In the early days of the COVID pandemic a wedding was held under a black canopy in the corner of a cemetery in Bnei Brak. It garnered considerable media attention because of its seeming uniqueness, but in fact the same ceremony had taken place many times in Israel, Europe, and even North America over the last three centuries in response to pandemic outbreaks.
Jeremy Brown’s recent essay discusses the origins of what has been called the “Plague Wedding” or the “Black Wedding,” which was once quite common in the towns and shtetls of Eastern Europe. There are also records of Plague Weddings taking place in Jerusalem and Tiberias, as well as New York, Winnipeg, and Philadelphia. In a few places there were rabbinic objections, but the ceremony was generally performed with the blessing of local rabbis in the hopes of warding off the plague, and was often a time of festivities and even drunkenness. It provided for some light relief in a time of unimaginable suffering as cholera and influenza pandemics claimed millions of lives, though its origins remain mysterious. Read Jeremy Brown’s open-access essay “The Plague Wedding,” TRADITION (Winter 2021).
Jeremy Brown trained as an emergency physician and works at the National Institutes of Health. He is the author of New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought (Oxford), and most recently, Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History (Simon & Schuster). His next book is The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics from the Bible to COVID-19, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Jeremy writes on science and medicine in the Talmud at Talmudology.com.