Covid Lev Paraoh: Did the Egyptian King Suffer from Coronavirus?

January 28, 2021

No, I am not suggesting that the phrase “כבד לב פרעה” alludes to the disease Covid, a disease that only surfaced in 2019, despite my intentional, and admittedly deceptive, mistransliteration. However, suggesting that phrases and episodes in the Torah refer to specific medical conditions is a centuries-old pastime pursued by rabbis, scholars and physicians, Jew and non-Jew1 alike2. Was Yitzchak’s blindness due to diabetes?3; Yaakov’s injury and limp due to hip dislocation?4; Goliath’s poor peripheral vision and ultimate demise due to a pituitary tumor?5

This idea of utilizing medical knowledge for biblical interpretation has also been applied to the condition from which Paraoh suffered, though we have been conditioned otherwise. Since childhood we have been taught to explain the biblical phrases about Paraoh’s condition exclusively in a metaphorical fashion. The simple meaning (peshat) of the text however could reflect otherwise, as scholars have noted, and may indicate the presence of a different type of “corona” disease.

David Macht devoted extensive research to the area of anatomical and physiological interpretation of the Torah, not only authoring numerous papers on the topic, but performing novel scientific studies as well.6 Macht was born in Moscow in 1882, received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1906, and taught physiology at Yeshiva College from 1933-1941. His interest in the relationship of Judaism and medicine began early in his career. During his final year of medical school he presented a paper before the Johns Hopkins Historical Club on Rambam, commemorating the 800th anniversary of his death. The record of his co-presenters reads like a veritable who’s who of medical history.

William Olser presided at the session. Osler was the father of modern medicine, a
founder of Johns Hopkins and the first to develop a medical residency. Welch was one of the founders of Johns Hopkins, and the Welch Library is named after him. Weigert, about whom Welch presented, was a Jewish pathologist. Cushing was the father of neurosurgery and later authored the definitive biography on Osler. Harry Friedenwald, prominent Jewish medical historian, read a number of papers before this club.

The paper was later published in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin7 and concluded with the following:

It is remarkable that Macht prevailed upon the journal editor to publish the Hebrew language phrase, which is found at the end of many rabbinic works, praising the creator of the world upon completion of the project. I suspect the Hebrew language was not found frequently in its pages, if ever before or after.

Among his over 900 scientific publications, many on the interface of Judaism and science8, is a volume entitled, The Heart and the Blood in the Bible9. In chapter 5, on pathological anatomy, Macht writes:

Hypertrophy of an organ is of course characterized not only by the increase in size of that organ, but also by its increase in weight. This, as Dr. Brim10 well points out is expressed by various Hebrew terms employed by the Scriptures in connection with the Egyptian plagues and Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Such words are kosche, meaning hard; chozok, meaning firm; kovayd, meaning heavy. They all point to a condition of the heart, which, in terms of modern pathology, suggest hardening of the arteries, or arteriosclerosis, and an increase in the heart’s weight. The Hebrew word koved denotes “heavy” and obviously for this reason, the name for the liver is also koved, which is of course most appropriate for the heaviest gland in the body. The Hebrew expression, kovayd lev Pharaoh in Exodus 7-14, literally reads- “The heart of Pharaoh became heavy,” and refers to its hypertrophy and enlargement…The cause of this hypertrophy in Pharaoh, was most likely arteriosclerosis, and hypertension.

What Macht, and Brim, are suggesting, is that Paraoh suffered not from “corona” virus, but from a different “corona” disease, coronary artery disease. These two medical conditions share a common etymology. “Corona” means resembling the shape of a crown or halo. The coronary arteries surround the heart and are so-named because they we thought to form a crown-like appearance. Coronavirus is named for the crown or halo of protrusions that surround the virus, which are best seen when it is viewed under the electron microscope.

We today are intimately familiar with coronary artery disease, a significant cause of morbidity and mortality across the world, particularly in industrialized countries. Focusing purely on the medical veracity of such an interpretation, it would seem highly speculative to assume that this disease was prevalent in the times of the Exodus. Surely the buildup of cholesterol plaques in our arteries is a product of our modern diet. Macht thus continues:

It is interesting to note that the idea in regard to arteriosclerosis of Pharaoh at the time of Exodus has been entertained not only by Jewish scholars, but also by distinguished Christian students of the Bible who were at the same time, medical men. I am quoting, therefore, a very remarkable article which appeared in London Times on October 23, 1929, a clipping of which was sent me at that time by the late Professor Waldemar M. Haffkine.

Before sharing the substance of the Times article, which is indeed “very remarkable,” I draw your attention to Dr. Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930), the sender of the newspaper clipping, and whose life also merits the description “very remarkable.” Haffkine is perhaps one of the most extraordinary, yet underappreciated figures in Jewish medical history.11 He bears mention, especially today, as we are beginning to distribute the Covid vaccination.

Haffkine was born in Odessa to a Jewish family of limited means and was a brilliant young student. As a young bacteriologist in Russia, he was offered professional advancement, but only on condition of renouncing his Judaism. Persistently refusing, he was continually held back. Inspired by Pasteur’s path-breaking discoveries, Haffkine developed a vaccine for cholera, which he tested on himself. He was sent to India where his vaccine saved an untold number of lives. He also developed a vaccine for Bubonic Plague. He was knighted in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Year Honors in 1897. The Jewish Chronicle of that time noted “a Ukraine Jew, trained in the schools of European science, saves the lives of helpless Hindus and Mohammedans and is decorated by the descendant of William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great.”12

Later in life, Haffkine became more observant. In 1916 he authored an essay “A Plea for Orthodoxy,” extolling the virtues of Orthodox Judaism. During his final years Haffkine spent his days learning Talmud, while he financially supported European Torah institutions.

The same newspaper from which Haffkine sent an article to Macht, The Times of London, wrote upon Haffkine’s death, just one year later (October 28, 1930), that bacteriology had lost one of its pioneers, “for he was distinguished in the small company of men and women — the number includes Koch, von Behring Ebert and Kitasato – whose work serves today as one of the foundations of modern medicine.”

In his last will he stipulated that the income from his estate be used to subsidize yeshivot in Eastern Europe.13 Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky later lauded Haffkine for his appreciation of the value of yeshiva education.14

Below is an excerpt from the Times article Haffkine sent to Macht, entitled “Literal ‘Hardening’ of Pharoah’s Heart”:

Lord Moynihan, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, lectured last night at Leeds on “Surgery Ancient and Modern.” He showed some remarkable photographic slides of results of surgical operations performed a thousand years before, and of the actual anatomical remains of the Pharaoh of Moses’ time… Perhaps the most interesting visceral discovery… was that which afflicted the Pharaoh of the oppression. The large vessel springing from the heart of this monarch was found in such a well-preserved state that Mr. S. G. Shattalk, of the Royal College of Surgeons, was able to make sections of it and compare them with those made from a man recently dead. The two sections were seen side by side on a lantern slide, and no pathologist could tell him which was the ancient and which the modern vessel. Both were attacked by the disease atheroma, a condition in which calcium salts were deposited in the walls of the vessel, making it rigid and inelastic.

This may indeed explain the literal meaning of some of the biblical phrases, but it does not explain the impact of heart disease of Paraoh’s decision making capacity. Moynihan appreciated this question, as the article continues:

Mental changes went with that rigid arterial system (which affected the brain as well.) There was a narrowness and rigidity of outlook, loss of enthusiasm or dread of new adventure, and restriction in all enterprise. They had the clearest proof that those mental defects were not lacking in Mer-emptah, of the Book of Exodus, Chapter 9, verse 12 says, ‘And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them.’ ‘It is interesting, said Lord Moynihan, ‘to have an ocular demonstration of the truth of the Old Testament’.

Contemporary scientists have continued the anatomical and pathological research of Egyptian mummies begun by Moynihan utilizing modern imaging and obviating the need for dissection. Studies have confirmed the presence of coronary artery disease in ancient Egypt.16

Did Paraoh suffer from coronary artery disease? Possibly. Are the Torah’s multiple descriptions about the heaviness and hardening of Paraoh’s heart referring to coronary artery disease, and does this explain his responses? I will leave this for the reader to decide. However, as there are seventy “faces” to the interpretation of the Torah, it is appropriate that at least one of these includes anatomy, of which the very face itself is comprised.

1 – One of the earliest and comprehensive such works by a non-Jew is by the Danish physician and theologian, Thomas Bartholin. See J. Willis, trans., Thomas Bartholin On the Diseases of the Bible: A Medical Miscellany, 1672 (Danish National Library of Science and Medicine: Copenhagen, 1994).
2- For a more expansive discussion of this topic, see E. Reichman, “Biblical and Talmudic Medicine: A Bibliographical Essay,” in F. Rosner, Encyclopedia of Biblical and Talmudic Medicine (Jason Aronson, 2000)
3- S. Levin, “Isaac’s Blindness: A Medical Diagnosis,” Judaism 38:1(Winter 1988), 81-83.
4- L. J. Hoenig, “Jacob’s Limp,” Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism 26:4(February, 1997), 684-688.
5- S. Sprecher, “David and Goliath,” Radiology 176:1 (July, 1990), 288; V. M. Berginer, “Neurological Aspects of the David-Goliath Battle: Restriction in the Giant’s Visual Field,” Israel medical Association Journal 2:9 (September, 2000), 725-727.
6- D. Wilk,
7- October, 1906.
8-David Wilk composed a brief bio-bibliography of Macht’s medical historical contributions which was published in Koroth 8:7-8 (August 1983), 305-317. One of his books, The Holy Incense, was on the ketoret from a pharmacological perspective.
9- Baltimore, 1951. Another physician who wrote on the physiology of blood from both a medical and Jewish perspective was Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber (also known as George Levison).
On Schnaber, see the excellent introductory essay in, Selected Works of Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber Halevi (Dr. Georg Levison) 1741-1797 issued in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Elly Sprecher, Shabbat Shuva, 5756.
10- Charles J. Brim, Medicine in the Bible (Froben Press: New York, 1936).
11- The most comprehensive biography of Haffkine in English is Selman Waksman, The Brilliant and Tragic Life of W.M.W. Haffkine (Rutgers University Press, 1964). For discussions of his scientific work, see Ilana Lowy, “From Guinea Pigs to Man: The Development of Haffkine’s Anticholera Vaccine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 47 (1992), 270-309; Barbara Hawgwood, “Waldemar Mordechai Haffkine, CIE (1860-1930), Prophylactic Vaccination Against Cholera and Bubonic Plague in British India,” Journal of Medical Biography 15(2007), 9-19.
12- London Jewish Chronicle (June 1, 2012), 8.

13- Tuvia Preschel, “Waldemar Haffkine (Mordecai Zeev) on the 70th Anniversary of His Death,,”” The Jewish Press (October 13, 2000), 43.
14- See R. Yechezkel Abramsky, “Collection of Hiddushei Torah, Piskei Halakha and Mahshava” [Hebrew] Kol HaTorah 44 (5758), 9-28, esp. 22. Haffkine’s name is misspelled as חסקינד. R. Abramsky quotes Haffkine as saying that anyone can create a university, but only the Jews can create a “yeshiva,” which is an essential ingredient for the survival of the Jewish people.
15- There has been a longstanding debate about who was the Pharoah of the Exodus. For a recent contribution to this debate, see A. Hool, Pharaoh: Biblical History, Egypt and the Missing Millenium (Mosaica Press, 2020).
16 See, for example, A. H. Allam, et. al., “Atherosclerosis in Ancient and Modern Egyptians: The Horus Study” Global Heart 9:2 (June, 2014), 197-202.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.