the trumpets. In the Beis Hamikdash both the trumpets and the shofar were sounded. The shofar blasts should be shortened and the trumpet blasts extended, for the mitzvah of the day is with the trumpets. The trumpets are sounded together with the shofar only in the Temple, in accordance with the passuk in Tehilim (98:6): “Sound trumpets and shofar blasts before G-d, the King.”
Sounding the Shofar at times of Distress outside of the Mikdash
According to the above-mentioned Rambam, the sounding of the trumpets is primary and the shofar blowing was only meant to accompany the sounding of the trumpets. However, the Magid Mishna quotes the Rashba (Rosh Hashana, 26b) who writes that in the Beis Hamikdash both the trumpet and the shofar were sounded, but outside the Beis Hamikdash either one of them suffices.
The Magen Avraham (introduction to siman 576) raises a question: why is this mitzva not practiced in modern times? The Pri Megadim answers that it is unclear whether this mitzva applies anywhere in the world that ten Jews are present, or only in Eretz Yisroel since the pasuk specifically mentions “your land”. This explains why the teruah is not sounded in other places around the world. As far as blowing trumpets in Eretz Yisroel, the Mishna Brura (introduction to 576) cites other possible requirements for the mitzva –that the Land must be under Jewish rule or that most of the Jewish nation be in imminent danger.
Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 384) explains the meaning of this commandment:
Since at the time of the sacrifice they would need to properly focus their attention because sacrifices are disqualified by certain thoughts, and sacrifices require total awareness in front of the Master of all who commanded about them; the same is true also at times of trouble — a person needs great focus in his supplication before his Creator, that He should show him mercy and save him from his trouble. Therefore, we are commanded to blow the trumpets at these times. As man is a physical being and requires great arousal to create focused attention, and there is nothing more arousing than the sounds of music. Of all musical instruments, the sound of trumpets has the greatest sound.
Another purpose, aside from arousal to focus attention is raising spiritual awareness: the sound of the trumpets arouses the listener to remove all worldly concerns from his heart and fully directs his heart to the matter of the sacrifice. This way, the only thing he’ll have in his heart will be his sacrifice, or the prayer for his distress.
Chazal’s Takana: Sounding of the Teruah in Times of Distress
Following the above-quoted reasons, chazal instituted (Maseches Ta’anis 18b) sounding of the teruah upon the occurrence of various calamities, in addition to institution of fast days and special sequences of prayer. The Ritva (ibid) sees the basis for calling out for mercy in the words of the passuk “If you go to war in your land”.
Defining Troubled Times
What qualifies as a “time of trouble” or “danger?” The Mishna (Maseches Taanis) and the Gemara (ibid) discuss this at length and the Rambam (Hilchos Ta’anis, chapter 2) defines the parameters clearly:
We should fast and sound the trumpets due to the following situations of communal distress: because of the distress that the enemies of the Jews cause the Jews; because of the passage of an armed force; because of a plague; because of a wild animal on a rampage; because of various species of locusts; because of the black blight and the yellow blight; because of falling buildings; because of an epidemic; because of loss of source of sustenance; and because of rain or a lack of it.
The next halacha notes when fasting and prayer are also required. At any rate, these parameters were accepted l’halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 575-576). Below, we will focus on two situations mentioned in the Rambam: a plague and an epidemic. Specifically, in such times, what extent of sickness requires fasting, and what extent of prayer befits it? Does Covid-19 meet these criteria?
The Death Toll
We should note that the Rambam describes two situations: a plague and an epidemic. A situation is classified as an epidemic if there is a specific disease causing the illness. A plague refers to a situation where people simply die, due to no apparent cause. The Rambam (ibid) notes that in the case of a plague, teruah is required if 3 out of every 500 residents of a city die within 3 days. If 3 people die in one day it is not defined as a plague, and the same is true if the required amount of people died over a period of 4 days. The source for this is a Mishna (Ta’anis 18b). The Rambam adds an additional stipulation: women, the elderly and children do not factor in here – neither in the number of city residents, nor in the death toll.
Further on in the chapter (Halacha 13) the Rambam explains:
What is meant by “because of an epidemic”? When one illness – e.g., a throat infection or polio – affects many people in a city and people die because of this illness, it is considered to be a matter of communal distress. A fast is called and the trumpets are sounded.
Unlike in the case of a plague, in the case of an epidemic or illness, the Rambam does not require any specific mortality rate to sound the trumpets and declare a fast. Why the difference?
Three additional Views Regarding “Other Illnesses”
- The Ritva (Taanis 19a) contrasts a plague with other illness in regards to mortality rates. For diseases besides a plague, 3 deaths (for every 500 residents in a city) that occur in 1 day or more warrant the sounding of the teruah. For a plague, the deaths must take place within 3 days.
- The Beis Yosef’s (Orech Chaim 586:5) ruling follows the Rambam: the death ratio of 3:500 refers specifically to the plague and not to other contagious diseases. If other contagious diseases begin spreading, no specific mortality rate is necessary to call for a fast and sound the trumpets, as mentioned in the Yerushalmi (Ta’anis 3:5). There, we learn that a fast is declared and the teruah is sounded during the illness of ascara (diphtheria), even if only one person dies.
- The Lechem Mishne (Taaniyos chapter 2:13) rules that during “other diseases” if most (or a great deal) of the residents are ill with the disease, after 1 death it becomes a “time of distress” and the teruah is sounded.
The Plague vs. Other Diseases
The Beis Yosef explains how the plague is different from other diseases. The plague is an illness caused by changes in the air, or “rancid air” which causes the victims to perish. Therefore, without the abovementioned death ratio, deaths can be explained as a natural occurrence, and there is no reason to expect it to continue. Tiferes Yisroel (Pirkei Avos 5:58) explains succinctly: “The plague is when many people who had not been ill previously die suddenly.”
The Divrei Malkiel (part 2, chapter 90) adds that the Beis Yosef’s definition of plague is that there is no sign of disease, and only the high death rate indicates that there is a plague going on. Therefore, a lower death toll is attributed to natural causes and not a plague.
He goes on to describe a cholera epidemic in his locale — since the signs of the disease were apparent and it clearly was contagious, despite the low death toll he ruled that the times were “troubled times” and the teruah was sounded.
To define a situation as a plague there must be a noticeably higher death rate than normal. Death is a natural occurrence, and people have been dying from time immemorial. Death itself requires no explanation. Only a high death rate can indicate that the reason for the deaths is unnatural. When this occurs, we assume it is because the air has become rancid and a plague has come to town. In order to term a disease ‘a plague’ it must have clearly infected people who had been previously healthy — therefore deaths of women, children and the elderly are excluded from the census because of their naturally weakened bodies.
Nevertheless, if there is specific proof that an illness is present in a city – whether it is because all the sick present specific symptoms (or, as today – laboratory test results) – the teruah is sounded.
This can be proven from the following Gemara in Maseches Ta’anis (21b): if the swine are affected by a plague, the teruah is sounded because their intestines are similar to human intestines and there is danger that the disease will spread to humans. This ruling was accepted l’halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (576:3). So, too, with the plague — if there are clear indicators of a plague, even if no deaths have yet been recorded, it is a time of trouble and the teruah is sounded.
It is reasonable to assume that laboratory tests and medical experience are no less a proof than swine plagues. Therefore, the present situation would not be called a plague but an epidemic.
Death Rate for “Other Diseases”
The Beis Yosef (ibid) quotes the above-mentioned Yerushalmi regarding throat infections – one death is enough to warrant sounding the teruah. This was also his method of explaining the Rambam’s ruling.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 576:5) quotes the Rambam regarding throat infections and other diseases – if many people are sick and some die. The Rema adds that during other diseases, the ratio of deaths required for the plague is unnecessary, as the Beis Yosef explains. The Mishna Brura rules accordingly, but stipulates that it is necessary for many people to have becomes sick (the Mishna Brura does not specify exact numbers).
Permitting Chilul Shabbos
The Chazon Ish (Ohalos, 22:33) explains the practical ramifications of declaring a time as Troubled: if there is danger of the magnitude that requires sounding of the teruah, certain forbidden things are permitted, due to the danger.
It is important to note that in order to permit chilul Shabbos, the danger need-not be imminent – even a distant possibility of danger may permit chilul Shabbos. (Nevertheless, if anything can be done to minimize the chilul Shabbos without causing delays, it should be done).
Mourning During Diseases
The Rema (Yore Deah 374:11) quotes some opinions that rule against mourning the dead during a plague because the plague causes fear, and panic raises the death toll. The Divrei Malkiel (Part 2, chapter 90) rules accordingly for all epidemics such as cholera and throat infection where the sickness has spread to the extent that the teruah is sounded, one does not mourn because fear increases illness.
Fasting in Present Times
The Magen Avraham (576:2) rules that in preset times we don’t fast during a plague because experience has shown that during a fast one absorbs to a greater extent the changes in the air (i.e. the immune system is weakened and more susceptible to viruses). The Divrei Malkiel rules the same for cholera and throat-infection epidemics.
Many Infected, No Deaths
The Beis Yosef writes regarding “other diseases” that the teruah is sounded only if there is at least one recorded death, whereas during a swine plague – the teruah is sounded even if there are no recorded deaths.
Apparently, if a disease displays signs of contagion and presents a real danger of death (as does the swine’s death from the plague) – the teruah is sounded. But if a sickness did not yet cause death, we can still assume that the disease is a mild one and there is no imminent danger.
The Divrei Makiel concludes that even if there are many sick people — if there have been no deaths recorded, shaking up the public in sounding of the teruah is not worthwhile, and each person should pray alone, for himself. Nevertheless, the danger resulting from fasting or mourning is present and one should refrain from them.
Coronavirus is apparent from its reported, known symptoms and has been verified by laboratory tests; unfortunately, there have been deaths, but the death rates — even in pandemic epicenters – have never reached the ratio mentioned in the Mishna regarding a plague. No city in the world had 1 death for every 167 residents. From this aspect, the Coronavirus outbreak does not qualify as Troubled Times and warrant sounding of the teruah. Nevertheless, the Misha Brura ruled like the Beis Yosef regarding other illnesses — even one death renders the times ”troubled” and the teruah is sounded. Yet he adds still another condition – that there be many sick people.
Now, that baruch Hashem the number of ill people have dropped, it is unclear if the times are still considered “troubled”.
With prayers for the realization of the final part of the passuk “…It shall be a remembrance before your G-d”. May we always be remembered before Hashem, letova.