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Parshas Vayechi (5773)

Illness: Nothing to Sneeze at

G-d sneezed … what could I say to Him?!

According to Wikipedia, in Ancient Greece, sneezes were believed to be prophetic signs from the gods. In 401 BCE, for instance, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a speech exhorting his fellow soldiers to fight against the Persians. A soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking that this sneeze was a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers were impressed. Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. His waiting wife Penelope, hearing Odysseus may be alive, says that he and his son would take revenge on the suitors if he were to return. At that moment, their son sneezes loudly and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods (Odyssey 17: 541-550).

In Europe, principally around the early Middle Ages, it was believed that one's life was in fact tied to one's breath - a belief reflected in the word "expire" (originally meaning "to exhale") gaining the additional meaning of "to come to an end" or "to die". This connection, coupled with the significant amount of breath expelled from the body during a sneeze, had likely led people to believe that sneezing could easily be fatal.

There are many superstitions regarding sneezing, as illustrated in the following poem:
Sneeze on Monday for health,
Sneeze on Tuesday for wealth,
Sneeze on Wednesday for a letter,
Sneeze on Thursday for something better,
Sneeze on Friday for sorrow,
Sneeze on Saturday, see your sweetheart tomorrow,
Sneeze on Sunday, safety seek,
For the Devil will be with you the rest of the week.

Of course, Judaism doesn't believe in the Devil of in any of this superstitious nonsense, and you won’t suddenly get richer or see your sweetheart, no matter which day you sneeze. But the Torah does have some pretty interesting stuff to say about sneezing, so read on…

The Talmud in Berachos 24b relates: “Rabbi Zeira said: I learned the following in Rabbi Hamnuna's academy, and it was as dear to me as all my learning: Sneezing during prayer is a good sign. Just like G-d makes a relief for him below (by allowing him to sneeze, which causes relief), so will He make a relief for him above (by answering his prayers).”

But wait, there’s more…

The Talmud teaches in Bava Metzia 87a that until the time of our forefather Jacob, nobody became sick before he died; [people died suddenly, without warning]. Then Jacob prayed [that a person should become sick before he died so that he could convey his last wishes to his children and say goodbye to them],and sickness came into being, for it says, “Joseph was told that his father [Jacob] was sick…” (Genesis 48:1).

Similarly, the Midrash teaches that “from the creation of the Heaven and earth until Jacob’s time, no person had ever become ill. Rather, they would remain fit and well until the time they were meant to die. Then, wherever they would happen to be, they would sneeze, and their souls would depart through their nostrils. But then Jacob prayed, seeking mercy from G-d, asking that He not take his soul until he had an opportunity to charge his sons and his household. Therefore a person is duty bound to say “To Life!” after he sneezes to thank G-d that this “death” was turned to light, as it says in the Book of Job: “His sneezes flash light…” (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 52).

The Rada”l, in his commentary to the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, explains that just as G-d originally brought man to life by breathing a “breath of life” into his nostrils (see Genesis 2:7), so, too – before Jacob’s time - did He take away that life through the reverse of that process, i.e. by man sneezing and “blowing his life out” through his nostrils.

Now although the Midrash seems to indicate that one should say “To life!” after sneezing (or after hearing someone else sneeze), the common Jewish custom throughout the millennia has been to wish the sneezer marpei (which means “health” in Hebrew), asusa (which means “health” in Aramaic) or gezuntheit (which means “health” in German/Yiddish). And somewhere along the line, people started wishing each other “G-d bless you” after sneezing, which also works.

The take-home lesson here – in addition to the benefit of knowing the origin of saying “G-d bless you” upon hearing someone sneeze – is that everything in life, no matter how bad it seems, always has a good side to it.

Who would have thought that illness, of all things, would be something that somebody would wish for? Yet our ancestor Jacob actually prayed to G-d for it! And we are all the beneficiaries of that prayer, because when our parents or grandparents become ill, we are “blessed” with the opportunity to be with them before they depart, and to say our proper goodbyes.

Of course, the same is true with everything that G-d created for us here on earth. There is always a silver lining to the cloud – there is always ultimate good in the bad – we just have to have faith that G-d knows what’s best for us and then we will find the good in everything He does.


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