from The Rema (author).
Chapter Five: The Plague
For the most part, the Rema's first year as Chief Rabbi was uneventful. But this peaceful time lasted little more than a year.
Eight years earlier, in 1543, a plague had broken out. Now, in 1551, a plague broke out again. In those days, when medicine was primitive and germs not known of, epidemics often spread through cities, killing many people.
It was an ordinary day for the peasant, Leszek. He squatted over the leafy tomato plant and picked the newly-ripening tomatoes, sweating under the summer sun. He threw the tomatoes into the cotton sack that he carried on a strap over his left shoulder, and he straightened up to stretch his aching back. Putting his hands on his lower back and arching, Leszek looked across the leafy rows of vegetables that lay in long stretches across his fields. He could see one of his sons, a few acres away, slowly picking his way through the green peppers. Beyond that, his other two sons and a hired worker were cutting and baling the straw on a sloping field. Past that, lay the city of Cracow. Among its white buildings and gray streets, he could make out glimpses of the Vistula River.
Leszek leaned over again. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a movement. He turned his head and saw a scaly-tailed creature skitter between the rows. "Dirty rat!" said Leszek. He picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at the animal. The clod smashed against the earth, and the rat clambered away. "Dirty animals," Leszek muttered to himself, and continued picking the tomatoes. The hot sun burned down on him until he felt woozy, but Leszek didn't stop. He must sell these tomatoes during market-day tomorrow.
When Leszek came to the plant from which the rat had run, his hand lingered among the tomatoes, turning them to see that the rat hadn't bitten them. He grunted in satisfaction. The tomatoes were all right. As he let his hand rest on the tomato, he didn't see a small flea that had leaped from the rat's back now jump onto the thick hair on his arm.
When Leszek came home that afternoon, he felt ill.
"Of course you're dizzy," his wife, Sonia, berated him, soaking a rag in a bucket of water and wrapping it about his forehead. "Will you make yourself sick for a few bushels of tomatoes?"
Leszek went to sleep early. The next morning, he felt better, and he said to his sons, "Come on, boys. Let's load the vegetables on the wagon and get to town while it's still good and early."
"No!" said Sonia. "You aren't well enough."
"Ah, these women," laughed Leszek. "Always worrying!"
He stood up from the table. "I'll bring you a Italian kerchief with the money that I make," he said. "Boys, let's go. Saddle up the bay horse and the mare."
It was a busy market day, and a successful one for Leszek. The square was crowded, and a Jewish merchant carrying a load of pots on his back jostled Leszek's arm.
"Hey, watch where you're going," Leszek barked. Neither he nor the merchant noticed that the flea had sprung from Leszek's arm and landed on the man's neck.
"Sorry," replied the Jew, and continued on his way. He felt something itch and reached up his free hand to scratch his neck. "Sweaty day," he thought to himself, and thought no more of the matter.
When Leszek came home, bringing his wife her Italian kerchief, he was beginning to feel ill. He went to bed early, and the next morning he was too sick to get out of bed.
"Leszek, I would have preferred you healthy over an Italian scarf," his wife scolded him as she busied herself about him. By the afternoon, Leszek had gotten worse.
His wife felt his hot forehead and grew scared. "Donya," she called her eldest daughter. "Go quickly and fetch the doctor. Don't ask why, just go. Hurry, child!"
It seemed ages before she heard her daughter return with Doctor Binyamin Zimmer. Yes, he was a Jew, she sighed to herself, but that couldn't be helped. To heal her husband, she wouldn't mind if the devil himself came. Of course, according to the priest, a Jew wasn't much better....
Doctor Zimmer leaned over Leszek and examined him. He felt Leszek's chest, near his armpit, and Leszek groaned.
"Does that hurt?"
Doctor Zimmer palpated the area tenderly. It was beginning to swell. He took off Leszek's shirt and examined him. Then he straightened up.
"What is it, doctor? Is something wrong?" asked Sonia.
"I am afraid something is very wrong, Ma'am. By the authority invested in me, I am ordering this house quarantined. I believe your husband has the plague."
Doctor Zimmer's quarantine came too late. The plague had already spread to Cracow through the Jewish pots merchant.
Death from the plague was painful, but mercifully swift. With the death of the merchant and his wife, people began moving out of Cracow. This was a standard procedure whenever a plague struck. People didn't know the cause of the disease, but they did know that it was contagious. Somehow, a "poisonous atmosphere" had entered the town.
In the yeshiva of the Rema, the students still learned. But their voices were lower. "Learn," one student, Yaacov, encouraged his chavrusa. "Maybe the merit of our learning will help stop the plague."
There was a clatter of horses' hooves and carriage wheels outside the yeshiva.
The other student, Yitzchak Meir, went to the window and looked out. "It's Rabbi Gamliel, the parnass," he reported to Yaacov.
"Rabbi Yitzchak?" Yaacov wondered. "Just last week, he gave a talk at the shul telling people not to run away, that they should stay here in Cracow."
"Yes, but haven't you heard? Since then, his daughter, Perl, got the plague."
"But how can they take her out of town? There's the quarantine!"
"They're leaving her behind with the servants. There's nothing else that they can do."
"But she's their daughter."
"That's easy for us to say, but I wonder what we would do in their situation."
The door swung open and the Rema walked in.
"Why don't I hear the sound of Torah learning?" he said.
"It's the plague, rabbi," replied Gad. "We just saw Rabbi Gamliel's carriage leaving the city."
"It is only the learning of Torah that keeps the world going," said the Rema. "Who knows if your words of learning will keep Cracow well? Who knows what tragedies might occur, G-d forbid, if you, who have set aside everything else to learn Torah, sit in the beis medrash idly?"
The Rema went to his table, and sat down. He opened a sefer and began to learn in a strong voice, and the students lifted their voices as well. Soon, the beis medrash hummed with their discussion of the various approaches of the rishonim to the sugya that they were studying.
There was another clatter of hooves and carriage wheels. Yaacov looked at his chavrusa, Yitzchak Meir, and Yitzchak Meir looked back at him, but they said nothing. They glanced at the Rema. He ignored the sound and continued learning. There was a lull in the beis medrash, but when the students saw that the Rema took no notice of the passing carriage, they returned to their learning, and their voices rose again.
A moment later, a keening sound rose, mixed with the clatter of the carriage. The Rema lifted his head and looked out the window. He stared a moment in silence, and then got up from his chair. He stood next to the window and gazed down solemnly at the street.
The students realized that something was wrong, and one by one, they fell silent, looking at the Rema.
"Rabbi Moshe," asked one of the students sitting closest to him. "What's wrong? Who is leaving Cracow now?"
"It is my old friend, Rabbi Shlomo the dayan." The Rema gripped the right side of his shirt in his hands and ripped the material apart. "Boruch Dayan Emes," he whispered. He turned his face away from the students, and walked to the door to accompany his old friend to his final resting place.
When the Rema returned from the funeral, he encouraged his students more than ever to learn unceasingly and with enthusiasm.
During these days of weeping and fear, the Rema's mother spent her days helping the poor and sick. She gave her money freely to comfort those who were ill or needed food, brought doctors to cure those who could be helped, and hired servants to give comfort to those who couldn't.
Outside the city grounds, pillars of smoke rose constantly as the gentiles burned the corpses of their dead to prevent the spread of disease. The smoke drifted over the streets and entered people's hair and clothing. Houses with infected victims were marked with the red paint swath that meant: "Warning! Plague! No unauthorized persons are permitted entry."
There was little that could be done for the suffering victims. They were made as comfortable as possible and given liquor or narcotic herbs to ease their suffering. Some of the cures that the doctors attempted made matters worse: strange medicinal concoctions, trepanning and cupping. Folk doctors, both Jewish and gentile, engaged in various attempts to cure the patients. They whispered spells, burned herbs, searched for signs and made magical motions.
The plague raged on. It seemed that Cracow was becoming a ghost town, with half the populace leaving and the other half becoming ill.
Disregarding the danger to herself, Malkah Dinah attended to the sick. She was a strong woman, and she felt that she was responsible to use her strength to do good.
The Rema pleaded with her, "Mother, you have no right to risk your health for that of others."
She replied, "It is G-d Who decides who shall live and who shall...not. But since you request it of me, I shall take greater care."
Malkah Dinah's care did not suffice. One day she herself came down with the terrible tiredness, the fever and chills that marked the onset of the disease. Morning and evening, the students in the yeshiva prayed for her recovery, and they learned with the intention that the merit of their Torah should restore her health. But on a grim and cloudy day, as the ever-present plumes rose heavily from the pyres of the Christian cemetery, and the Rema's students poured their hearts out to G-d, Malkah Dinah returned her soul to her Creator.
On the tenth of Teves she died and was buried in the cemetery adjoining the town that lay enveloped in misery and mourning.
For seven days, the Rema was absent from the beis medrash. His students came to visit him as he sat at his father's home in mourning, his jacket ripped open over his heart. Was it only for his mother that he cried, or for all the Jews of Cracow? Sometimes he spoke words of consolation to others, aware of their pain even within the midst of his own darkness.
Rabbi Isserle suffered greatly as well. He had lost his wife in the prime of her life, a woman with whom he had thought he would share his life for decades to come. He realized how much she had inspired and strengthened him. He felt empty and powerless. It was as though she had been a part of him. Now he felt as though he were missing a part of his heart.
When the week of mourning was over, the Rema returned to the beis medrash and again immersed himself in his learning. This was his consolation and his meaning in life. He could do no more to be true to the memory of his mother than to serve G-d as she would have wished.
The Rema also helped whomever he could. Many people needed money desperately, and the Rema's hand was open to them.
Months passed. Those students that remained found themselves learning with greater intensity than they had before. They felt that their words were rising up to G-d like the smoke of the incense-offering, and that the fervor of their learning could turn the plague back from the suffering city.
The long, cold winter drew to a close. The snow melted from the rich fields and forests and the fragrant blossoms of spring began to bloom. Songbirds appeared on the streets, clinging to the corners of houses, breathing the spirit of life into the dreary streets. Entire families had been wiped out by the plague. Although summer was approaching, Cracow did not dare to hope that it was emerging from the nightmare of the disease.
But Cracow lay under the cloud of mourning and fear. Out of a total Jewish population of 2,000, 220 adults had died since the plague had begun thirteen months previously, not to mention the many children who had succumbed to the horrible death. Ordinarily, in such a span of time, only 25 adults might be expected to pass away.
One late afternoon, when the Rema returned to his house, he met his father, coming out from his bedroom.
When the Rema saw of his father's grave expression, he grew alarmed. "Is anything wrong? Is Golda...all right?"
Rabbi Isserle didn't answer. He stood as still as death.
"Golda!" The Rema ran past his father to the bedroom. There was his wife, sitting in a chair in the dusk, covered with a blanket. "Moshe," she said. "Please--don't come any closer. I don't want you to get ill."
The Rema stopped as though he had been struck. His heart felt heavy as lead, and his face was numb, as if an executioner had lowered a cowl over his face. "Golda!" He ran up to her, but she cried, "No!" and put up her hand.
The Rema stopped short and then stepped back and sank onto a chair. "Golda, you were fine this morning. Do you think...are you sure...?"
"Your father brought a doctor when I called him this afternoon. The doctor says I have the plague. But there is still hope, Moshe. Daven for me. Maybe G-d hasn't yet made his final judgment." She smiled wanly in the dim light for a moment. "And even if this is, G-d forbid, the end--"
"Don't say that, Golda!"
"I have always tried to do G-d's will. If He wishes that I leave this paltry world for a better one, then I should certainly rejoice to do His will now as well."
The Rema heard the voice of his father behind him. "We will do everything we can for you, Golda. Don't give up. Even if a sword is lying on a person's neck, he still has to trust in G-d."
But Golda did not get better. As the days passed, it was obvious that she was lying on her deathbed.
The Rema still learned in the beis medrash and urged his students to learn with the same intensity and single-mindedness as ever. Some of the students began to whisper to one another. True, the Rema was a gadol, a great talmid chacham, but was it normal that not neither the death of his mother five months back nor the grave condition of his young wife could stop his learning?
It was the beginning of Sivan, and every evening, the students counted sefiras ha-omer. But what were they counting for? Were they looking forward to Shavuos, the time of spring, of life, of the giving of the Torah, which is called a Tree of Life? Or were they counting the days closer to death, to the death of Golda and that of other people suffering from the plague?
These questions did not seem to concern the Rema. He maintained a strict silence before his students, and they felt that they could not read his heart. Shavuos came and passed.
Then, on the eleventh of Sivan, the Rema set aside his seforim and for the second time that year tore his shirt over his heart and recited the blessing, "Blessed are You, the true Judge." The Rema's wife had passed away.
More haggard, the Rema returned to the beis medrash and to his learning. Almost immediately, his father's mother, Gittel bas Rabbi Moshe Auerbach, fell ill. Now the Rema had the task of being with her and of supporting his father.
Eleven days later, on the twenty-seventh of Sivan, she too died of the plague.
But the learning in the yeshiva didn't stop. The Rema made sure that his students continued as though nothing had happened.
One day, two of the students were talking. "Is it possible, or is it normal," the younger of the two said, a short adolescent with long sidelocks, "that our master should continue learning the same as ever after he has suffered so much?"
"What do you mean?" said the other student, a young man almost twenty and with a sparse, golden beard and spectacles. "Isn't the Torah called a Tree of Life? What more could the Rema do than study?"
"Yes," said the younger student, "but we are human beings, not angels. The Rema can decide intellectually that the best thing he can do is study. But how can he do so emotionally?"
"I see what you mean," the other student said, rubbing his thin beard. "Animals just have feelings. Angels have only intelligence. But we human beings have both intelligence and feelings."
"Exactly," the younger student said. "This is built into the halachah. After all, we know intellectually that it is a good thing to go to heaven. Yet G-d requires that when a relative dies, we mourn, because it is our human nature to be unfulfilled without mourning."
"So do you think that the Rema is more like an angel than a human being?" the older student interrupted.
"Maybe," said the younger student, curling one of his sidelocks.
There was a noise of someone clearing his throat. Both students turned and saw the Rema standing near them. He had come up to them in the middle of their conversation and overheard them speaking.
"Please forgive us, Rabbi Isserles," said the older student. "We didn't mean to insult you or speak behind your back."
"I have no doubt of that," the Rema replied. "The questions you were asking touch some of the deepest questions of how the Torah views us and expects us to act. As for me, I am a human being and not an angel. It is precisely because I am a human being and not an angel that I have acted as I have.
"As a human being, I am given free choice. If I choose evil, G-d forbid, I become a slave to all the things of this world. But if I choose good, which is G-d and the Torah, then I can become not only like an angel, but even higher, because I can rule over all the things of this world. Yes--it is our work to serve G-d with both our intelligence and our feelings blended together."
Soon after the death of the Rema's grandmother, the plague drew to a close. Those who had left the city returned, and Cracow began to return to normality.
Summer brought its warmth and life to Cracow and the grassy fields and forests surrounding the city. Ships sailed down the broad waters of the Vistula, bringing merchandise from all over Europe. Fisherman drew their catch from its banks. In the farms surrounding the city, the peasants tended their flocks and sowed their green fields.
But the plague-infected rats still skittered through the fields and disappeared into the cellars of the wealthy mansions that stood upon Cracow's most prestigious avenues. It was only a matter of time before the germs that incubated in their blood should again be loosed upon a people ignorant of their existence.
But meanwhile, they rejoiced in their reprieve.