Thoughts in the Shadow of Corona

The stringencies of the rules of hygiene is an opportunity to strengthen etiquette and cleanliness on ordinary days as well * The problem of eating and drinking from one person’s mouth to another, and using a central serving dish with one’s own cutlery * The similarities between rules of hygiene and  the laws of ritual purity * It is important to strictly observe the rules in synagogues, and one who prays by himself, will be blessed * For weddings planned to take place during this time – it is a mitzvah to hold them in a home-setting, and not to postpone * Weddings at these times are an opportunity to focus the joy on its fundamental nature. Perhaps when we return to normal life, we will be able to find the golden path to joyous weddings, without excessive spending

Etiquette and Hygiene

Lifestyles are changing, and along with the stricter precautions concerning health cleanliness, we are given the opportunity to re-examine various habits, some of which are not the most praiseworthy, such as “wiping-up” humus with a half-eaten pita from a plate designed for a number of people, or taking side dishes from a central serving plate with one’s own cutlery. There are two reasons this should be avoided: one, it nauseates some people, and second, for fear of transmitting diseases. The correct practice is that there should be a serving spoon for each shared side dish with which each person takes the food to his plate, and does not put his own cutlery in the central serving central dish.

Eating and Drinking from One Person’s Mouth to Another

Similarly, we also find that our Sages instructed in the tractate ‘Derech Eretz,’ and codified in the Shulchan Aruch: “One should not bite off a piece of food and place it on the table or on a serving plate in front of others, or do something else others consider disgusting… and for health reasons, one should not drink from the same cup that another person drank from” (O.C. 170: 15-16).

Rabbi Joel ben Samuel Sirkis-Jaffe (1561-1640), also known as ‘Bach’ – an abbreviation of his magnum opus, ‘Bayit Chadash’) and Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510-1573), also known as ‘Rashal’ – an abbreviation of his name in Hebrew, explained that it is forbidden for someone to give another person food he had bitten, or to drink from a glass he had used. This is because the other person may not want to eat or drink because it disgusts him, or because he is afraid of contracting a disease and endangering his health, but ashamed not to eat or drink lest he be thought of as being overly sensitive and spoiled – he would eat or drink, and imperil himself as a result of disgust or infection. However, if on his own initiative one wants to eat or drink from his someone else’s leftovers, it is permissible.

Rabbi David ha-Levi Segal (1586–1667), also known as the Turei Zahav, abbreviated ‘Taz’ (170:8), quoted their remarks, adding that some poskim (Jewish law arbiters) say one should not drink or eat from one person’s mouth to another, for he wrote: “In the book of the will of Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol (one of the Gedolei Ashkenaz in the generation before Rashi) who warns about drinking from somebody else’s cup, lest the other person is sick and transmits his illness. And it seems that about this, he said it is also a sakanat nefashot (endangering one’s health).” Both Rabbi Yechiel Michel ha-Levi Epstein (1829 – 1908), also known as Arukh HaShulchan [170:16], and Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835 – 1909), also known as Ben Ish Hai [Parshat ‘Behar’] wrote both explanations, and also took into consideration the will of Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol. And in Ben Ish Hai, he concluded: “And the widespread minhag of family members drinking from the kiddush cup of the baal ha’bayit who made kiddush, is because they know that the baal ha’bayit is not sick with an illness that can harm them.”

Placing a Bitten Piece of Food on the Table

Our Sages said in the Tractate ‘Derech Eretz Zuta’ Chapter 6: “One should not take a bite of food and place it on the table.” And this was codified in the Shulchan Aruch: “One should not bite off a piece of food and place it on the table.” (O.C. 170:10). This is because placing a bitten piece of food on the table, with its teeth marks and residual moisture from one’s mouth, is liable to cause a feeling of disgust with others at the table (M. A. 15, M. B. 26). In Tractate Brachot 8b, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631), also known as ‘Maharsha’, a Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, the Rabbi Shmuel Eidels”, wrote a minhag of derech eretz (good manners) according to Midrash Yalkut – “one should not bite a piece of food, rather, cut off a piece and eat it.” In other words, so as not to leave a piece of bitten bread in one’s hand, a small piece should be cut off, and then eaten. And this was the minhag of Moreinu ve’Rabbeinu, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook (this is also what Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870–1939), the ‘Kaf HaChaim’, wrote (170:38).

Some poskim explained that someone who took a bite out of a piece of bread [or other food items], should not put it back in middle of the table, as it is unappetizing to other people, and they will not eat from it after it was bitten from (Prisha 170:12; E.R. 18; M.B. 36).

And Bach (170:12) wrote that one should be careful not to cut off a piece of food he is eating over the central serving plate, lest crumbs fall from it into the central serving plate, as it is unappetizing to others.

Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses

A handshake expressing peace and friendship has become a routine gesture for us, and there is hardly anyone who feels uncomfortable about it. As a result, shaking hands doesn’t express any type of special connection. Many people even hug and kiss their friends, and for those who do, hugs and kisses have become a trite gesture that does not express a special connection.

When the precautionary health measures are over, we will be able to re-give handshakes a profound expression of heartfelt camaraderie between friends, all the more so, for hugs and kisses.

Restrictions in the Synagogue

When restrictions on gatherings were published at the end of last week, followed by more severe restrictions, I feared in my heart that we would not, God forbid, reach a situation where precisely in synagogues – places where holiness and life are revealed – people would infect their friends with the virus. For people are used to kissing the sifrei Torah, and those called up to the Torah, touch the etzei ha’chaim (Torah scroll handles) to which the Torah scroll is attached. Therefore, I requested that the etzei ha’chaim be cleaned with alcohol gel, or with soap. I found a source for this in the chumra of our Sages regarding machalei kodesh (sacred foods) over and above all other foods, for in all foods there is only “sheni le’tumah“, in terumah shilishi le’tumah”, and in kodesh, “revi’i le’tumah” as well.

And yet, I was still not satisfied, fearing that people might infect one another in synagogue, seeing as in every minyan, different people sit on the same chairs, and through physical contact with the chairs, tables, shtenders, and door handles, illnesses were liable to be transmitted. So when the gabbaim (sextons) announced the adding of additional minyans and their dispersion in the various synagogues in the community so as to reduce the number of worshipers in each minyan, I asked to add a preliminary statement: “In these times, someone who prays with kavana (intention) be’yachid (individually) – tavo alav bracha” (will be blessed) [as of Motzei Shabbat, and perhaps today, this should be said more emphatically].

It is common to say that thanks to the mitzvah of tevilat nashim (women’s ritual immersion) and netilat yadayim (ritual washing of the hands upon rising in the morning, before eating bread, etc.), throughout the ages, epidemics that spread among the Gentiles, affected the Jews less. If today, God forbid, because of religious practices the virus is more widespread, it will be a chilul Hashem (desecration of God), and we will have to undergo a serious reckoning – because God gave us the Torah so that its light and guidance will add life and blessing to us, and not the opposite.

Laws of Taharah and Hygiene

As a result of the carefulness of becoming infected with the virus, the common sides between the halakha’s of taharah (ritual purity) and hygiene can be discussed. Every tumah (impurity) expresses death and loss of life, both in the real sense, and in the sense of mental and spiritual weakness manifested by depression, and lack of faith. This is the type of tumah which, in order to purify oneself from it, an act of cleansing and purification must be performed.

Avi avot ha’tumah (the “father” of all tumah) is a corpse. In terms of the health danger, it is self-evident that in a dead body, infections and viruses proliferate; all the more so, when the deceased died of illness. Mentally as well, touching a dead body shocks the soul, and can cause physical and spiritual weakness. Therefore, in Biblical times, those who came into contact with the dead were isolated from the rest of the people who kept taharah, and had to wait seven days and follow through a process of purification – by being sprinkled with mei chatat (purification water) on the third and seventh day, and immersion in a mikveh at the end of the seven days (Kuzari 2: 60-62).

Even an animal’s dead body possesses a spiritual impurity, and at the same time, the danger of decay, and spreading of disease. There is a similar problem with shratzim (vermin). The tumah of a metzora (leper) is also associated with spiritual and physical death.

Tumat nida also expresses death, for there was the possibility of a pregnancy and a life, that was lost and died. Tumat shichvat zera l’vatala (the waste of seed) is also an expression of this, for that seed could have given birth to life, but it was lost and died. We also learned that giving birth makes a woman ritually impure. The notion is that every lofty idea that comes down to this world possesses a certain sense of death, because the vision is always greater than its fulfillment. The hopes leading up to birth are wonderful, the heart is inclined to believe that after birth the whole world will change for the better, and the new child will be perfect. In reality, after birth, we fall once again into the routine of life, to the pains and fatigue. Despite the miracle of birth, even the new baby eventually will have to face all the challenges that accompany a person’s life. Even the body feels it, and this is the depression that often accompanies maternity in the postpartum period.

The Joy of Weddings at this Time

Weddings are currently being held in a limited setting, and even such weddings are thought-provoking. At the wedding I officiated this week in the community, I said: “Presently, we find ourselves in special times, in which, to prevent the spread of the virus, care must be taken to ensure proper health, and this limits the joy of the wedding. But on the other hand, it puts more focus on the joy itself. Usually, we want the wedding to be as happy as possible, with as many people as possible, and as much fraternity and friendship as possible, in order to show that the joy is not a personal joy of the bride and groom alone, but the joy of all of Israel, and of all generations. Whereas now, we cannot have the usual joy. But like I said, on the other hand, it will be more profound, because you will rejoice in the actual joy itself – in the unity and connection revealed between the chatan and kallah. And God willing, you will have many happy days, births, brits, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and weddings.”

My feeling was that the joy of the chatan and kallah was no less than usual. It was focused on the joy itself, and it was immense. Maybe from this wedding, when we return to ordinary life, we will find the golden path worthy of joyous weddings, without excessive spending.

Not to Postpone Weddings

Couples that have arranged a wedding – it is a mitzvah to have it in a home setting, and not to postpone it until they can hold it at a wedding hall as customary. The gravity of postponing of a marriage can be learned from hilchot aveilut (laws of mourning), that a wedding is not postponed due to aveilut. Similarly, we have learned that one of the reasons for the prohibition to marry on Chol Ha’Moed, is that if it was permitted to marry on Chol Ha’Moed, there is concern that couples who could get married in the months beforehand, will postpone their wedding until the Moed, so that more people will participate in their joy – and by this postponement, will annul the mitzvah of chatuna and puru u’revuru (procreation).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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