Rabbis are divided on the issue of prayer while wearing a medical mask. While the major rabbis have ruled that it is permissible;e, the spiritual implications are grave and well-worth considering.
Rabbi Michoel Green, director of the Chabad Center in Westborough, Massachusetts, wrote a blog post on Sunday in which he stated that praying with a face mask is prohibited by Jewish law.
The rabbi began by comparing wearing a mask to the plight of the Bnei Anusim, Portuguese and Spanish Jews who, during the Inquisition, were forced to take on a false identity, the outward appearance of being faithful Catholics.
Rabbi Green emphasized that Yom Kippur was a respite from this painful pretense.
“These wayward Jews were now forgiven,” Rabbi Green wrote. “All fake identities were forgotten, and all masks removed. They were now Jews like all others, if at least for one day, one awesome day that defined their true quintessential selves.”
The rabbi noted the powerful relevance of this for modern-day Jews as well.
“My dear friends, on this awesome day of Yom Kippur, please remove the masks, the artificial façade that obscures your Divine essence,” Rabbi Green wrote.
Rabbi green cited Likutei Torah, a treatise on Torah commandments written by Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, a leading 16th Century rabbi and mystic in the community of Safed commonly known as the Ari, or the Arizal, who wrote, “the nose, mouth, and ears must always be uncovered, without any obstruction. That is how our Creator intended it”
“You are created in the image of the Divine,” Rabbi Green wrote.
“This is your face. Your eyes, nose and mouth. Do not obscure it. Do not allow society to reduce you to a faceless member of the herd.”
The rabbi noted that the Hebrew word for ‘mask’ is ‘masecha’ (מסיכה) which also means separation, implying a separation between the person praying and God as well as a separation from your fellow man.
Rabbi Green also noted that according to Jewish law pertaining to the Sabbath, it is forbidden to carry an object that is unnecessary and Jewish law does not consider a mask to be an article of clothing.
The Rabbi explains that there is a request by King David to be face-to-face with his Creator as written in Psalms.
Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger Psalms 27:9
Rabbi Green also teaches that this year in the Hebrew calendar is 5781, represented by the letters תשפא. He suggested the acronym השנה תהא שנת אור פניך, “May this be the year of the light of Your face.”
Rabbi Green also noted that Torah law is not an arbitrary process based on public policy.
“There must be actual scientific evidence that your not wearing a mask poses an actual medical risk to any person. There is no such empirical evidence. Moreover, breathing without obstruction is an essential freedom. In order to infringe, the government must exercise strict scrutiny. This would require actual scientific evidence that asymptomatic transmission occurs in a numerically significant number of cases, and that masks indeed stop the spread of the pathogen. Statistical speculation is insufficient.”
Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one of the most respected Torah scholars of this generation, a prolific writer, winner of the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism, and a member of the nascent Sanhedrin, appreciated Rabbi Green’s perspective but disagrees with the practical implications.
“This is not the decision accepted by the rabbis of Israel,” Rabbi Schwartz said.
“Universally, the leading rabbinic authorities of Israel have ruled that medical masks are a necessary measure to maintain health during the pandemic.”
The rabbi noted that in this case, even the members of the government have taken on the measure of mask-wearing, indicating the severity of the pandemic and the necessity for masks. He also noted that for the purposes of the sabbath, it is permissible to wear medical devices and it is not considered to be transporting an unnecessary object.
“This is similar to wearing eyeglasses which, even though they are not garments, may be transported outside of a designated area,” Rabbi Schwartz said.