12 things the Mishnah has to say about Covid-19

I’m still a bit too scaredy-cat to go on public transport, so to pass the time I’ve instead resorted to studying Tractate Negaim, 14 chapters of the Mishnah that deal with the laws of that weird skin disease that takes up far too much of the Book of Leviticus.

And while it’s as gory, overly-detailed and unnecessarily technical as you might expect of a 2nd-century medical textbook about a made-up entirely fictional condition, it also has a few things it can teach us about our response to coronavirus…

1. Follow the science

[One does not have to be a priest] to inspect a sore, but the power to declare a person pure or impure is in the hands of the priesthood. So we say to the priest, “Say ‘Impure’!” and he will say, “Impure!” – or, “Say ‘Pure!'” and he will say, “Pure!” (3:1)

The people in power don’t always understand the subject-matter they’re dealing with. Priests were selected by birth, not by medical knowledge, so even though it was their job to adjudicate on the disease, they had to rely on an expert whispering in their ear and telling them what to do – and they had to do it without substituting their own judgement.

I can picture a 2nd-century press conference, with the High Priest in power at the central podium… but flanked by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance.

2. Take personal responsibility and don’t be selfish

One who tears out [of their skin] a sign of impurity has violated a biblical prohibition. (7:4)

Being declared impure was seriously inconvenient for our ancient ancestors. It meant two weeks of isolation, and that could have serious consequences for people’s professional and family life. (They say nothing ever changes…) So the temptation to cheat was obvious. But people had to resist.

Doing the socially-responsible thing may be inconvenient, but avoiding getting a covid test because you’re afraid it might leave you housebound for a fortnight is bad for everyone in the long run.

3. Reliable data and data safeguards are vital

Two people came before a priest. One had a sore the size of a bean, and one [had a sore] the size of a coin. After a week, both sores were slightly larger than a coin, so both are impure [because increasing in size is a sign of impurity]. Even if they [then] both shrink to the size of a coin, [meaning that one of them has not actually grown overall, but it is not known which is which,] they are both impure. (5:4)

Two people have slightly different symptoms and go into (separate) isolation at the same time. The doctor loses their paperwork so can’t tell which is which. Both must, therefore, be treated as contagious – to be on the safe side. It turns up that this sort of NHS cock-up happened in Tannaitic times as well. The priest’s ineptitude highlights the importance of reliable data.

It needs to be reliable in the sense of accurate (because without usable statistics it becomes very difficult to tell where covid cases are and aren’t growing: here too, an increase in size is a worrying sign!) and also reliable in the sense of safe (because individuals need to trust the system, and trust that they won’t be forced into isolation ‘to be on the safe side’ due to a data breach). What was that about contact-tracing and data protection?

4. Racial differences are really important

A bright sore [that indicates impurity] on a German looks dull [compared to the paleness of their skin], and a dull sore [that does not indicate impurity] on an Ethiopian looks bright … Rabbi Yehudah says, “In assessing sores we are lenient and not stringent: we should assess a German’s sore against their own skin to be lenient [because it is more likely to look dull and thus be favourable] and we should assess an Ethiopian’s sore against a neutral colour to be lenient [because it is more likely to look dull and thus be favourable]. (2:1)

In a typically racially-patronising way, the Mishnah is actually making an important point here: one size does not fit all. Disease affects different people of different races (and genders) differently. The medical establishment’s perception is also affected by the characteristics of the patient. Being aware of our own biases, and striving to take account of the way that coronavirus has an impact on different demographics, is key.

5. Rules have to be clear and accessible

Sores that were there before the giving of the Torah are pure. (7:1)

Even if someone had raging skin disease in those dark days before the revelation at Mount Sinai, and even if it was still on their body after that, once the laws of Leviticus came into force, they are still not judged as impure. Even if the person next to them who contracted an identical sore spot yesterday is impure. Why? Because the rules didn’t exist until the Torah was given, and people shouldn’t be penalised for breaking a rule of which they hadn’t been notified.

Similarly, unless the law and guidance on staying home, self-isolating, quarantining after a trip to Spain, wearing a mask etc etc etc are published in a clear, comprehensible and consistent way, people aren’t going to be able to follow them. That not only leads to unfairness, it also compromises public health. (And yes, that includes ordering a lockdown on Manchester by tweet.)

6. Overly intrusive enforcement is a bad thing

In a dark house, we do not make windows in order to inspect a sore. (2:3)

The sore in question is a sore on the house – because houses can get ill too don’t you know – but that’s not especially relevant. The relevant thing is that, if we can’t easily inspect something by sight, without taking a drastic step like knocking a hole in a wall, we don’t inspect it at all. We know that this entails a risk – the house’s disease might slip through the net – and we take that risk.

Looking at the UK’s mask regulations, people with a disability that stops them wearing a mask are exempt. How can shopkeepers know? Well… they can’t. And they need to take the risk. They could say to themselves, “That woman isn’t wearing a mask. I can’t see that she’s disabled so I’ll go and demand to see a doctor’s letter setting out details of her condition,” but that would be as overly intrusive as knocking a new window into a house just to peep inside. Sometimes, our desire to be humane towards other people means that we have to take a risk.

7. Leaders have to show leadership

The priest does not go back to the safety of his own house and [order the] quarantine [of a diseased] household from there. Nor does he quarantine a [diseased] household while he is inside it. Rather, he stands at the doorpost of the house in which there is a sore. (12:6)

At first I read this and found it hard to believe that the Mishnah was actually saying something so blindingly obvious: how could he even think of dealing with a suspected disease from the comfort of his own home (the 14th-century commentator the Ran suggests that he is sitting at home and closes up the infected house by pulling on a rope attached to its front door)… and of course he doesn’t order a house locked up for a week while he’s still standing in the living room! The latter scenario could surely only apply to the Chris Grayling of priests.

But then again, in this crisis we’ve seen that our own leaders do things that are either selfish – shutting down Parliament because it’s too dangerous for MPs to gather, but insisting it’s safe for schools to reopen – or downright stupid. Ministers shouldn’t put themselves in dangerous situations for the sake of it, but they do need to venture out of their own ivory towers (I would say ‘their own bubble’ but that’s now a word that has a new meaning!) and they need to govern us with as little gross incompetence as possible.

8. Be compassionate and remember mental health

A bridgegroom on whom a sore can be seen: we give him the seven days of his marriage celebrations [without inspecting him]. (3:2)

Amidst all the focus on physical health, people’s minds are important too. Yes, re-legalising weddings probably isn’t completely safe, and nor is re-opening restaurants, but the impact on people who’ve been denied the opportunity to marry the person they love – or even just to have a penne arrabiata at their local Italian – and on their mental wellbeing can be quite considerable.

9. Religion is important and must be creative

If [an infected person] enters a synagogue, they make for him a partition ten handbreadths high and four cubits wide – and he enters first and leaves last. (13:12)

This line screams ‘perspex screen’ to me. Because it looks like that may be what I’ll be standing behind for the first few months of service-leading once shuls reopen. And just like perspex screens, the compartment envisaged by this mishnah has three important characteristics: [1] it’s a measure taken by the community for the benefit of the individual who is suffering, [2] the whole point is to facilitate their access to synagogue in recognition of how important that can be for a person, and [3] special procedures are designed to keep everyone else safe as well.

Even though disease requires a certain level of shutting down, Judaism has been creatively innovating ways to work around this for ~2,000 years. Because faith is all the more important in times of crisis.

10. People shouldn’t lose out by complying

[A sore on an item of clothing] gets torn out and burnt – and it will need a patch. Rabbi Nechemyah says, “It will not need a patch.” (11:5)

Turns out clothing can catch this disease as well as people and houses. Who knew. And when it does catch it, in certain circumstances the priest has to rip off the infected bit. But then, he has to patch it. Rabbi Nechemyah clearly takes the view that, because all this stuff appears in the Torah, complying with it is a mitzvah, a joy and an honour, and the guy with a hole in his shirt should be proud of being part of it… but then Rabbi Nechemyah clearly hasn’t experienced life as a pauper who’s just had a large section of his best suit ripped out by a priest.

Similarly, when the government shuts down a section of the economy for the purposes of disease control, they need to patch it. Some people might have the privilege of saying what an honour it is to be staying at home unpaid as part of a grand national effort. But most will need some support. People who are complying with the rules shouldn’t lose out by doing so.

11. Self-help is important as well

[If a sore appears on a wall that divides one person’s house from their neighbour’s,] both [householders] have to dismantle the stonework, both have to scrape away [the plaster], both have to bring [replacement] stones… but [the owner] on their own must bring the [replacement] plaster. (12:6)

Society has to step in and help out. Neighbours have to support each other. But people also have to shoulder some of the burden for themselves. In a communal crisis, everyone needs to be able to rely on their fellow citizens’ assistance, but they also have to recognise that their neighbours also have problems of their own, and with the best will in the world, the assistance available isn’t infinite and inexhaustible.

12. Rules have to be sensible

Even bundles of wood, even bundles of reeds [none of which are susceptible to impurity, must be removed from the house]: the statement of Rabbi Yehudah. But Rabbi Shimon says, “Do you want to occupy [the owner] with pointless busywork?” (12:5)

If your house has a house disease that renders some of the contents impure, you want to remove those items to keep them safe. But if some of those items are (for whatever reason the Torah had) not susceptible to impurity, why bother removing them? As Rabbi Shimon says, we shouldn’t give people pointless instructions.

If buying an Easter egg presents no more danger than buying a pint of milk, why ban one and permit the other? If a mask made of net curtain doesn’t offer any protection, then the fact that the face-covering regulation is satisfied by someone wearing a net curtain renders who whole thing silly. This kind of brings us full circle, back to 1. Follow the science.

On which note, that’s it. Keep following that science, stay safe – and if your house contracts any unusual dermatological symptoms then who ya gonna call?

2 comments on “12 things the Mishnah has to say about Covid-19

  1. lauranjk
    3 August 2020 at 12:17pm #

    This is really wonderful Gabriel

    Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner,
    Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism

    The Rabbi Laura Podcast on Itunes and Spotify

    @LauraJanklaus
    Clergy in Cars on YouTube (Clergy In Cars Reform Judaism)

    Please note: I often use voice recognition software to compose emails. Please excuse obvious typos, and enjoy humorous ones

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    […] Kanter-Webber, Gabrielquotes: 12 things the Mishnah has to say about Covid-19: a Talmudic take on the pandemic and […]

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