(RNS) — Cleanliness is alleged to be adjoining to godliness, however on Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar’s most sacred day, many Jews adhere to centuries-old rabbinic mandates curbing hand-washing.
The proscription interprets biblical mandates, articulated a number of instances in Leviticus and Numbers, to “afflict yourselves” on the climactic last day of the Excessive Holy Days. This yr, Yom Kippur begins Wednesday night (Sept. 15).
“Typical actions that deliver bodily consolation, pleasure or luxurious have been prohibited by the early rabbis to assist us obtain the Torah’s directive of ‘afflicting ourselves’ as a part of the method towards the atonement Yom Kippur offers,” stated Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel, Washington, D.C.’s largest Conservative synagogue.
Throughout a pandemic, the rule butts up towards public well being recommendation. Some rabbis are telling congregants to come back clear regardless of the commandment, whereas others say no cleaning soap to that type of leniency.
Final yr, Alexander supplied steerage on the matter that was printed on the web site of the Rabbinical Meeting, the 120-year-old worldwide Conservative rabbi affiliation. “Washing/sanitizing palms is just not solely permitted, however required in most circumstances,” he wrote. He instructed Faith Information Service he stands by that recommendation this yr too.
“What’s most popular is what works greatest primarily based on medical recommendation,” he stated.
Hand-washing is one in every of 5 prohibited classes of “affliction” the rabbis understood to function on Yom Kippur, together with consuming and ingesting, sporting snug (leather-based) footwear, rubbing oils on one’s pores and skin and fascinating in sexual relations, stated Rabbi Avraham Bronstein, of the Hampton Synagogue (Orthodox) in Westhampton Seashore, New York.
Many Orthodox Jews ritually wash solely their fingers or elements of their palms upon waking up on Yom Kippur morning, in line with Bronstein. He notes one might clear one’s palms, even with oil-based cleaning soap, in the event that they grow to be soiled, notably after utilizing the lavatory.
“It’s clear that such washing is just not for pleasure, however fairly to take away the grime,” he stated.
Final Yom Kippur, Bronstein’s synagogue required congregants to scrub and sanitize their palms when coming into the campus, upon the advice of its medical advisory committee. This Yom Kippur, worshippers should show they’re vaccinated to attend in individual.
“The hand-washing requirement is now not in power,” Bronstein stated. “Normally, one ought to observe the suggestions of public well being officers and medical consultants, who can present steerage for avoiding the unfold of coronavirus.”
Consuming and ingesting on Yom Kippur are biblical prohibitions, whereas many Jews think about hand-washing a rabbinic injunction. Which means it’s nonetheless vital, however there’s doubtlessly extra room for leniency in a pinch than with consuming and ingesting, that are solely allowed in emergency conditions, resembling life-or-death ones.
Throughout a public well being emergency, the precept of pikuach nefesh — saving lives — overrides all ritual observance, together with the Yom Kippur prohibition on hand-washing, in line with Bronstein and Alexander.
However others, resembling Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish research at Dartmouth Faculty and a rabbi, disagree. “I personally don’t assume COVID is a case of pikuach nefesh however extra probably sakanah, which might enable sure issues however not virtually all the things like pikuach nefesh.” (The Hebrew phrase sakanah means hazard, however on this case, not life-or-death.)
Rabbi Menachem Posner, the Chicago-based workers editor of Chabad.org and a responder of greater than 15 years to Chabad-Lubavitch’s ask-the-rabbi service, stated pikuach nefesh isn’t related to this dialogue.
“Washing for cleanliness was by no means forbidden to start with,” he stated. “Do no matter you probably did the day earlier than Yom Kippur. Hold the identical hygiene habits as earlier than.”
“We don’t play video games with well being,” stated Rabbi Yaakov Taubes, of Mount Sinai Jewish Heart (Orthodox) in Manhattan and assistant programming director at Yeshiva College’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
“Afflicting” oneself by refraining from hand-washing on Yom Kippur pertains to two issues. It displays the “separateness” of the day. “The aim is just not the ache. It’s a approach of creating the day completely different,” Taubes stated.
And there’s a notion on Yom Kippur of being like angels, which lack earthly wants. “Angels are extra non secular beings,” stated Taubes. “On this present day, we try to be extra full non secular beings and go away behind our extra bodily parts.”
There are even variations of opinion, Taubes famous, on how a lot of 1’s hand one might wash on Yom Kippur: the metacarpophalangeal joint the place fingers meet the remainder of the hand, or the knuckle halfway on the finger. “There are questions on what a part of the knuckle,” he stated.
Have been the uncleanliness of 1’s palms to intrude with one’s capacity to hope, Taubes stated, washing can be allowed on Yom Kippur. However absent a life-threatening motive, one shouldn’t wash one’s total physique. He additionally thinks sanitizing palms, as a waterless course of, doesn’t qualify as rabbinic hand-washing.
“Nobody places hand sanitizer on for enjoyment,” he stated, even when there’s a scent added.
Regardless of widespread vaccination, Taubes thinks Yom Kippur-observant Jews should observe their regular, non-Excessive Holy Day hand-washing routines this yr. That’s even true of these observing the vacation from dwelling with out interacting with others in synagogue or elsewhere.
Throughout a cholera epidemic in 1848, famend Rabbi Israel Salanter, founding father of the religious, moral Mussar motion, was stated to have recited the ritual blessing on wine — kiddush — and eaten in synagogue on Yom Kippur to reveal to Vilna congregants how vital it was to eat for medical causes.
“I’m virtually sure that story has been verified,” Taubes stated.
However many different observant Jews see hand-washing this yr in a really completely different gentle and aren’t prepared to throw within the towel on the prohibition.
A rabbi who’s concerned within the Jewish neighborhood in Lakewood, New Jersey — a middle of the U.S. Orthodox inhabitants — says that the majority Orthodox Jews in Lakewood might be washing their palms this Yom Kippur at related charges to what they did on the Excessive Holy Day pre-COVID-19. He requested to stay nameless, citing threats, abuse and harassment he and colleagues have confronted prior to now when speaking publicly about communal responses to the pandemic.
“The final view is that COVID is a critical sickness, however it may be handled responsibly with out turning over the world and all of life as we all know it,” the rabbi stated.
With pure and vaccine immunity and early antibody therapy reducing hospitalization and demise charges beneath a baseline, the rabbi stated, “It’s due to this that we’d not be meykel (lenient) a lot on this, since even rechitzah sheayna shel taanug (washing that isn’t pleasurable) remains to be forbidden. It’s simply not the identical dangerous as if it have been for enjoyment.”
For Jews who do plan to scrub early and infrequently on Yom Kippur, the query looms for future Excessive Holy Days, when the pandemic and the virus are hopefully within the rearview mirror. What would be the standing of hand-washing then? Many might discover pandemic cleanliness habits are exhausting to shake, or that it’s simple to fret about looming pandemics on the horizon.
In that occasion, Bronstein, the Hampton rabbi, recommends that worshippers contact rabbis or medical professionals for steerage on particular person anxieties.
“It’s an attention-grabbing query, as a result of holding one’s palms clear to handle a concern of contagion is just not the type of pleasure the rabbis in all probability had in thoughts after they outlined their classes of bodily pleasure and affliction,” he stated. “Alternatively, if there isn’t any actual threat of spreading a virus, it appears tough to allow even an anxious individual to do one thing in any other case forbidden on Yom Kippur.
“In any case,” he added, “‘affliction’ by deprivation is the purpose of the complete follow.”