My children spent this past weekend preparing to return to school after nearly two months at home. As they tried on their masks and gloves and packed their bags with alcohol gel and sanitizing wipes, I followed along in the fifth and sixth chapters of tractate Shabbat, where the rabbis debate what various animals and people are permitted to take with them on the sabbath when they venture forth from the private domain into the public.
My kids, who have been learning at home, had all their schoolbooks and folders to bring back with them, and so their bags were far more weighed down than usual. They were, in that sense, like the camels in the Talmud saddled with a load too heavy for them, which is forbidden, since animals should not be burdened on the day of rest (51b). On their faces they are all wore scarves over their regular masks, as extra protection, like the Arabian Jewish women who go out on Shabbat with scarves over their faces (65a). My son, whose anxieties are only exacerbated by the present situation, insisted on wearing three levels of protection – a cloth mask, a napkin tied with rubber bands over his ears, and a plastic face shield with his name written in big block letters over thick masking tape because otherwise he is unidentifiable. Does he really need all this gear? I suppose for him it is sort of like the amulets discussed in the Mishnah, which are believed to protect their wearers from harm. The Mishnah teaches that a person may wear an amulet if its efficacy has been proven or if it was made by an expert. An amulet against epilepsy, the Talmud teaches, may be worn not just by one who has fallen, but also by one who worries that he will fall (61a). So far, thank God, none of us has fallen prey to this illness; we wear our masks as preventative measures and pray that we will be spared.
Although schools officially re-opened nationwide, not all of my kids’ friends went back. Several parents wrote in the class Whatsapp groups that they were too nervous about sending their kids, and wanted to first wait and see the repercussions of this change in policy. Daniel and I felt confident that our kids’ school was handling the situation responsibly and sensitively, and so we did not hesitate about returning them to school. Besides, the Talmud seems to frown upon those who hold themselves to special standards rather than adopting the policies to which the general public is expected to adhere. The Babylonian sage Shmuel was particularly strict with his daughters in terms of what sort of ribbons they were allowed to wear in their ears on Shabbat (65a). And the Mishnah relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s cow used to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, even though the sages forbade such a practice, which leads to an extended Talmudic discussion about the importance of speaking up when those around you fail to adhere to the behavior expected of them (54b). In our present reality, when everyone is wearing different types of masks in different ways—some covering only their mouths, some covering their nose and mouths, some with the mask merely symbolically secured under their chins—it is hard not to judge everyone you see on the street, but the Talmud provides guidelines for how to speak up constructively to the people we see when we go out.
For the past few weeks, we have been trained to stay away from one another and to keep within the confines of our homes. It is difficult, when venturing out for the first time, not to regard everyone we see as a potential threat. At the beginning of masechet Shabbat we read about Bar Yohai and his son, who emerged from their cave after twelve years in isolation and burned up everything they saw with their eyes, until a divine voice rebuked them with the words, “Have you come out to destroy my world?” Ultimately when we do go out, it should be to seek fellowship and act kindly toward those around us. My kids came home from school and could not tell me a thing they learned, but they were all so happy to be back with their beloved teachers and friends. Even at two meters away and with three masks over their faces, they were able to feel the embrace of their school community, and hopefully the loving embrace of their family as well. I kissed them each when they left the house and again when they returned, hoping that this amulet, at least, would work its magic.
Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press. She has translated books of Jewish interest by Ruth Calderon, Benjamin Lau, and Micah Goodman, as well as novels, short stories, and children’s picture books. Her book Why Is This Night Different From Other Nights was published by Schocken in 2005. She is a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine, where she is the Book Reviews Editor, and her writing has appeared in The Forward, The World Jewish Digest, Hadassah, Nashim, Zeek, Kveller, and Tablet. Kurshan is a graduate of Harvard University (BA, summa cum laude, History of Science) and Cambridge University (M.Phil, English literature). She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five children.