In Judaism, cleanliness isn’t just next to godliness; it is an integral part of godliness. Throughout the Torah we are commanded to clean our bodies and spaces in various ways, in order to be pure. Even more than now, it was essential in ancient times for the community to practice good hygiene for the health and well-being of all.
In The Book of Numbers, directions are given for how those that were in contact with a corpse needed to purify themselves, even when dealing with the grief of losing a loved one (Numbers 19). The idea that one “tent” was impacted was bad enough, and the “impurity” or contamination did not need to be spread further. Aside from washing, it specifies that anyone that had contact, or even had been in the tent with the corpse, was impure and must stay away from others for seven days until they had been purified. The contents of any open vessels that happened to be in the tent was also deemed impure. Where did the seven days come from? Was it because seven symbolizes completion, the holy sense of fullness, stemming from creation? Or could it be that they knew either through experience or intuition that if further disease was going to manifest itself, it would likely be within seven days?
Uncleanliness can also be spiritual, coming at the hands of oppressors. The Hanukkah story tells of how the Syrians had occupied and desecrated the Temple. Given the emphasis on cleanliness and purity, we can only imagine how horrified our ancestors were when they reclaimed the Temple and saw the filth and idols left behind. The story goes on to tell how they removed and burned what mess they could. They then went on to scrub clean the sacred space, removing impurities visible to the naked eye.
Currently, we are reclaiming our spaces from a scourge, COVID-19. Unlike in the ancient Israelites’ Temple, what we need to remove is invisible to us; the coronavirus is about 500 times smaller than a human hair. When we first reopened Congregation Kneseth Israel, where I serve as the president and the chair of the safety and security committee, many were reticent to return because they were concerned about being “attacked” by the invisible enemy. At the synagogue, we have taken many steps to help people return as safely as possible, respecting their apprehension. To accommodate our most vulnerable (children and members with compromised immune systems) and those who for a variety of reasons are unable to participate in “in person services”, we have been hosting hybrid multi-access services since the Shabbat of Passover in April 2021, when we started to reopen the building
Here are some examples of how we provided social distancing and enhanced ventilation for the High Holy Days. Since COVID – 19 is airborne, air needs be clean too, so we opened the moveable wall separating the sanctuary from the social hall to give us more room and air circulation. For the shofar service, the outside door to the sanctuary was also opened and our master shofar blower blew towards the open door and not towards anyone. Opening windows allows the additional outside air to dilute the concentration of virus in the room and help “sweep” it out. Masks are required in our synagogue, even for singers, and in August, we began requiring proof of vaccination. All of these actions have been done with a great deal of thought, intention and kavanah – and sometimes, like Jews everywhere, with some argument. We, at CKI, are committed to following the science, even if sometimes that is politically uncomfortable.
We also continue to clean facilities after people have been in the building, making sure that all the surfaces in the sanctuary are disinfected. To determine which products will be most effective for decontamination, terminology needs to be sorted out: Cleaning is meant to remove dirt and debris, just as our ancestors had done during the restoration of the Temple; Sanitizing is meant to reduce, not kill, the bacteria, viruses and fungi that may be present; Disinfecting a surface will “kill” the microscopic organisms.
As our tradition prescribes, we want things to be clean, but for purposes of protection we need to go further, we want disinfection. Handwashing remains as crucial today as it was in ancient times, and while we have a limited budget, we have added hand sanitizing stations in multiple locations. Some good news is that studies have proven that if buildings have been closed for more than seven days, they don’t need to be disinfected for COVID-19. Research has also shown that COVID-19 lives for only about three hours on paper, two days on fabric, and survives the longest on glass and plastic up to seven days. It’s interesting to consider the seven-day period; do you think it is a coincidence that this was also the period specified for purification?
We are continuing our COVID-related policies and procedures, because COVID-19 perpetually changes, forming variants. It is almost as if the enemy is changing uniforms and weapons in the middle of battle. Even though we have greater knowledge of the virus’s characteristics than we did last Chanukah, and have vaccines as our primary weapons, it is essential that we remain vigilant and not let our guard down as the virus mutates. Since COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets released when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes, or by hand contact with COVID-19-contaminated surfaces followed by the person touching his/her nose, mouth, or eyes, we still need to follow the lead of our ancestors and focus on hygiene.
As we begin to return to our sacred spaces, our sanctuaries, and synagogues, may we emulate what we learned from the Maccabees. May this be a Chanukah of rededication to cleanliness and that our actions impact our community, not just individuals.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Robin S. Coyne is President and Safety and Security Chair, CIH, ROH, of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL).