This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Dead Men Don’t Sneeze*

As I write this article, the Canadian climate is striving to live up to its reputation for icy frigidity. For many us, this situation expresses itself in sneezes. As I understand it, a sneeze is physical defense mechanism that rids the nostrils of unwanted irritants and germs by forcibly expelling them in a spasmodic release of air and mucus.

Aside from the physiological aspects of sternutation (that is the fancy medical term), the reflex also has a remarkable social characteristic. It triggers a verbal response from those who are present during the explosive event. The most familiar responses according to western etiquette are “(God) Bless you” and “Gesundheit.”

The popularity of the first expression has diminished with the secularization of our society—though a notorious 2014 Fox News report about a student’s suspension for uttering it in a Tennessee public high school turned out to be inaccurate.

The “Gesundheit” option, German for “health,” is far more common. This prompts the question: why have English-speaking North Americans adopted a German blessing for this purpose? The best answer anyone has come up with is that it was picked up from German immigrants. Some have suggested that it was learned from Yiddish-speakers, however they were more likely to respond with a variant such as “tsu gezunt.”

Verbal responses to sneezes have a long and intriguing history. Aristotle was already puzzled by this phenomenon, and devoted a brief study to the question of why a sneeze is treated as a sacred event that merits more reverence than other bodily emissions like hiccups, belching or flatulence. He proposed two possible reasons: First of all, the sneeze is produced from the head, the most spiritual part of the human body, rather than the abdomen or chest. Or perhaps it is because sneezing is inextricably bound with the body’s vitality. Not only does it produce a healthy benefit by easing pressures in the cerebral region, but inducing a sneeze was actually a standard medical procedure for determining whether or not a seriously damaged body was still functioning.

Ancient Jews were also accustomed to respond to sneezes—preferring the equivalent of the “Gesundheit” formula to the “Bless you.” As with many practices that they shared with their non-Jewish neighbours, questions arose as to whether they might be proscribed under the Torah’s prohibition of emulating “the ways of the Amorite.”

The rabbinic texts are unclear with regard both to what people were saying in response to sneezes, and whether it was permissible under Jewish religious law to say those words. Some versions read the relevant passage as: “One who says ‘marpe’ is following the way of the Amorite.” However, most early traditions insert the word “not” into the ruling, turning it into a permission rather than a prohibition.

The Hebrew “marpe,” like its Aramaic equivalent “asuta,” means “healing” or “cure” and correlates nicely with our “Gesundheit.”

Quotations from the Jerusalem Talmud in medieval rabbinic works indicate that the textual tradition was still very fluid and a number of sneeze responses were preserved, including Greek phrases like “iasis” (“cure”), “zethi” (“long life”), “sos” or “soizon”  (“be safe”). Similar expressions are known from Greek and Latin works, though they generally used the explicit religious formulation “may Zeus save you.” Other versions of the talmudic texts give the blessing as “asuta” or the good old “le-ḥayyim.”

Rabbi Menahem Meiri, though normally opposed to any practice that smacked of superstition, deemed the blessing after a sneeze unobjectionable because “anything that is said as a blessing is not a superstition, since it is said only by way of prayer.... For this reason they permitted to say ‘asuta’ or ‘ḥayei’ (life).”

Even if the rabbis were ready to absolve the sneeze-blessings from the stigma of idolatrous superstition, there remained other factors that could make them religiously problematic. Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Zadok declared that one should refrain from saying “marpe” after a sneeze because of the waste of Torah study time. He reported that in the house of Rabban Gamaliel they would not say “marpe” out of concern for promoting idleness in the house of study.

Now this sounds like a very unreasonable and obsessive concern for what amounts to the loss of two syllables worth of learning time. Rashi therefore explained that the interruptions could be somewhat lengthier: while one of the students was conveying the blessing on behalf of the group, they would all have to respectfully suspend their learning so that they could pay attention and answer “Amen.” This could be seriously disruptive in an educational setting that was based on memorization and oral recitation, where one could not set a bookmark or keep a finger on the page to recall where he had stopped.

Another talmudic ruling forbids responding to a sneeze while one is dining, for fear of a choking hazard. Remember that in the ancient world it was customary to eat while reclining on a couch and so one did have to be especially cautious about such matters.

Other passages take a more positive approach to sneezing, asserting that a sneeze during prayer is a favourable omen, or that it is a symptom of good health.

The most stunning explanation for why a sneeze merits a blessing is found in Pirḳei deRabbi Eliezer, an early medieval compendium that incorporated many obscure legends and mystical customs.  

Before Jacob’s death, as the patriarch was preparing to bless his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh, the Torah says that someone informed Joseph, “Behold, thy father is sick.” The author of Pirḳei deRabbi Eliezernotes that this is the very first instance in scripture in which a person’s death was preceded by an illness. Until that day, death would always come in a single moment. While strolling in the marketplace a person would be overcome by a sudden sneeze—and that would invariably mean that the soul was taking leave of the body through the nostrils, even as the first man had come alive when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” A sneeze was  thus equated with instant death .

Old Jacob pleaded before the Almighty to make some changes to the expiration process. Why not introduce an intermediate stage, when physical frailty and illness would make people aware of their approaching demise, so that they will have an opportunity to tend to arrangements for their survivors?

Jacob’s wish was granted, and he was allowed a period of illness before his actual departure from the world. This was an unprecedented occurrence in human history, and it is in this connection that we are to understand the astonishment of the (unidentified) person who exclaimed to Joseph, “Behold, thy father is sick!” This was the first time since the creation that a human had not died immediately upon their first sneeze.

The Pirḳei deRabbi Eliezerconcludes: “For this reason, whenever somebody sneezes, a person is obligated to say to them “Life!”; for that was when death in the world was transformed into light.”

Sneezes may no longer be fatal, but they can spread some nasty germs. For the sake of everyone’s health, please take care to cover your mouths.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features
Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 22, 2019, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Green, Alexander. The Virtue Ethics of Levi Gersonides. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016Askenasy, J. J. “The History of Sneezing.” Postgraduate Medical Journal 66 (1990): 549–50.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Feshuṭah. Vol. 3: Order Mo‘ed. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962. [Hebrew]
    • Preuss, Julius. Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Translated by Fred Rosner. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1993.
    • Weiss, Shemu’el. “Ha-‘Iṭṭush be-ḤaZa"L.” Kotlenu 13 (2010): 557–58. [Hebrew].
    • “Tenn. Claims of Religious Persecution Fall Apart.” Church & State, October 2014.