Sneezing is something that happens to every human being and also some animals. A mysterious and fascinating thing happens when we sneeze; we close our eyes. Nobody can sneeze without closing the eyes. But even more interesting is that if someone hears us sneeze, he or she automatically will say, “Bless you.” Many people have become accustomed to saying “bless you” or “gesundheit” when someone sneezes. In Hebrew the term we use is “libriut” לבריאות (good health).
The custom of wishing someone well after they sneeze probably originated thousands of years ago. There was a custom among the Romans to say, “Jupiter preserve you” or “Salve” after sneezing, meaning “good health to you.” The common belief is that the phrase “God bless you” is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE), and began literally as a blessing. Sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the bubonic plague. Therefore, the blessing (“God bless you!”) became a common effort to halt the disease.
But, of course, the Jewish people can claim we did it first…
In the Torah we read: “Then the LORD G-d formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:6).
The Midrash explains:
From the day the Heavens and Earth were created, no person became ill. Instead, if he (or she) was on the road or in the marketplace, he would sneeze and his soul would exit from his nostrils, until Jacob our forefather came and requested mercy on the matter, and he said before Hashem, “Master of the Universe, do not take my soul from me until I can bless my sons and the members of my household”, and Hashem granted it to Jacob. — (Adapted Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 52)
We can also learn from the Talmud:
Until Jacob there was no illness, so Jacob prayed and illness came into existence (Sanhedrin 107b).
We learn that until the days of Jacob, there was no sickness in the world. If somebody sneezed, he or she would die immediately. Then Jacob asked G-d for mercy, but the people were still afraid of sneezing. Therefore, when somebody sneezed, the people who heard it wished that person to be in good health.
There’s nothing better than a Jewish grandmother to teach traditions. Among the Jewish grandmothers, it was customary to say the following: After the first sneeze, say “tzu gezunt” (good health); after the second time, “Tzum leben” (to life), and after the third, “tzu lange yoren” (to long years).
So here’s my advice: If there are more than three sneezes in a row… go see the doctor!!!