Mask-Wearing is a Jewish Value

Jewish tradition teaches that saving one life is tantamount to saving the entire world. OneTable takes this teaching seriously, and we’ve leaned on it heavily when designing our social distancing guidelines. This teaching is based on a Jewish principle about the value of human life — pikuach nefesh.

The basic idea of pikuach nefesh (literally “the preservation of life”) is that life is so sacred that staying alive — or saving another’s life — takes precedence over observing (almost) any other Jewish law. For example: keeping kosher is great and valuable, but if you’re starving and all there is to eat is pork, you eat it. Or, even if it’s your practice not to drive on Shabbat, you are commanded to hop in the car if someone needs to be driven to the emergency room. 

What’s really radical about pikuach nefesh is that it’s not just about acting in order to save someone’s life; it’s also about not putting someone in danger. Here’s a mundane example: Jewish law requires that parents teach their children to swim. Now, it’s not that swimming is some spiritual necessity. It’s a practical necessity about setting your kid up for success, for health, and not putting them in a situation where they might be in danger. Teaching your child to swim also gives them a skill that might enable them to help others in the future.

But pikuach nefesh extends beyond your responsibility to your own family. In the absence of parents, it is the whole community’s responsibility to teach a child to swim. And if you somehow grow up and still haven’t learned, then it’s your responsibility to seek out a teacher and fulfill the obligation of pikuach nefesh not just for yourself, but for your whole community.

Now, as with most things in Jewish tradition, the legalistic understanding of pikuach nefesh isn’t simple. There’s significant debate among the scholars about the boundaries of the principle: are there exceptions? Who are we responsible for? Are all lives equal? Where does our community obligation end, if at all?

Pile of multi-colored face masks on wooden surface

In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all dealing with this kind of gray area. For example, walking around the neighborhood, I see a lot of folks not wearing masks. It brings up some complicated questions: Do I need to be concerned about the health of random people I pass on the street? Are tourists visiting my city really a part of my community? Are we responsible for each other? 

Pikuach nefesh pushes me to answer: yes. It’s one thing to meet up with friends in the park instead of at their place. But truly transformational, values-based living happens when you consider even strangers to be a part of your community, and you put on your mask to protect them. Wearing a mask, eating outside, not sharing food… these guidelines are intended in the spirit of protecting not just ourselves, and not even just those with whom we share Shabbat, but anyone who walks by us in the park, our neighbors who touch the same elevator buttons, even the maskless partiers in the next county over. The broader our community is, the more radical our welcoming, and the better we elevate the core values of our OneTable community.

Shabbat is about imagining a better world + considering the actions we need to take to make it a reality. This year is difficult and isolating — but OneTable is here to help you keep the magic of Shabbat, while protecting the health and safety of one another. Learn more about Shabbat-ing Alone, Together — and post your Solo, Housemate, Virtual, or Outdoor, Socially-Distanced Shabbat dinner here.

For more information on the Jewish legal principle of pikuach nefesh, check out MyJewishLearning, Shalom Hartman, and other resource sheets on Sefaria.

Annie is the OneTable DMV Field Manager who loves hosting people and has a passion for relationship-building and empowering folks to create their own vibrant expressions of modern Judaism.

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