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Ultra-Orthodox scofflaws ignore government regulations

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A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative] | Photo credit: chabad.org

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JERUSALEM (Oct. 10, 2020) – Ritual purity baths, called a mikvah, pl. mikvaot in Hebrew, have become a flashpoint in the Jewish State’s struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic which to date has claimed the lives of nearly 1,800 Israelis.

Many thousands of the gender-separated public facilities are discreetly located all across cities and villages around the country. Observant women immerse in the rain or spring water fed-baths before marriage, once a month after their menstrual cycle has ended, and after giving birth. Men dip in the pools at their whim but especially before the Sabbath or holidays. And all converts to Judaism undergo ritual purification before formally joining the Jewish people.

So prevalent were mikvaot in ancient Israel that in 2017 the Israel Antiquities Authority opened the Mikveh Trail around the Old City of Jerusalem linking 200 of the ancient ritual baths hewn in limestone 2,000 years ago. Jesus likely immersed himself in the Pool of Siloam or another of these pools of “living water” before ascending to King Herod’s Second Temple.

So massive were the throngs of pilgrims that the sages ruled “Kol Israel haverim.” While in modern Hebrew the phrase means all the Jewish people are comrades, it originally meant all Jews are in a state of ritual purity. Hence if one had immersed in a mikvah and then brushed up against another person, one needn’t return to the pool to bathe again.

Already in March, at the beginning of the current coronavirus plague, concern was raised that the baths, however essential to Jewish family life, had become vectors that were inadvertently spreading the contagion by allowing asymptomatic infected people to bathe who were unknowingly shedding the virus.

Health Ministry figures in March at the beginning of the pandemic showed that one percent of those who contracted coronavirus in Israel had been infected in a mikvah, amounting to approximately three cases.

Notwithstanding that couples not observing the niddah laws (see Leviticus 15:25 and 18:19) would have to indefinitely extend the period in which they could not have sex, two leading women arbiters of halacha (Jewish law) ruled that women should refrain from immersing in mikvaot if they cannot ascertain that the hygiene standards are adhered to and in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The far-reaching decision, co-authored by two Orthodox women who are experts in the field of family purity, Dr. Chana Adler Lazarovits and Rabbanit Sarah Segel-Katz, stated that the precept of not endangering one’s life supersedes the necessity of normal marital relations.

The result?

A sweeping revolt by hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who became scofflaws ignoring Health Ministry regulations, their own rabbinic leaders and common sense.

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Thus today hareidim, who number some 1.2 million of Israel’s 9.7 million people, are greatly overrepresented in COVID-19 infections and mortality statistics. The skewered numbers keep getting more distorted as a result of the use of mikvaot, the failure to wear masks, and the general disregard for social distancing regulations.

“The risk of infection with the coronavirus is clear,” one expert said. “If the chlorine level or acidity level is off, the danger is there.”

A pre-Sabbath visit to the Herzog’s Mikvah in Jerusalem’s quaint 19th century Shaarei Hesed neighborhood revealed scores of men congregating in the basement facility located beneath the synagogue and study hall of the Bratzlav chassidim (pietists). None of the bathers were wearing face masks, as required by law, prior to stripping to shower and then immersing three times in the baths.

The facility, which cost 15 shekels to enter plus 2 shekels to rent a towel, is modern and well-maintained. This reporter saw some people doubling up to sneak through the turn style. Passing through the granite floor entrance, one comes to a tidy change room. The many bathers strip down, including removing all jewelry, before taking a shower.

A mikvah, or ritual bath, located in the Jewish settlement of Efrat | David Vaaknin for The Washington Post

One then enters the three tiled and stepped 1.6-meter-deep pools – one cold, one tepid and one scalding hot. Bathers are careful to immerse themselves three times so that the crown of one’s head and all of one’s hair is underwater. 

Daniel originally from Montreal, Canada, who declined to give his last name, said he religiously goes to the mikvah prior to every Sabbath and holiday. “It’s really one of the safest places,” he said nonchalantly.

Joel Caplan, originally from Pittsburgh, PA – who introduced this writer to the somewhat-hard-to find nameless alley where the mikvah is located – disagreed.

Describing himself as a “pre-corona regular,” he now routinely baths in ancient springs in the Judean Hills or goes to the beach in Tel Aviv. From the perspective of halacha, both are equally kosher.

Did I endanger myself by going to a mikvah during the pandemic? Ask me in 10 days at the end of the virus gestation period.

Gil Zohar is a tour guide and journalist living in Jerusalem and originally from Toronto. gilzohar.ca

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We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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