There are many different ways to think of the religious significance of wearing a mask during COVID-19. One could file mask-wearing in the category of Mitzvot we perform towards our fellow human being (such as “Ve-Ahavta Le-Reiacha Ka-Moecha,” Love your neighbor like yourself), because by wearing masks we keep others safe. Or, one could consider it a Mitzvah we perform towards our Creator, as safeguarding our health and safety is a Mitzvah that we owe towards G-d.
Yet, for me there is an additional religious dimension to wearing a mask which has recently become apparent to me as I study Messechet Ta’anit this summer. Our congregation has been studying a half -Mishnah each morning from the particularly apropos Tractate about Judaism’s response to tragedy and calamity, and one of the Mishnayot therein grants new significance to mask wearing.
Messechet Ta’anit outlines a series of responses that the Jewish people take to serious military, economic, or health challenges; it details how prayer and fasting are ways to process what happens through a religious lens and beseech Divine mercy and aid. Much of the Tractate would have seemed so utterly foreign but a few months ago and now resonates deeply: Taking the Torah out of the Sanctuary and davening in the City Courtyard (15a), epidemiological statistics for plague and pandemic (19a), hording behavior and price surges (10a), rabbis trying to determine priorities when tackling famine and illness at the same time (8b).
The Mishnah also tells us how to respond if the moment of crisis perpetuates beyond a few weeks, if all of our prayers and hopes have not yet brought about a change in our fortunes. In words that will echo deeply to all of us when we reflect upon the months of March, April, and May, the Mishnah rules (12b) “They decrease commerce, building and planting, weddings and engagements, and greeting each other; like human beings who have been castigated by before G-d.”
Later, the Talmud explains: “they enwrap themselves, and sit like mourners or those excommunicated, like human beings who have been castigated before G-d, until They have mercy from heaven (14b).” With prayers unanswered, we feel rejected by G-d, and sit quietly and solemnly, continuing to hope and pray for mercy. Outwardly, we “enwrap” which in the Talmud means with the lower face covered, the mouth and the entire area below the upper lip (see Pseudo-Rashi and note correction of Rashash and Rabbi Akiva Eiger). The Talmud rules that they way we highlight our feelings of distance, sadness, and alienation, the way we help capture our mood, the way we show others how we are feeling – is by covering the mouth, just as a COVID mask would.
Thus, the purpose of the mask is not just medical. It captures a feeling and an emotion of being distanced from other human beings and perhaps also from G-d. It highlights an internality and a turning inward that these moments have brought to all of us where we consider our role in this world and what steps we can take moving forward to improve things and make the world a better place. It is an outward display of an inner feeling of sadness, and it shows others that we are coping with a difficult time, and that this summer lacks the same joy as last year’s.
Of course, none of us know whether or not we today have the status of “those castigated by G-d”. It is possible that for all of the tragedy these past few months, G-d has listened to our prayers, and the flattening of the curve in many places shows that we have been granted mercy from heaven! Yet, as I continue to pray in my mask each morning, I will continue to think of my mask as a religious ritual object. It is within it that I enwrap myself as my ancestors would have two thousand years ago when they faced times of crisis. It reminds me to look inward and ask myself how I can improve my relationship with Our Creator at this time, as we hope and wait for healing and safety as soon as can be.