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This Yom Kippur, many Jews will wash their hands of a certain injunction

(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 remaining day of the Excessive Holy Days. This 12 months, Yom Kippur begins Wednesday night (Sept. 15).

“Typical actions that convey 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,” mentioned 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 12 months, Alexander provided steering on the matter that was revealed on the website of the Rabbinical Meeting, the 120-year-old worldwide Conservative rabbi affiliation. “Washing/sanitizing fingers just isn’t solely permitted, however required in most circumstances,” he wrote. He informed Faith Information Service he stands by that recommendation this 12 months too.

“What’s most well-liked is what works finest primarily based on medical recommendation,” he mentioned.

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, carrying comfy (leather-based) footwear, rubbing oils on one’s pores and skin and fascinating in sexual relations, mentioned Rabbi Avraham Bronstein, of the Hampton Synagogue (Orthodox) in Westhampton Seaside, New York.

Many Orthodox Jews ritually wash solely their fingers or components of their fingers upon waking up on Yom Kippur morning, in accordance with Bronstein. He notes one might clear one’s fingers, even with oil-based cleaning soap, in the event that they change into soiled, significantly after utilizing the toilet.

“It’s clear that such washing just isn’t for pleasure, however slightly to take away the filth,” he mentioned.

Final Yom Kippur, Bronstein’s synagogue required congregants to scrub and sanitize their fingers 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 particular person.

“The hand-washing requirement is not in pressure,” Bronstein mentioned. “Typically, one ought to comply with the suggestions of public well being officers and medical specialists, who can present steering 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 essential, however there may be 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 accordance 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 seemingly sakanah, which might permit 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 employees editor of Chabad.org and a responder of greater than 15 years to Chabad-Lubavitch’s ask-the-rabbi service, mentioned pikuach nefesh isn’t related to this dialogue.

“Washing for cleanliness was by no means forbidden to start with,” he mentioned. “Do no matter you probably did the day earlier than Yom Kippur. Preserve the identical hygiene habits as earlier than.”

“We don’t play video games with well being,” mentioned Rabbi Yaakov Taubes, of Mount Sinai Jewish Middle (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 just isn’t the ache. It’s a means of constructing the day totally different,” Taubes mentioned.

And there’s a notion on Yom Kippur of being like angels, which lack earthly wants. “Angels are extra religious beings,” mentioned Taubes. “On this present day, we try to be extra full religious beings and depart behind our extra bodily components.”

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 mentioned.

Have been the uncleanliness of 1’s fingers to intrude with one’s capacity to wish, Taubes mentioned, washing can be allowed on Yom Kippur. However absent a life-threatening purpose, one mustn’t wash one’s complete physique. He additionally thinks sanitizing fingers, as a waterless course of, doesn’t qualify as rabbinic hand-washing.

“Nobody places hand sanitizer on for enjoyment,” he mentioned, even when there’s a scent added.

Regardless of widespread vaccination, Taubes thinks Yom Kippur-observant Jews should comply with their regular, non-Excessive Holy Day hand-washing routines this 12 months. 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 mentioned to have recited the ritual blessing on wine —  kiddush — and eaten in synagogue on Yom Kippur to reveal to Vilna congregants how essential it was to eat for medical causes. 

“I’m virtually sure that story has been verified,” Taubes mentioned.

However many different observant Jews see hand-washing this 12 months in a really totally different gentle and aren’t keen to throw within the towel on the prohibition.

A rabbi who’s concerned within the Jewish group in Lakewood, New Jersey — a middle of the U.S. Orthodox inhabitants — says that the majority Orthodox Jews in Lakewood will likely be washing their fingers this Yom Kippur at comparable 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 up 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 mentioned.

With pure and vaccine immunity and early antibody remedy decreasing hospitalization and loss of life charges under a baseline, the rabbi mentioned, “It’s due to this that we might not be meykel (lenient) a lot on this, since even rechitzah sheayna shel taanug (washing that isn’t pleasurable) continues to be forbidden. It’s simply not the identical unhealthy as if it have been for enjoyment.”

For Jews who do plan to scrub early and sometimes 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 laborious to shake, or that it’s straightforward to fret about looming pandemics on the horizon.

In that occasion, Bronstein, the Hampton rabbi, recommends that worshippers contact rabbis or medical professionals for steering on particular person anxieties.

“It’s an attention-grabbing query, as a result of conserving one’s fingers clear to handle a concern of contagion just isn’t the type of pleasure the rabbis most likely had in thoughts after they outlined their classes of bodily pleasure and affliction,” he mentioned. “Alternatively, if there is no such thing as a actual threat of spreading a virus, it appears tough to allow even an anxious particular person to do one thing in any other case forbidden on Yom Kippur.

“In spite of everything,” he added, “‘affliction’ by means of deprivation is the purpose of all the observe.”

Huynh Nguyen

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