Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837) was a great talmudic mind, famous for his succinct annotations to classic texts. His notes on the Babylonian Talmud were first published during his lifetime as an addendum to the tomes of Talmud printed in Prague in 1830-1835. The next edition of the Talmud, printed in Vilna 1835-1854, moved these notes from the back of the volume to the margin of the pages of Talmud. Thus, contemporary Talmud students have Rabbi Akiva Eger in their periphery vision, even if they do not delve into his words.
In 1831, when the Second Cholera Pandemic spread to Posen – then in Prussia and today in Poland – Rabbi Akiva Eger emerged as a formidable community leader in the fight against the disease. At the time he was serving as the rabbi of Posen, and his first recorded action during the pandemic was a local enactment regarding the recitation of kaddish by mourners.
The mourners’ kaddish is a primarily recited by children of the deceased as part of synagogue services. While it is not truly a prayer for the dead, it is widely perceived as a salve for the soul of the departed and way for a child to accord respect to a deceased parent.
The original practice in Ashkenazi communities was that each mourners’ kaddish in the prayer service is recited by one person only. In order to determine who has the right to a particular kaddish, detailed rules of precedence were outlined by rabbinic authorities. The order of precedence was defined by a number of factors, including how much time had lapsed since the deceased had passed away, whether the mourner was a child of the deceased or a more distant relative, and whether the mourner was a local resident or a visitor.
These rules were strictly applied by German Jewry, with each community enacting nuanced rules for each circumstance. In contrast, Sephardi Jews opted for an entirely different route: everyone recites kaddish together. Today, widespread practice amongst Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews is that all the mourners recite kaddish together. But back in 1831, the traditional Ashkenazi practice was still in force in Posen.
In the summer of 1831, as cholera fatalities increased, there were more mourners than kaddish opportunities. This meant that some of the mourners did not have the possibility to honour the deceased by reciting kaddish. We can only imagine how such a scenario would have compounded the trauma of losing a loved one to a raging pandemic.
In a bold move, Rabbi Akiva Eger enacted a measure that contravened time-honoured Ashkenazi custom: Henceforth, all the mourners would recite kaddish in unison.
The earliest mention of this enactment comes to us from Rabbi Akiva Eger’s decision to repeal the legislation a year later. This decision is recorded in a manuscript entitled Pinkas Beit Ha-Knesset Ha-Yashan Be-Pozna (Communal Record of the Old Synagogue in Posen). “Pinkas” is the term used to refer to a genre that includes community minutes, chronicles of local legislation and customary law, transcripts of court decisions, and records of voluntary self-governing societies. The Posen pinkas includes material from late 1687 through 1858. The manuscript is held in the National Library of Israel, and selections have been translated or transcribed and published.
In a succinct passage, Rabbi Akiva Eger first recounted the decision taken in summer 1831 to change the accepted custom. Then he added:
And with the completion of the year, at the beginning of the month of Av 592 [July 28, 1832] when the disease had departed – with the help of God, may He be blessed – I instituted that they should not say kaddishim together, except for once every day; that is, the mourners will say the kaddish prayer together after the morning service. But not the other kaddishim. And through this, at the very least, there will not be a situation where the mourner will be prevented from saying kaddish once every day. And thus it will be and thus it will be established forever with the help of God, may He be blessed.
This brief passage is written in Rabbi Akiva Eger’s own handwriting and signed modestly: “Hak[atan]” – the insignificant – “Akiva.”
Such a seemingly minor rule in the Posen pinkas and its reversal a year later is noteworthy. First, its institution bespeaks Rabbi Akiva Eger’s sensitivity to providing emotional support for those who lost close relatives during the pandemic. Second, it demonstrates how the Posen chief rabbi had the legal gravitas to contravene established custom and then to reverse the licence he gave. Third, it raises a question that we will inevitably face: Which changes instituted during a pandemic last beyond the crisis period?
After a year grappling with the outbreak of cholera, the chief rabbi of Posen felt that the reality permitted a return to pre-pandemic life. Yet even as the Jews of Posen emerged from the cholera encounter, traces of the pain remained as the final kaddish at each service was recited by all the mourners together. An auditory reminder of what the community had endured.
Rabbi Akiva Eger’s note about changing kaddish practices in Posen includes a further angle of interest: A record of the disease passing and the attempt to return to normal life. Alas, the pandemic ending in one place did not mean that it had been eradicated. It would take another six months before a London publication announced:
The Cholera Medical Board is dissolved; and, much as we considered its institution desirable, we trust it is dissolved for ever. Whether we are not to reckon this terrible malady as an addition to our stock of diseases, or as a transient visitor, we know not; but as an epidemic, we trust that its virulence is exhausted.
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 email@example.com.