When the Second Cholera Pandemic reached Prussia in 1831, Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher (1796-1874) was serving in his first rabbinic post in the Pleschen, Prussia (today Pleszew, Poland), a position he had held since 1822 thanks to the initiative of his teacher, the great Talmudist and chief rabbi of Posen, Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837).
Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher would go to be a unique leader on the Hasidic landscape. He did not come from Hasidic stock and he was based in Greiditz in Prussia (Grätz in German; today Grodzisk Wielkopolski, Poland) rather than in the Hasidic heartlands further east.
Rabbi Guttmacher received many kvitlekh – notes by petitioners containing requests for prayers for health, livelihood, marriage, or other needs. His collection of kvitlekh and was discovered in 1932 in an attic. From there the trove was taken to YIVO in Vilna. During the Second World War parts of the collection were buried in the Vilna ghetto. Most of the kvitlekh, however, were expropriated by the Nazis and brought to Frankfurt. After the Holocaust, the US Army returned the collection to YIVO, now based in New York. The buried kvitlekh were recovered and also brought to New York. Today the collection is partly held in the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York and partly held in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. This is the only known surviving collection of kvitlekh in the world.
In his recently published Historical Atlas of Hasidism, Professor Marcin Wodziński mapped the YIVO collection of over 6,000 kvitlekh. As Wodziński explained, the map demonstrates how most of Rabbi Guttmacher’s correspondence came from Russian-occupied Poland to the east. We can also learn from the map that people in places nearer Greiditz tended to send more kvitlekh than those far away. Overlaying the data with the network of railroads indicates that rail connections to the Greiditz region also contributed to the likelihood of sending a kvitel from afar to Rabbi Guttmacher.
Rabbi Guttmacher was also a forerunner of Zionism. A political realist, Rabbi Guttmacher called for agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel. Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, founded in 1939 by refugees from Nazi Germany, bears his name.
In 1831, faced with the spread of cholera, Rabbi Guttmacher turned to his venerable teacher, Rabbi Akiva Eger, for counsel as to how to react to the spreading disease. We do not have the student’s original question before us, but from his teacher’s response we can reconstruct that he had enquired about appropriate synagogue protocol in the shadow of a plague.
Rabbi Akiva Eger responded, addressing three points: Synagogue attendance, additional prayers, counsel for how to combat the plague with medical and with mystical means.
Regarding synagogue attendance, the rabbi of Posen confirmed that considering the contagious nature of cholera overcrowding was indeed a problem. He therefore recommended prayer in shifts of approximately 15 people each shift. Prayer shifts were to start early in the morning and continue one after another. Each person was to be given a designated slot.
Regarding the content of the prayers, Rabbi Akiva Eger counseled adding certain penitential prayers, as well as prayers that specifically petition the Almighty for an end to the plague. Rabbi Akiva Eger also recommended adding the recitation of the ketoret – a passage describing the incense offering in the Temple. In Jewish mystical lore, recitation of this passage had prophylactic and therapeutic effect.
Rabbi Akiva Eger also advised his student to single out prayers for the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840), his offspring, his ministers, and all those who dwell in his land.
Rabbi Akiva Eger was well aware that limiting entry into the synagogue might be difficult to enforce. He therefore suggested that Rabbi Guttmacher approach the local council and request that they post a policeman at the synagogue to prevent overcrowding. Rabbi Guttmacher was to mention that he was following the instructions of the Posen rabbi. If the local council refused, Rabbi Akiva Eger advised his student to turn to the authorities in Posen – once again mentioning that he was acting on his teacher’s advice – and to ask for enforcement assistance. Clearly the name of the rabbi of Posen carried weight in official government circles. Rabbi Guttmacher was advised to note that he was reciting Psalms and praying for the king.
In addition to ketoret recital, Rabbi Akiva Eger also recommended another mystical rite – pidyon nefesh – to ward off the plague. Rabbi Guttmacher was to gather 6 large Polish coins for each and every man and woman in Pleschen – even for fetuses in the womb – and perform the rite. Rabbi Akiva Eger offered his student to send some of the funds collected so that the teacher would also perform the rite. The money collected was to be disturbed to the needy.
Rabbi Akiva Eger concluded his letter with a detailed paragraph that included health advice that reflected contemporary medical understandings: what to wear, what to eat, how often to eat, and how to ensure hygiene. Rabbi Akiva Eger also told his student “not to be anxious and to distant all types of sadness.” He suggested fresh air by going out for a walk in the afternoon, and by opening the windows in the morning to air out the rooms.
Rabbi Akiva Eger was not a qualified doctor. Essentially, the rabbi of Posen was encouraging Rabbi Guttmacher to adhere to the guidelines advanced by contemporary medical practitioners.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.