How did the Poskim deal with the Spanish Flu?

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    In the fall and winter of 1918-1919 the influenza pandemic killed some 50,000,000 people worldwide, mostly in Europe, North America and the former Ottoman Empire. Compared to the “Spanish Flu”, the current Covid 19 pandemic, as devastating it may be, is like a bad allergy season. My question is: what were the rulings of the Gedolei HaPoskin of the time, the Chofetz Chaim, Aruch HaShulchan, Chazon Ish, et al who were alive and active during the period. Surely the issues that confront us now are much the same as those which they had to face. Also, while technology then was clearly far behind that which we, in 2020, have at our disposal, 1919 wasn’t the “Dark Ages” either. Rapid means of communication, telegraph, telephone, etc, was available as was rapid transport and mobility. Also, transmission of infectious disease was well understood and the official response, at least in the U.S., quarantine, social distancing, even masks, were similar to current practice. What, for instance, was the Chofetz Chaim’s rulings on keeping yeshivas open, on conducting minyanim, chasunas, levayas etc.? Were there any differences between the European poskim and those of Eretz Yisrael? I have not read or heard anyone today cite any previous ruling from 1918. Were there any?


    I think you are overestimating the spiritual and technological reach of the gedolim you mentioned. World-wide acceptance of the Mishna Brurah and the Aruch hashulchan was attained way after this period. The Chazon Ish was a young man of 39-40 and had not yet attained global recognition. The Spanish flu was unlikely to have been addressed by these gedolim as a psak applicable to all, but rather a local recommendation that remained local, and was not necessarily recorded for posterity.

    A better example may be the cholera epidemic of 1849 and the famous psak and actions of Rav Yisroel Salanter. But even that was a local psak and was not binding or meant for all of klal yisrael. The details of that episode are a subject of debate until today, and it only played out on a local level.

    On that note, important public controversies that relied on mail and transportation usually played out over a period of years and not weeks or months. Today these things are instantaneous, then they were not.


    Because of the enormity of the Holocaust, it’s easy to forget that WWI was a catastrophe for European Jewery.
    Unlike today, the “Spanish” Flu wasnt widely reported by the media to prevent large scale panic.
    Between typhus, TB, food insecurity, and the threat of actual programs (“actual” meaning the threat of violence and death, rather than a park being temporarily locked), it is completely possible that there are few surviving responses that deal specifically with the SF.


    You can be reasonably certain they didn’t call on people to stop going to shul and to stop learning Torah.

    One should also note that unlike Covid19, Spanish flu killed people of all ages, and most people infected became quite sick. Spanish flu wasn’t reported in Anglo-American media, at first, since it was considered actionable intelligence of the health of the armies – it became public knowledge when it was reported in the Spanish press, since Spain was neutral and therefore had no military censorship. It them became well known everywhere. In the USA, many people wore masks and many things were cancelled, but no one attempted to shut down the economy.

    The infamous cholera epidemic cited above shows the problem with rabbinim paying too much attention to doctors. In turned out the disease was not an airborne virus, but was spread by polluted drinking water. Any quarantine measures were not warranted, and fasting would actually reduce your chance of exposure. The remedy was to acquire clean water for drinking, washing and preparing food (e.g. boil the water before use). It turns out the doctors the rabbis consulted with were into what we now call “junk science”.

    anonymous Jew

    The Spanish flu did not have anything to do with Spain. The government’s of England , France, Germany , Austria and other combatants censored any flu news because they didn’t want their enemies to know how bad they were suffering..Spain, being neutral, had no censorship and was the first country to report on the flu and thus was named for it

    Adam Neira

    Your question is a good one.

    Looking at historical examples of how wise people dealt with various difficult situations is instructive. (Too many people today believe that they are smarter than those who came before them. An arrogant delusion.)

    But I suggest going back to circa 1300 bce to learn how a great man dealt with dis-ease…

    Moses and the Hebrews after forty years of right action and healthy living rose to such great spiritual, intellectual and physical heights that they literally changed human history forever. Their immune systems were bolstered by right living. (They climbed the Tumah Ladder.) And of course before this time, the Hebrews in the Delta of Egypt who heeded Moses were able to mount defences and take effective measures against the ravages of the Ten Plagues. Several of which, I’m sure, were actually viruses.


    Adan Neira: Moshe Rabeinu was dealing with systematic, highly focused, biological (and geo-physical) warfare raged by Ha-Shem against the Egyptians. In modern terms, it was analogous to being the hostage, and following instructions from the special forces being sent to rescue you.

    Reb Eliezer

    The Biur Halacha SA O’CH 554 says for cholera, stay inside when must go out, wear a mask.


    Reb Eliezer: Isn’t it sad when our rabbanim are tricked by goysha scientists into doing something totally dumb. Cholera isn’t spread by breathing. The correct advice doesn’t require a mask, but does require boiling water. In the examples of telling people not to fast, that would actually be the wrong thing to do for an uninfected person. If you don’t have cholera, fasting actually makes you safer (since it was the food and drink that made people sick).

    So when the goyim (and frei Jews) today announce that according to their science, we must close our shuls and yeshivos (but not their “politically correct” gatherings), we should be highly skeptical, and suggest they take a long walk off a short pier.

    Avi K

    Rabbi Akiva Eiger called for restrictions and staying at home during the 1830 cholera epidemic. However, he obviously relied on the medical knowledge of his time. If most, or even a plurality of people are infected at home it makes no sense to have a lockdown. In fact, one Israeli public health expert called a lockdown “medieval”.


    “The Chazon Ish was a young man of 39-40 and had not yet attained global recognition. ”

    Rabbi Aharon Moshe Kiselev was a huge talmid chacham who had studied in Volozhin. He moved to Harbin, China, in the area then known as Manchuria, in 1913 to be the Chief Rabbi there. (Harbin had a large Jewish community; among the Jews there were the parents of future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.) He would later be recognized as the Chief Rabbi of the Far East. On one issue he paskened that all Jews in China, Hong Kong, and Japan observe Shabbat on Friday night and Saturday, according to the conventional location of the International Date Line.

    Later he would learn that the Chazon Ish had paskened differently. Rabbi Kiselev had never heard of the Chazon Ish! Upon being informed that the Chazon Ish really was a Gedol, he reconsidered his psak — and after reconsidering it, concluded that he himself had been right all along!

    The end of Rabbi Kisilev’s life must not have been happy. While under Chinese warlord rule, Jews were well treated, the Japanese who took over Manchuria were allied with Russian anti-Semitic fascists who dominated much of Harbin and persecuted Jews. The Japanese also conducted medical experiments there similar to those of the Nazis, but the victims were Chinese. Most Jews left during the Japanese occupation, many to Japan or to other cities in China, and many to Israel. (Rabbi Kisilev was a religious Zionist and many of the less religious Jews were Revisionists.) The Soviet Union occupied the city in August 1945 and handed it over to the Chinese Communists the following April; before the Russian communist mass murderers passed on control to the Chinese mass murderers they rounded up Jews for their gulags. Rabbi Kisilev died in Harbin in September 1949 at the age of 82, just a few weeks before the “Peoples Republic of China” was proclaimed. 🙁 The last Jew in Harbin died in 1985.

    Incredibly two synagogues still stand in Harbin and there is one Jew who lives in the city. One of the synagogues is a museum and the other is a concert hall.


    I think it is a very good question and would really appreciate if someone actually found some real material on this.


    1- The same scientists that you believe when they say cholera isn’t transmitted via airborne particles, are telling you COVID-19 is.
    2- What we can learn from cholera is rabbanim follow the advice of science and the information we do have, even though it may be wrong.


    It appears that no one is addressing my specific question. During the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, epidemiology and infectious disease transmission were fairly well understood. While the internet and satellite communications were, of course, far in the future, telegraph, telephone, intranational cable and even early radio were available for dissemination of news and information. In the U.S., for instance, quarantine, social distancing, even wearing masks were recommended (but not required) by local and State authorities.
    My question was, at that time and under those conditions, How did contemporary Poskim rule on the same issues that we have been dealing with these days, I.E. closing yeshivas and shuls, outdoor minyanim, Etc.


    I think your question was answered.
    How did contemporary Poskim rule on the same issues that we have been dealing with these days, I.E. closing yeshivas and shuls, outdoor minyanim, Etc…

    Answer: They didn’t. And if they did, we don’t know about it.

    anonymous Jew

    In 1918 most Eastern European frum Jews lived in Shtetls with no electricity or modern communication. They also didn’t have a full understanding of what at caused the flu , and wouldn’t have closed yeshiva or shuls

    anonymous Jew

    The Jews of Eastern Europe had more pressing issues to deal with than the flu. The Eastern Front was unfortunately located in the heart of major Jewish population centers.Each time the Russians advanced one way, only to have the Germans and Austrians push them back, many Jewish communities were devastated and many Jews died. The estimates of Jewish lives lost range from a low of 100,000 to as high as 600,000.
    More Jews died after 1918 when they were caught in the Russian civil war. The Cossacks may have hated the Bolsheviks, but they still took the time to murder Jews. I’ve seen archival of film of Jews being dragged by their beards thru the shtetl street, but it’s Cossacks, not Nazi’s, doing the dragging


    @redleg – I think you are misinformed.

    One hundred years ago germ theory was not far past its infancy. Although Semmelweis (1818-1865) had pioneered antiseptic procedures introducing handwashing to medicine, it was not until the 1870s that Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) established the foundation for germ theory, showing that microorganisms were the cause of disease, bolstered by the studies of Joseph Lister (1827-1912) who expanded upon limiting infection in wounds by use of antiseptics.

    These scientific practices and theories were not universally understood by the time of the 1918 epidemic, and more primitive remedies and treatments were still in use. Although I can’t address how the poskim ruled at the time, my understanding of public health practices of that time allow me to assert that even civil health authorities did not have a handle on the disease. Soldiers had the flu in early 1918 yet were sent to Europe. They carried it with them. Further, witness the ravages caused by a mass gathering in Philadelphia during the September 28, 1918 Liberty Loans parade. Military deaths were written off as being “the old-fashioned grippe” by Philadelphia’s director of public health!

    A good reference article is Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu

    sorry, smithsonian link removed

    In 1918, my Bubba and Zayda in Russia didn’t have running water let alone modern communications. You overestimate how well news and scientific information spread 100 years ago.

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