As we saw on yesterday’s daf, our Gemara is focusing on the story of the spies (see Bamidbar 13-14). The Torah teaches that after the spies offered their testimony about the land, a report that was rejected by God and Moshe, the spies died of plague (see Bamidbar 14:37). Resh Laḳish understands the passage as saying that they died an unusual death.
What was this unusual death?
According to Rabbi Ḥanina bar Papa, their tongues became elongated reaching their navels and worms came out of their tongues, penetrating their navels and out of their navels, penetrating their tongues. The Iyyun Ya’akov explains this strange description as stemming from the fact that they sinned against the land of Israel – referred to as the center, or navel, of the world (see Yehezkel 38:12) – by use of their tongues.
Rav Naḥman bar Yitzhak suggests that they died of askara. The Gemara’s askara is identified as diphtheria, which is a very contagious and potentially life-threatening infection that usually attacks the throat. A membrane that forms over the throat and tonsils make it hard to swallow. The infection also causes the lymph glands and tissue on both sides of the neck to swell to an unusually large size. Until the advent of modern medicines, it was particularly lethal; children literally choked to death. During Second Temple times, one of the responsibilities of the “Anshei Ma’amad” – the people whose week was consecrated for spiritual duties – was to fast “so that children would not be struck by diphtheria.”
According to the Talmud, askara comes to the world because people do not tithe properly, or, according to Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Yosi, because people spread evil tidings: Lashon ha-ra). Given the identification of the spies’ sin as lashon ha-ra regarding the land of Israel, we can easily understand why the unusual death that they suffered may be assumed to be this disease.