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    Mask Policy in Judaic Thought: An Urgent Rabbinic Statement

    We, the undersigned, hereby advise the Jewish community:

    There is no halachic obligation for a healthy person to wear a mask outdoors, or anywhere else for that matter (with very few exceptions [1]).

    The laws of “Do not stand over your brother’s blood” [2] or “Do not place blood in your house” [3] have no application here, since the actual risk factor (of not wearing a mask) is negligible in a halachic context.

    Alleged statistical risks are not a factor in halacha with regards to prevention.

    Halacha prohibits killing spiders on Shabbos, even though there is one-out-of-a-thousand chance someone might be in mortal risk if the spider falls into his food [4]. One out of a thousand is insufficient risk for a potential harm.

    In contrast, if there is a diagnosed condition with symptoms, then even a smaller than 1/1000 mortality risk still qualifies with regards to Shabbos, albeit begrudgingly [5]. So while we may desecrate Shabbos on behalf of a patient suffering with covid symptoms, we may not do so in order to prevent potential exposure.

    Consequently, an individual who has actual symptoms (that qualify as suspected covid symptoms) ought to wear a mask around others, or better yet, stay home altogether. An individual who has no symptoms is not halachically required to wear a mask.

    All living things, including humans, have a presumed status of health in halacha [6].

    Even though “we do not follow the majority with regards to saving lives,” there needs to be an actual risk factor present to qualify as grounds for violating Shabbos. Statistical possibilities do not count. Without a fixed hazard, even a possibility of as much as ten percent is still ignored! [7]

    The fact that doctors recommend this precaution for a population is likewise irrelevant. The principle of “ורפא ירפא – and he should surely heal [8]: from here (we learn that) authority was granted to a healer to heal” [9] – was only stated with regard to a physician who has clinically evaluated an individual diagnosed patient, NOT with regards to a public policy. Furthermore, this “authority” conferred to doctors is only to heal. With regards to preventative measures, doctors have a vote but not a veto [10]. While in some cases it might be wise to heed a doctor’s advice, it is in no way obligatory [11], and certainly does not qualify as pikuach nefesh.

    However, one may still ask, even if it’s not obligatory nor does it qualify as grounds for violating Shabbos, isn’t it still advisable to heed the recommendation of doctors with regard to prevention?

    This depends on several factors:

    1)    Did the doctor say that this preventative advice is for your own personal benefit in light of your own health condition? Will it prevent you from harm and yield actual benefit for you? If it’s just as a prevention for others or for some societal statistical risk, this does not qualify as medical advice by the Torah’s standards. “Public health policies” have no significance in halacha [12].

    2)      Does this doctor have personal expertise in this field or is he merely parroting a policy that certain state-appointed doctors dictated? If it’s the latter, his advice may be ignored.

    3)      Is this advice based on actual scientific studies and empirical evidence, or is it based on speculative statistical conjecture? If it’s the latter, the advice has no legitimacy in halacha.

    4)      Are there expert doctors who counter this advice? If yes, then you may heed the advice of the dissenting opinion. Numerical majority of expert opinions is only a factor with regards to a diagnosed patient [13], not with regard to prevention for the healthy.

    5)      Is there any risk factor in this preventative measure, even minimal risk? If yes, then the doctor’s advice and risk-to-benefit evaluation must be weighed carefully by the patient. Is the doctor qualified and experienced in this risk factor? Even if he is, it is ultimately the patient’s decision.

    Doctors’ advice concerning the covid mask policy doesn’t pass the litmus test in ANY of the five criteria above:

    1)      People are being advised to wear masks for someone else’s alleged benefit, not for their own. The vast majority of people are not at risk for covid to begin with.

    2)      Doctors who endorse masks are merely parroting the advice of certain virologists who have been promoted by the CDC.

    3)      There is no scientific evidence that asymptomatic transmission is even a factor in this disease, nor is there any empirical evidence that masks prevent transmission in these cases. It’s all based on statistical models.

    4)       There are plenty of expert physicians who are opposed to the policy of masks for healthy individuals. [14]

    5)      Wearing a mask entails risks that are well-documented by OSHA. Studies have questioned the safety of wearing a mask long-term [15], and numerous expert physicians have cautioned against health risks associated with masks.

    Consequently, the current medical advice for healthy people to wear masks in public or around others is simply not advisable by any standard in halacha.

    The only exception might be individuals who are at heightened risk for covid, in which case it might be halachically advisable for such an individual to wear an N-95 mask that might afford some sort of protection to its wearer. Advisable, but not obligatory.

    There are other halachic issues with wearing masks for those who might choose to do so:

    1)      It is categorically forbidden to wear a mask outdoors on Shabbos unless within an eruv. Even when worn on one’s face, a mask is not considered a garment or an ornament, but a load.[16]

    2)      It is forbidden to wear a mask during prayer. [17] It is not appropriate to stand before a king wearing a mask on one’s face. How much more so before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He. Furthermore, one is prohibited from praying whilst holding a load that isn’t for the purpose of prayer. [18] A mask is a load according to halacha.

    3)      One may not wear a mask while teaching or learning Torah. This principle is derived from Moses removing his veil when he taught Torah to the Children of Israel. [19] Students need to see the face and mouth of their teacher. This is for the benefit of both the student and the teacher. The world stands on the merit of the breath of children learning Torah that ascends heavenward. A mask blocks this breath.

    4)      It’s forbidden to get an Aliyah or read from the Torah in a mask. [19]

    5)      In general, it is NOT a Jewish practice to wear a mask. Masks were never mentioned in Tanach, and only appear in halacha for the dubious and discouraged function of frightening children. [14] Masks are commonplace in pagan worship, and have polytheistic origin. As such, wearing a mask amounts to אביזרייהו דעבודה זרה, and should be discouraged among G-d fearing Jews.

    There are numerous hashkafic issues with wearing a mask as well:

    1.       In kabala, one’s mouth and nose should never be covered. [20]

    2.       Masks ominously symbolize idolatry, division and estrangement from G-d. [21]

    3.       In esoteric Judaic thought, a person’s face is the tselem Elokim, a reflection of the Divine Face. Placing any barrier or blockage over one’s face is an act of obscuring the tselem Elokim in Whose image the human face was fashioned, and reduces a human being to a faceless droid, as the prophet lamented: “They turned their back to me, and not their face.” [22]

    4.       Hiding one’s face is reminiscent of G-d hiding His face from us [23]

    However, these are all ancillary side points. Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room.

    Masks are just one part of a broader government policy on covid.

    This policy in its entirety constitutes an egregious attack on our religion, somewhat akin to a g’zeiras shmad – a decree to outlaw Judaism.

    In a bizarre phenomenon of unprecedented government overreach, this state policy has declared religion “non-essential.”

    Hundreds of passengers may sit in close contact for a 12-hour transpacific flight, and 250 moviegoers may sit together in a movie theater, but houses of worship were shut down for months, and finally, when tepidly allowed to re-open, may only have 10 worshippers.

    Liquor stores were never closed down in the first place, since they were presumably deemed “essential,” or at least more essential than communal prayer.

    A certain genre of political protest was considered “essential” too, and these protesters were even allowed to loot and riot by the thousands, in defiance of all social-distancing policies.

    Religion, however, was “non-essential,” and therefore subject to the harshest of covid policies.

    Consequently, the following activities have been banned or seriously restricted by state policy:

    1)      Communal prayer

    2)      Visiting the sick

    3)      Escorting and burying the dead

    4)      Rejoicing with a bride and groom

    5)      Learning Torah in public

    All these activities are essential in Judaism, and are to be fulfilled in public and with a large group of participants. B’rov am hadras Melech. [24] As such, the policies that banned these activities do not comport with our faith.

    By far the most paramount priority in Judaism is the education of our children. Our Sages declared unambiguously that the entire world exists solely on the merit of the breath of tinokos shel beis rabban – school children (chanting words of Torah) in their teacher’s house. [25] This duty transcends all other observances, including construction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem! [26]

    Covid policy attempts to prevent tinokos shel beis rabban from attending school, or at least restrict their attendance.

    Our sages taught that Jerusalem was destroyed because children were prevented from studying Torah and attending their teachers’ classes. [27]

    One might argue that the precise law of gezeiras shmad – war on Judaism – doesn’t apply here, since all religions are likewise targeted, and the government is not forcing us to transgress a negative commandment, so no one would technically be required to risk his life. [28]

    Of course, in our case, there is no mortal risk involved in defying the government’s unjust policies. How much more so is a Jew presently obligated to insist on observing Judaism to its fullest.

    Whether or not g’zeiras shmad is the right term, this policy seeks to accomplish exactly what Emperor Hadrian attempted to do in his times, i.e. to ban or restrict the Torah education of our young. Rabbi Akiva saw this as unacceptable, and risked his life to keep teaching Torah to his students. “The Torah is our life and the length of our days,” he declared boldly. [29]

    In a similar vein, there is more recent precedent to our present times.

    One hundred years ago, in the early days of the Soviet Union, religion was also declared “non-essential.”

    The Soviets began a program of banning all forms of public religion. Jews were permitted to keep religion in their homes, but not in public or in large gatherings. One could teach Judaism to one’s own children, but not to other people’s children. Synagogues and houses of study were shut down.

    Nearly everyone complied. Most rabbis were silent, and advised their adherents to flee the Soviet Union for freer countries.

    One fearless man refused to comply. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, dared to defy the dictates of the Soviet regime, and inspired his adherents to do the same.

    He was arrested and incarcerated. His initial death sentence was commuted to lifelong exile in a remote Asian province, but finally, miraculously, and due to intense international pressure, the Rebbe was liberated in July of 1927.

    It was due to the Rebbe’s selfless heroism, Judaism survived the 70 years of intense religious persecution in the former Soviet Union.

    On the Third of Tamuz, the day he was released from prison, in the train station shortly before being exiled, he gave a brief address. Here is an excerpt:

    “…all the nations of the world must know this: Only our bodies were sent into exile and subjugated to alien rule; our souls were not given over into captivity and foreign rule.

    “We must proclaim openly and before all that any matter affecting the Jewish religion, Torah, and its mitzvot and customs is not subject to the coercion of others. No one can impose his belief upon us, nor coerce us to conduct ourselves contrary to our beliefs.

    “It is our solemn and sacred task to cry out and state with the ancient steadfastness of the Jewish people, with courage derived from thousands of years of self-sacrifice: ‘Touch not My anointed nor attempt to do evil to My prophets.’” [30]

    Even for those who believe that halacha acknowledges an element of statistical pikuach nefesh with regards to covid policies, they would be advised to consider the words of the Chazon Ish [31]: “Pikuach nefesh overrides the entire Torah, but does not uproot the entire Torah.”

    A policy that interferes with a Jewish child’s access to a traditional uncompromising Torah education dangerously seeks to uproot the entire Torah. It cannot be tolerated, even if the policy purports to be about pikuach nefesh.

    In conclusion, it is appropriate for an observant Jew to reject all aspects of covid policies that do not comport with halacha, including the mask policy.

    Chilul Hashem is not a factor here since there is no objective value that obligates a Jew to wear a mask in the first place. The fact that there is a prevalent societal attitude that healthy people who don’t wear masks are somehow perpetuating a disease, is irrelevant.

    Judaism doesn’t kowtow to popular opinion or state-sponsored policies that have no actual merit in halacha.

    The fact that a Jew shows his face in public does not constitute a chilul Hashem by any halachic definition. If non-Jews or secular Jews look askance at those who flaunt an unjust state policy, that’s their problem.

    Moreover, there is nothing immodest about walking about with one’s face exposed, since individuals with medical exemptions may also show their faces even according to state policy. As such, being unmasked isn’t inherently immodest.

    Instead, by not wearing a mask in public a Jew is making a kidush Hashem. Indeed, one is effectively sanctifying the G-d’s Name by unabashedly living consistent with the timeless values of the Torah, and not bowing before unreasonable dictates of an unjust state policy that perilously threatens the existence of our people.

    There is absolutely nothing shameful about showing your tselem Elokim.

    Show your ge’on Yaakov and others will ultimately follow your lead.

    May all concealments and masks be removed, and may Hashem’s Face shine on all of us with the revelation of our righteous moshiach and the true and complete Redemption, in the most immediate future.

    Signed by:

    Rabbi Michoel Green, Westborough, MA

    Notes:

    [1] Such as medical staff in a surgery room or ambulance.

    [2] Leviticus 19:16. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 426:1.

    [3] Deuteronomy 22:8. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 427:6-8.

    [4] Shulchan Aruch Harav 316:23

    [5] Ibid 330:1, with regards to violating Shabbos for a laboring woman.

    [6] Chulin 11b; Rambam Hilchos Shechita 11:3; Tur Yoreh Deah 39:1. That’s why, for example, a murderer is sentenced to death, and we aren’t concerned maybe the victim was a t’reifa – someone who had a previous wound or condition that would have led to his death within twelve months – in which case the murder would be acquitted.

    [7] Yuma 84b; Rosh; Shulchan Aruch Harav 329:2. We may violate Shabbos and dig in a collapsed building in attempt to save lives, but ONLY if it was known definitively that people lived in that courtyard. There needed to be some sort of kevius, at least one individual whom we’d be required to save – even amidst doubt – who was known to live in or adjacent to that fixed location. Otherwise, even if it still within the realm of possibilities that such an individual could have been there, even in a 10% chance (!!), we may NOT violate Shabbos for such a doubt. *

    [8] Exodus 21:19.

    [9 Bava Kama 85a.

    [10] Observation attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk.[11] See Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:76 in which Rabbi Moshe Feinstein refused to pronounce a rabbinic ban against smoking. Regarding all his dietary recommendations in Hilchos Deos, the Rambam never wrote that any of these precautions were obligatory, or that an unhealthy food that causes disease is necessarily “forbidden.” It should be noted that the Lubavitcher Rebbe likewise refused to declare a ban on smoking. Even those who dissented, like Rabbi Moshe Stern (of Debrecin, author of Be’er Moshe), still concede that precautionary advice from doctors is not to be heeded when it is at odds with any Jewish observance or Torah commandment. As explained later in our letter, Covid policy in its entirety is clearly at odds with inviolable tenets of Judaism.[12] The public is not a living entity and has no health. Only individuals have health. Pikuach nefesh applies to a nefesh of an individual, not to statistical models in a population. The public is not a nefesh. This is why we may not sacrifice one person to save an entire city. “יהרגו כולם ואל ימסרו להם נפש אחת מישראל” — we may not surrender one single soul for the sake of the public. Rambam, Laws of Torah Foundations 5:5). Likewise, it is only an individual’s health that is the focus of the mitzva of רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך — “Guard your soul scrupulously” (Deut 4:9, 4:15, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat, Laws of Guarding Body and Soul 3). With regards to the prohibition to “not place blood in your house” (i.e. do not place hazards that can potentially cause risk to others), we are prohibited from causing harm to individuals in a population, not to the population as a klal per se. This only applies to קביעא היזיקא, fixed hazards, i.e. something that is objectively hazardous to an individual, even if it is uncertain whether any individual will actually get injured by it. However, if the hazard is not fixed but speculative, i.e. it only exists in the realm of potential, based on statistical models in a population, there is no necessary hazard to begin with. An asymptomatic person poses no actual risk to anyone. The remote statistical possibility (that this person might unknowingly be a so-called pre-symptomatic carrier) bears no halachic relevance. The fact that there is an outbreak in the community does not constitute קביעות for a risk factor in this symptomless individual.

    [13] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 618:4

    [14] See https://www.americasfrontlinedoctors.com/

    [15] A mask is not a simple or effortless precaution, but obviously makes one’s breathing more cumbersome. In fact, many doctors have speculated that it actually raises risk of infection to its wearer due to increased viral load. Masks have been linked to reduced oxygen levels: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18500410/ and headaches: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7159726/?fbclid=IwAR2i1ztCSh0hzIxY6w3h9l2kClvbtWVzNju78U1yI4O_YlRsUtCdm_Ws3C8.

    [16] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 301:20. Shabbos 66a; Rif ibid 30b. Or Zarua Hilchos Shabbos 84. A possible exception is if the mask brings actual medical benefit to its wearer, perhaps in the case of an N95 mask. Even this is rather dubious, for numerous reasons:
    (a) The protection provided is not against a plausible or acute detriment, but rather a speculative, unlikely, and remote possibility of aerosol risk. Such questionable protection is rather nebulous, indistinct, and unnoticeable, hence insufficient in classifying the mask as a garment or ornament.
    (b) The protection is pertinent solely when social distancing is impossible (i.e. within six feet of others), but unnecessary when walking in the open outdoors, and consequently would be considered a load at that time. For example, a woman may wear a protective cloth only during the actual days of her menstruation (Shulchan Aruch Harav Orach Chaim 301:10), not necessarily in anticipation of it, as discussed by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch in his responsa. This caveat has been emphasized by Rabbi Shneur Zalman Labkofsky (Rosh Yeshiva of Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch Hamerkozis, 770)
    (c) The mask’s preventative nature does not fortify the body of the wearer in any way, as opposed to an amulet mentioned in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 301:25 or 303:24, which is considered a garment due to the healing benefit it provides to its wearer.
    See Rabbi Daniel Green’s scholarly discussion of this matter:  https://rabbidanielgreen.blogspot.com/2020/07/blog-post.html?fbclid=IwAR1hvD8tZ8MjZU8aaNlyFLk2vCgfa5nO3thzDEM5hGYaPKakmpI3bVcoWdg

    [17] Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch in a recent responsum.

    [18] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 96:1.

    [19] Exodus 34:35. Torah Shleima vol.21, pages 179 and 183 in miluim siman 6. Note that Rabbi Shlomo Parchin wrote that Moses’ veil had openings for his eyes, nose, and mouth. Torah Shleima ibid cites Sefer Chasidim that early elders would expose their faces during Torah reading. Sefer Hasichos 5752 volume 2, Shabbos Parshas Ki Sisa ch. 10. See Pele Yoetz 341, based on Isaiah 30:20 “Your eyes shall behold your teachers.” Yahel Ohr (by the Tzemach Tzedek) on Tehillim 39:7: “The main learning is by seeing the teacher’s face.” This applies to chavrusa learning partners as well. See Maharsha in end of Chidushei Agados on Bava Kama 117a. The gemara specifically mentions that Rabbi Yochanan wished to see Rabbi Kahana’s lips. This fact has been attested to by many teachers of all subjects in recent months. “The wisdom of man illuminates his face” (Koheles 8:1). Seeing a student’s face (and vice versa) is essential to comprehension of the subject matter. Seeing the faces of others is also essential to the mitzva of learning Torah with joy, and to serving Hashem with joy in general!

    [20] Likutei Torah (by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) states that there is no garment for the mouth or nose. Similarly, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavtich writes in Sefer Maamorim 5665, that there is no garment for the mouth. Rabbi Moses Cordovero writes in Tomer Devorah that one’s mouth and nose should always remain uncovered, in resemblance of the Divine.

    [21] Ohr Hachaim (Leviticus 19:4) writes that idols are called elohay masecha – literally “molten deities,” but may also be interpreted: “deities of masks“ –  since idolatry causes a division, a mask that divides between us and G-d, and that a mask is appropriate for someone who has worshiped idols, since it is forbidden to gaze at the face of the wicked.

    [22] Jeremiah 2:27

    [23] Deuteronomy 31:17-18

    [24] Mishlei 14:28.

    [25] Talmud, Shabbat 119b, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Talmud Torah 2:1. Yoreh Deah ibid 245:7.

    [26] Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah, 245:13.

    [27] Shabbat ibid: “Rav Hamnuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because schoolchildren there were interrupted from studying Torah, as it is stated: ‘[And I am filled with the wrath of God, I cannot contain it], pour it onto the children in the street…’ (Jeremiah 6:11). Rav Hamnuna explains: What is the reason that the wrath is poured? It is because ‘children are outside in the streets’ and are not studying Torah.

    [28] See Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:1, Ramo.

    [29] Berachos 61b. Deuteronomy 30:20.

    [30] Divrei Hayamim I 16:22. Shabbat ibid: “Touch not my anointed – this refers to tinokos shel beis rabban.” Rabbi YY Schneersohn recorded his words in a letter dated 19 Iyar, 5688.

    [31] When asked whether American Jews of the 1930’s may work on Shabbos since losing their jobs might be exposing themselves to the eventual risk of starvation.

    *יומא פד: רא”ש שם, שולחן ערוך הרב או”ח שכט:ב. א

    “אין הולכין בפיקוח נפש אחר הרוב אין צריך לומר אם היו ט’ נכרים וישראל אחד עומדים בחצריב ונפלה מפולת על אחד מהם באותה חצר ואין ידוע אם ישראל הוא אם נכרי שמפקחין עליו את הגל שהרי הישראל והנכרי היו קבועים באותה חצר וכל הקבוע הוא כמחצה על מחצה וספק נפשות להקל אלא אפילו פירש אחד מהם לחצר אחרת ושם נפלה עליו מפולת שהיה ראוי לילך אחר הרוב אעפ”כ מפקחין עליו שכיון שנשאר קביעות הראשון במקומו (בשעת פרישתו מהקביעות) הרי אנו חושבין אותו כקבוע עמהם להקל בספק נפשות. אבל אם נעקרו כלם בזה אחר זה ובשעת עקירתם פירש אחד מהם לחצר אחרת ונפלה עליו מפולת אין מפקחין עליו שכיון שניער כבר קביעות הראשון ממקומו (בשעת פרישתו של זה) אי אפשר להקל בו משום קבוע והולכין בו אחר הרוב שהם נכרים.” עכ”ל.

    נמצא מזה שאע”פ שיתכן שפירש הישראל בשעת עקירתם, ויש סיכוי של עשר אחוז לאפשריות זאת, אעפ”כ אין מחללין עליו את השבת, מכיון שלא נשאר מקביעות הראשון במקום הראשון שהרי הלכו כולם, וכל דפריש מרובא פריש, והולכין אחר הרוב. ובנידון דדן, אין שום קביעות סכנה מלכתחילה.

    Acknowledgement to Rabbi Daniel Green of Brooklyn, NY, and to Rabbi S.A. Pollack of Lakewood, NJ, for their vital assistance. 

    Source: https://westbororabbi.blogspot.com/2020/10/mask-policy-in-judaic-thought.html?m=1

    Rabbi Michoel Green
    + posts

    Rabbi Green is a native of California and an accomplished musician and author. He received his rabbinical ordination in Brooklyn after studying in Jerusalem and Sydney, Australia. The Rabbi has spent over eighteen years working in Jewish outreach and education. He has worked in creating successful outreach programs in S. Diego, California and Brisbane, Australia, and founded the first network of Jewish Day Camps in Queensland. He formerly served as Rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Green Slopes and the Congregation Chabad of Rancho Bernardo, and has also taught in a wide variety of Jewish day schools— servicing families of all backgrounds and denominations. Michoel Green has authored several prominent books, including "Once upon a Chassid" on Jewish Festivals, (Kehot Publication, 1999).

    Still No Conclusive Evidence Justifying Mandatory Masks

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