Tuesday, November 3, 2020

No Authentic Halachic Source for Masks

At no time in recorded Jewish history did a competent rabbi ever impose a mask policy on a population, or even on an individual.

Masks are inherently un-Jewish.

In current times of appalling ignorance, a rumor is circulating that audaciously claims that certain halachic authorities of past generations (Tzemach Tzedek, later cited by Mishna Brura) ruled that one must quarantine during an outbreak, and that if he insists on venturing out, then he should be forced to wear a mask over his nose and mouth. This rumor is utter falsehood.

The false rumor is based on an egregious mistranslation. In addition, the text was taken completely out of context and misconstrued.

The original source is the Responsa of the Tzemach Tzedek by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (Orach Chaim 110), in a letter written to R. Nechemiah of Dubrovna during the cholera epidemic in Russia of the mid-1800's:

Whoever desires to fast [on Tisha b'Av] in an area where the illness is not very strong heaven forbid, should be advised and warned not to leave his home the entire day. And when he does have to leave, he should be forced to carry a small piece of camphor around his nose and mouth, along with a bit of mint leaf.

"Camphor" does NOT mean a "cloth," as some have alleged.

Rather, camphor is a therapeutic substance distilled from the fragrant wood of a camphor laurel, a large evergreen tree found in Asi [1]. Together with mint, it was used as aromatherapy, herbal remedy and prevention against cholera.

This ruling was repeated in Divrei Nechemia, Pischei Olam, and later cited by the Mishna Brura [554:6 in Biur Halacha].

Using this a source to support covid-era mask policy is absolutely absurd and baseless:

1) The ruling did not state that the camphor and mint were to be "worn" around (or must completely engulf) nose and mouth, but rather that he should carry it there, to inhale the medicinal attributes of these herbs, and not for the purpose of blocking outside air. There is NO reason to assume that there was any sort of mask involved. It was most likely hung around his nose and held in place with a ribbon or porous net.

2) This precaution was prescribed only when a person wished to fast on Tisha b'Av during a local outbreak of cholera and insisted on leaving his house. If the person wasn't fasting, it was not necessary to stay at home or place camphor around his nose and mouth, even if the outbreak was severe!

3) The function of this precaution was to shield himself from potential harm (since he was now more vulnerable due to fasting). It was never suggested that he may be forced to cover his nose and mouth when he is not at risk, but just in order to protect others, as covid mask policy demands. 

4) Most importantly, covid cannot be reasonably compared to cholera of the past in any way:

The cholera outbreak in times of the Tzemach Tzedek (and Mishna Brura) had a formidable mortality rate in an entire population, and the disease posed significant mortal risk to everyone. Unlike covid of 2020.

For example, the cholera outbreak in Chicago in 1854 killed 5.5% of the city’s total population. 

And in Russia, it was much worse. There were areas in the Russian Empire that saw mortality rates as high as 9% of an entire population. That's almost one out of every ten people dead from cholera!

That's about 30 times deadlier than covid.

Such statistical contagion is indeed a factor in halacha for precautionary measures. Even children who had the lowest risk from cholera still suffered a 2 to 3% mortality rate (while seniors died from cholera at a rate of 16%). These death tolls are huge.

Of course, the current corona virus pales in comparison to cholera. Covid has a death rate of a few hundredths of a percent in the US and even less than that worldwide.

In halacha, a mortality rate of even one tenth of a percent -- from a potential disease or other risk -- is not numerically significant to qualify as pikuach nefesh. [2] Such a risk factor does not justify imposing precautionary measures. [3]

Covid also cannot be compared to epidemics for which fasts are decreed in halacha, since they required a mortality rate of .3% of an entire population within three days.[4] A mere fraction of that spread throughout a duration of eight months is obviously not a plague by halachic standards.

It must also be pointed out that all the covid data is dubious and halachically unreliable, since the government reporting it (and deciding the criteria through which it must be recorded) obviously seeks to cast fear on the population and enforce its policies. [5]

Furthermore, the CDC recently admitted that as 94% of all fatalities recorded as covid deaths had an average of 2 to 3 comorbidities. That means that someone who died of a heart attack, but tested positive for the SARS-CoV2 virus, was still reported as a covid death. It may be assumed that the true mortality rate of covid is significantly lower than .03%.

Moreover, this is out of the general population. 

With regard to individual age groups, the risk is far lower than that:

Youth under 19 years of age have a risk of .00003%. 

From 20 to 49 years of age, the risk is .0002%. 

From age 50 to age 69, the risk is .005%. 

And from age 70 and older, the risk is .054%. [4]

This doesn't come anywhere close to the deadly outbreak of cholera in the 1800's and early 1900's.

In conclusion, there is absolutely zero basis in halacha for a mask policy even during genuine pandemics like cholera. How much more so in the current covid outbreak which poses little risk to the general population, negligible risk to youth and adults, and minor risk to seniors.

If you wish to draw a lesson from the Tzemach Tzedek’s instruction regarding cholera, seniors older than 70 should not wear a mask, but instead should practice aromatherapy as a preventative measure whenever they go outside, or perhaps use other natural preventions, like quercetin, zinc, vitaimins D and C.

And if there is any merit to masks as a preventative measure to covid, then perhaps it might be advisable for seniors over 70 to wear N-95 masks that offer THEM protection, or to avoid unnecessary exposure to the public altogether. 

To enforce a mask policy on entire population is extreme, bizarre, and lacks any halachic rationale or precedent.

Rabbis who impose or endorse mask policies in current times are either seriously misinformed or have lost all objective reasoning.

Let us pray for health and a return to sanity.


[1] For more information and history of camphor, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6270224/.

[2] Shulchan Aruch Harav Orach Chaim 330:1. 

[3] This is with regards to prevention. With regards to an actual diagnosed patient, even less than .1% mortality rate is deemed pikuach nefesh, albeit begrudgingly. Ibid 316:23.

[4] Orach Chaim 576:2,5

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce, 13:12-13, based on Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 121b-122a. See my blogpost "Unreliable Covid Data" for further elucidation.

[4] Source: CDC:


Rabbi Daniel Green said...

As you eloquently point out, camphor is a fumigant, a solid substance which traditionally was used for its antiviral properties during the Black Death, a plague that spread through Europe in the 14th century, as well as during outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century. A piece of this waxy, white or transparent solid with a strong aromatic odor, together with some mint, was to be applied around the nose and mouth. It does not mean a "piece of cloth," as some have erroneously (I hope not deliberately) mistranslated!
See below anash.org's pathetic and totally incorrect "psak din" about masks on shabbos. I emphasized his incorrect translation of "קאמפער", "camphor" - as a "small piece of cloth"!
It is horrifying to consider that a website like anash.org would not edit it's halachic articles, which are so misleading and simply dishonest.
It's actually "interesting to note," as the author writes, that before his whole disgraceful misrepresentation of halacha, he falsifies the words of the Tzemach Tzedek!

Here is the article's intro:

Can I Wear a Face Mask on Shabbos?
NEWS כ״ג אדר ה׳תש״פ - MARCH 19, 2020

Many have started wearing face masks on the street as a precaution against coronavirus. Is one allowed to wear it on Shabbos?...Before we begin, it is interesting to note that the Tzemach Tzedek already mentions the concept of wearing a mask. In a responsa (Shut OC #110 (#93) in regards to fasting on Tisha beAv during the Cholera epidemic in the year 5608, the Tzemach Tzedek writes:

“Someone who wishes to fast [specifically] in a locale where the sickness is not strong Chas vesholom, should be advised and cautioned not to leave one’s house an entire day, and he should be required to wear a small piece of cloth around his nose and mouth, together with a bit of peppermint”...

Unknown said...

Chose A or B ?

A) Follow Human secular Federal, State Massachusetts culture.

B) HaShems 613 commandments hold today of objective perception.

Dovid Chaim said...

Rabbi Green. Such a great merit you have to fight for truth. Thank you very much for your courage.