Jews are the People of the Book, a handwashing people, and the people of the handshake.
For now, in this health crisis, let’s promote the handwashing and ban the handshake.
The coronavirus, COVID-19, poses serious risks to human health and life; more than 100,000 people have been infected worldwide, and nearly 4,000 of them have died. By adopting simple and sensible behaviors, it is possible to live healthier lives and protect yourself and your family members from this virus and other dangerous infections. Hand washing and social distancing, including banning handshakes, are effective ways to reduce risk of spreading germs and disease.
In January the People of the Book completed the 7½ year cycle of Talmud study, known as daf yomi. My husband and I decided to begin the new cycle along with the rest of the community of Talmud scholars in learning a page (actually a folio) a day in a virtual community of Talmud scholars around the world. The daf yomi program has just completed tractate Berachot, and we celebrated with a siyyum — a celebration of learning. It was amazing to imagine the virtual community of Jews all over the world studying the same laws and customs day after day, culminating in completion of vast amounts of Talmud learning.
The Talmud has more than 300 references to handwashing, including descriptions of how to do it, the source of water to use, and when it is needed. Since ancient times, Jews have been a handwashing people.
In Talmud Berachot (which we recently studied in daf yomi), the notion of washing after defecation was introduced. “R. Yohanan also said: ‘If one desires to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven in the most complete manner, he should turn aside, then wash his hands, then put on tefillin, then recite the Shema and say the morning prayers.’” “Turn aside” is a euphemism for defecation, and the best religious practices demanded handwashing after defecating. The practice of washing the hands took on such significance that it was reported that the great sage Rabbi Akiva, when he was confined to a Roman prison, declared that he would rather die than eat without washing his hands first.
Ritual handwashing, netilat yadayim, has retained significance in modern Jewish observance. Observant Jews wash before eating any bread, and there is a special blessing for it: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wash hands.” A special cup with two handles typically is used. The cup is filled with fresh water, and the water is poured over each hand two or three times. Handwashing also is practiced as part of the morning wake-up ritual. When they awaken in the morning, observant Jews will rinse their hands with water from a cup. Ritual handwashing also is performed after leaving a cemetery, and in synagogue the kohanim (priests) wash their hands before blessing the congregation.
To be sure, ritual handwashing, which involves rinsing the hands with fresh water (no soap), is not as effective in reducing the risk of infectious disease as thoroughly washing with soap and water. But research shows that in fact rinsing with water does reduce the level of microbial contamination on the skin. One study by a British research team compared washing hands with soap and water to washing with water alone and to not washing at all. Subjects were sent out to public areas in London, including the British Museum, buses, and the Underground (subway). Then they were assigned to wash their hands with soap and water, to wash them with water alone, or not to wash them at all. Bacterial contamination was found on 44 percent of the hands that were not washed, on 23 percent of hands washed with water alone, and on 8 percent of hands washed with soap and water.
And a research study done in Bangladesh showed that in homes where there was little access to soap, washing only one hand with water alone significantly reduced the rate of diarrhea in children, compared to not washing at all. Rinsing with water alone does make a difference, reducing germs on hands, and potentially saving lives.
Although it is far from the best way to ward off germs, ritual handwashing raises awareness of hand hygiene in general, and it also may influence people to wash with soap and water more scrupulously before a meal.
At this point in the coronavirus crisis, you probably do not need to be reminded that it’s important to wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds to reduce your risk of infectious diseases. But up till very recently that advice has not been universally appreciated or accepted.
I have been preaching the importance of handwashing for years, and I wrote “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” to raise awareness and convert people to become better hand washers.
When the book first came out, and I was publicizing it and its message, I soon realized that I was preaching to the choir. Those who already were on board with the message discovered in “The Hand Book” a confirmation of what they already knew. Others were interested, but not necessarily ready to change their behavior, and there were those who totally rejected the idea that hand washing saves lives. “But what about the hygiene hypothesis?” they argued. It’s true that we need exposure to some microbes and other antigens to stimulate our immune systems. Being around nature and animals, and catching the sniffles, allows us from a very young age to be exposed to all sorts of microbes and become capable of mounting an immune response. A certain amount of dirt in your life is fine, maybe even healthy. It’s still a good idea, however, to keep the dangerous germs at bay. If you are exposed to pathogens that make people very sick, you’re risking serious illness and even death.
We need to wash hands properly and thoroughly and we need to be vigilant about what we’re touching and bringing into our homes, and into our bodies. Some stimulation of the immune system is part of the process of strengthening the immune response. But exposing ourselves and our children to the bad germs — the ones that really do kill people, like flu, measles, and now COVID-19 — is simply too dangerous to be cavalier about.
Finally, we’re the people of the handshake. Actually, all Americans are — Americans love to shake hands.
Ironically, the self-declared germaphobe President Donald Trump also jumped in to defend his right to shake hands, to connect with his friends and admirers.
Handshaking has become an important part of the synagogue/shul ritual. In shul, after completing honors, such as opening the ark or the blessing over the Torah, or wrapping or carrying the Torah, it is the custom to shake hands with everyone in your vicinity, especially the rabbi and congregational leaders, and everyone on the path back to your seat. Last week in synagogue I watched men trying not to do it; with sheepish smiles and apologetic shrugs, they mostly avoided full handshakes, substituting fist bumps and elbow bumps, embarrassed about the loss of the handshaking ritual, our primitive but effective societal grease. In Orthodox shuls women typically do not shake hands with men. But I also felt unmoored and awkward when I tried changing my behavior, avoiding handshakes and hugs with my friends. I found like-minded people trying to invent new ways to greet each other: eye contact, a warm smile and nod, and a hand gesture — a wave, a salute, or throwing a kiss to our nearest and dearest.
Handwashing is the first line of defense against infection. Soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer reduces risk, but is not the total solution. Direct contact with other people can increase your risk, so at this time it would be good to refrain from shaking hands or high fives, or even fist bumps. Elbow bumps and toe bumps are better. A friendly smile and nod are the best. Or in the spirit of Jewish tradition, try the Vulcan salute that Leonard Nimoy, as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, adapted from the priestly blessing. Or even better, how about some happy Jazz hands?
And now here we are, challenged with Covid-19, with a population in panic, desperate for solutions and quick fixes, asking to be empowered to defend against this mysterious new pathogen, or disease-causing microbe.
And the answer is so simple. Wash your hands, thoroughly and appropriately. And stop shaking hands. At least for now.
Stay healthy, my friends.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is a professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey, and author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” available on Amazon.com, which addresses many issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic, and provides handy tips for protecting yourself and your loved ones against pathogenic microbes — the germs that make us sick.