The dreaded infectious disease frequent in ancient Israel and proving fatal in the majority of cases was probably the bubonic plague, which in antiquity was especially prevalent in Egypt, and also occurred in other countries of the East (Pliny, "Historia Naturalis," iii. 4). Moses threatened the people with this pestilence (Lev. xxvi. 25; Deut. xxviii. 21), while Yhwh warned the spies that it would be the punishment for the evil report which they had brought of the Holy Land (Num. xiv. 12). The Psalmist besought protection from the plague (Ps. xci. 3, 6), and Solomon prayed for deliverance from it when Israel should come to the Temple (I Kings viii. 37); but Jeremiah (xiv. 12, xxi. 6, xxiv. 10) and Ezekiel (v. 12, vii. 15) threatened the people with this disease if they continued to despise the word of God. Pestilence was also one of the four judgments which God inflicted upon Jerusalem in order to turn it into wilderness (Ezek. xiv. 21). In II Sam. xxiv. 13-15 and I Chron. xxi. 11-14 there is an account of a plague which caused a mortality of 70,000 in Israel within three days (years ?). Amos (iv. 10) says that the plague in the wilderness was not effective in reforming the people, the allusion probably being to one of the two "maggefot" which killed many persons within a short time, according to Num. xvii. 9 and xxv. 8. This pestilence is different from that whichattacks animals and from which the cattle of the Egyptians died (Ex. ix. 6-8).
According to Ta'an. iii. 1, a city ravaged by the pestilence must institute fast-days and prayers. In answer to the question when may an infectious disease be called a pestilence, the Mishnah declares that if three persons die during three consecutive days in any city of 500 inhabitants, the pestilence is raging there. Further details are given in the baraita Ta'an. 21a, which decides that if nine persons die within three consecutive days in a city of 1,500 inhabitants, the pestilence is present; but that if nine persons die in one day and none in the following days, or if only nine persons die within four consecutive days, there is no pestilence. Ta'an. 21b states that in the first half of the third century C.E. the pestilence ravaged Syria, but did not come near the habitation of Abba Arika.
Bibliography:E. G. H. S. O.
- Riehm, Handwörterb. s.v.;
- Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. xi. 72-74.