The Bible Says What? The Torah did ‘hands, face, space’ long before Covid
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The Bible Says What? The Torah did ‘hands, face, space’ long before Covid

 Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a Reform response

Painted pebbles showing support for the NHS and keyworkers, and containing positive messages
Painted pebbles showing support for the NHS and keyworkers, and containing positive messages

When I was at university, I heard the Rev Malcolm Weisman, chaplain to small communities, talk about how Jews had often fared well in medieval pandemics because of our  more frequent handwashing, particularly before food. I’ve never found a confirmed source for this claim, but we’ve really had the importance of handwashing rammed home to us this year. 

There is much in the Torah to help protect us from the spread of disease, and I suspect a lot of the language around ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ was designed in part to prevent the spread of diseases among crowds who would be packed in together in the mishkan; the desert temple. 

If someone had a skin disease, a sexually transmitted disease, or a house that seemed to be infected with something contagious, quarantine was the Biblical solution. Give the sick space, let them heal and protect the community from infections.

This was also used for other categories, such as healthy bodily emissions, menstruation and sexual intercourse, but it was used and understood differently to illness, which required a sin offering to be brought. 

These healthy states were isolated, I would argue, for other reasons,
but that’s for another time.

Similarly, the Torah understood the health implications of contact with
a corpse, so made it really hard to get clean after such contact in a bid to discourage it happening in the first place. Wash, keep your distance, don’t touch things that someone ill has been in contact with. 

The Torah seems to have understood public health management better than we might imagine for an ancient desert- dwelling society. 

Torah has continued to surprise me this year, as it so often does, by shedding light on our ancestors and lived reality today.

  •  Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers serves Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue

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