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
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish News also produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.