The word ‘quarantine’ comes from quarantena, or “forty days,” in the Venetian language. It was first used during the Black Death epidemic in the 14th and 15th centuries to designate a period that ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore.
As a rabbi and a student of religious history, this etymology has fueled my imagination and led me down a rich and colorful path of biblical exegesis.
Descriptions of 40-day quarantines occur repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, several millennia before the Venetians introduced the maritime practice. And when they occur, they are virtually always momentous and life-altering.
During the story of the Flood in the book of Genesis, Noah self-isolates with his family in a wooden ark for 40 days and 40 nights, while the world as they’d known it drowns in a deluge of rain and rising seas.
In the book of Exodus, Moses separates himself from the Israelites for the same time period and ascends Mount Sinai to put even more distance between himself and his people, who have committed idolatry by creating a golden calf.
And at a harrowing point in his life, the prophet Elijah flees into the desert for 40 days and nights in the book of First Kings and secludes himself in a cave. There, he waits for his fear to subside and for God to give him direction.
What do these stories have to teach us today, during our own quarantine?
None of these 40-day quarantines are compulsory. Rather than the result of external coercion, these biblical examples of isolation should be understood as thoughtful expressions of free choice, voluntary decisions meant to respond constructively to an existential crisis.
Something happens to these biblical figures after their periods of seclusion and social distancing come to an end, once the crisis has passed and they emerge from their respective shelters.
Noah and his family (along with quite a number of animals and birds) will begin the process of re-peopling the earth, as creation starts anew with a new covenant, marked by a rainbow. More than serving as a role player in God’s cosmic drama, Noah becomes the father of the world.
Moses returns to his people with a second set of the Ten Commandments (he destroyed the first set out of anger). He forgives their sins. And his new maturity, insight and illumination are manifested externally by rays of light that radiate like a corona from his head.
Elijah has a theophany, an experience of God, not in a whirlwind or an earthquake but through a “still, small voice.” With this new understanding of spirituality and divine communication, he is able to calm his soul and eventually continue his mission as a prophet of Israel.
The Talmud explains that it takes an embryo 40 days to form in the womb. For some later commentators, those 40 days are the time it takes for a new entity to come into being.
To my mind, it would be a mistake to think of the 40-day number as a literal representation of time. But 40 days may well be a metaphor for gestation, a pilgrimage toward new birth.
I can’t keep track of how many days I’ve been hunkered down in self-quarantine here in wine country, but it’s been far more than 40, and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.
And yet, this existential crisis will pass.
I feel that something is indeed gestating — both inside and around me. We are all changing, evolving, getting ready to emerge from our cocoons. Our social distancing from one another is not all bad. In fact, I think it will lead to new perspectives on ourselves and on our world.
The challenge of this crisis has clear economic and socio-political dimensions. But it also has a spiritual one. How we respond to it — whether with foresight or with bravado – will define our moral characters, as well as our souls, for many years to come.
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley. He is the founder of The New Shul in New York City and the author or editor of 10 books.