Hand over the gloves. Face down the masks. According to Jewish tradition, there is a completely different way to respond to the current pandemic. Playwright, cultural critic, and journalist, Rokhel Kafrisen recently wrote about a practice among our people that took place to ameliorate previous epidemics that befell our people, as well as society at large. This practice was referred to as a Shvartzeh Chasseneh or Mageifeh Chasseneh (Plague Wedding). With the month of June known for nuptials, perhaps the time is propitious to learn of weddings in our past, that were held with the specific intent of combatting a plague.
Mea Culpa may be a Latin term, but it is totally Jewish as far as reacting to calamity. From time immemorial, Jews have always looked inwardly when placing blame. After all, didn’t our Talmudic sages point out, that it was Sinat Chinam or baseless hatred among Jews and not the clash of Jewish and Roman belief, culture, and lifestyle that brought about the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem? It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when a cholera epidemic broke out 150 years ago, our rabbinic sages viewed it as Divine punishment for the rampant adultery that was taking place among our people. Logic dictates that if sin on our part caused the epidemic, then it stands to reason that noble acts on our part would serve as an antidote to the epidemic. And what nobler act is there than bringing two individuals together in holy matrimony – individuals who might otherwise have been consigned to a life of singlehood? After all, don’t our rabbis teach us that marriage is so dear to HaShem, that ever since the creation of the world, our Heavenly Father has occupied himself with making matches?
Yet, however commendable these matrimonial machinations might have been in theory, they were anything but commendable in practice. In no way was it implausible for a young woman, orphaned at an early age, penniless and without a dowry, to be “encouraged” by a concerned community to marry a gentleman significantly older than her, with noticeable physical defects.
It made no difference at all to the community if the young bride was repulsed by her husband to be. The community justified what it was doing as a great mitzvah, in that marital prospects for both bride and groom were slim to non-existent. Of greater importance, was that the marriage was sure to please the celestial matchmaker, and at the same time placate a much-angered Creator of the Universe. Just as the biblical Job reminded us that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, so too should those same powers of giving and taking apply to the epidemic that HaShem gave us and would hopefully take way.
However loathsome the “mitzvah” imposed upon the young girl and perhaps even the deformed groom by the epidemic-stricken Jewish community, matters got even worse. When it came time to present gifts to the bride and groom, a beggar-woman from the community was at the head of the entourage of “guests” in attendance. Pulling a tin spoon out of a sack, the beggar-woman would lift the spoon and twirl it over her head, while incanting: “It should be taken from me and remain with you”. All others assembled to witness the marriage would follow suit, chanting “from me to you.” The piece de resistance was that this Mageifeh Chasseneh would be held in the Jewish cemetery, with freshly filled graves of those who succumbed to the epidemic.
The Yiddish writer, Joseph Opatoshu (father of actor David Opatoshu, who played the role of Akiva Ben Canaan, uncle of Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman) was most accurate in his piece “A Wedding in the Cemetery” when he drew an analogy between the practice of Kappores, the night before Kol Nidrei and the Mageifeh Chasseneh. It is the fowl that takes the “hit” in the former, he pointed out, while the bride and groom take the hit in the latter. Yet, Opatoshu stopped short in his analogy. The cemetery with the annual custom of Kever Avot or cemetery visitation is integral to both Yom Kippur and the Mageifah Chasseneh. Most of all, the Mageifah Chasseneh shows to what lengths our people were prepared to go, to absolve themselves from sin.
Let no one think that the Mageifah Wedding was left behind in Eastern Europe when our ancestors departed for the new world. Records indicate that such nuptials took place a century ago, during a Flu epidemic, in the very same cemetery where my parents are buried. I can only hope that the bride and groom were better suited for each other, that a mere Mazel Tov captured the sentiments of those in attendance, and that beggar-woman was not able to be present.