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February 16: Tsu Gesundt!

Lawrence Bush
February 16, 2017
Pope Gregory is said to have declared on this date in 600 (though some say February 6) that “God bless you” is an appropriate response to a sneeze. According to the History Channel, “Gregory the Great . . . assumed the papacy in 590, at a time when the bubonic plague was raging through Europe. An early sign that the virus had entered a victim was a sneeze, so . . . the Pope is attributed with suggesting that God’s blessing be offered to anyone who sneezes in order to protect against falling ill.” According to the Midrash, sneezing was a symptom of imminent death: “From the day that heaven and earth were created,” says Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 52, “no one was ever sick,” But just as God had given life to Adam by blowing a soul into his body, people would die by sneezing, blowing out their souls. The Talmud opines, however, that “If a person sneezes while praying it is a good sign for him. . . . Just as he is given satisfaction below, so is he given satisfaction Above” — and the Zohar refers to God as “Master of the Nose.” Jews developed responses to sneezing in Hebrew (Labriut!), Aramaic (asuta!) and Yiddish (tzu gezunt!) and other languages, each meaning “to health!” For a full-bodied discussion of Jews and sneezing, click here. “My Bubby taught me that the first time a person sneezes it is proper to say tzu gezunt -– to health; the second time, tzum leben -– to life; and the third time, tzu lange yoren -– to long years.” --Rabbi Herschel Finman

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.