Why do people say “God bless you” or “Gezundheit” when someone sneezes? The latter expression is a shortened version of the Yiddish phrase “Gezunterheyt,” which literally means “You should be well.” What gives?
In “Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer” (aggadic-midrashic work ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, c. 100 CE) it is recorded that in ancient times, a person who sneezed would die, because an exhaled sneeze through the nostrils is the way to return the soul to God who had first breathed life into man through his nostrils (Genesis 2:7).
According to the Midrash, our forefather Jacob prayed (successfully, thank G-d!) that death not be so swift. In Jacob’s time, people did not age; rather they died without any notice. Jacob asked that people be given time to “set their house in order.” The aging process is a reminder that we are mortal and will not live forever, so get ready!
And “Gezundheit"? It became a traditional Jewish response to one who sneezed, who’s soul had just been spared the trauma of returning to its maker.