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What does the Bible say about quarantine?

In recent weeks, the Jewish community has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. The good news is, we’re old hands at dealing with quarantines.

Our history with the practice of self-isolation began during our trip out of Egypt to the Promised Land, where Moses was our first public health official. In Leviticus, Moses, giving orders from no less an authority than God, tells us what to do with those “with a leprous affection.”

“[H]is clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’” Leviticus 13:45 declares. But beyond those measures — which the World Health Organization and CDC do not advise — is the practice of common courtesy, i.e. removing oneself from others. “Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

Elsewhere, in Numbers, God advises Moses, saying, “Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption or a discharge and anyone defiled by a corpse… put them outside the camp so that they do not defile the camp of those in whose midst I dwell.”

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For less dramatic skin conditions, in Leviticus, the priests are told to take a look at discoloration, and, provided the hair of the affected skin isn’t white, isolate the person for a week before a second consultation. (Still unclean? Another week.)

There’s even an instance of quarantine for houses — not a house_hold_, but literal brick and mortar houses — in the land of Canaan that appear to have plague-like mildew. Leviticus states that the Kohanim were to swing by those houses and then quarantine them for a week.

Naturally, the Mishnah gets into the weeds of the practice of triaging lepers and those with STIs and when to determine quarantine, confirm a case or declare a person clean.

But, if there is one clear takeaway from the various types of quarantines, and one relevant one in this time of pandemic hysteria, it is a preoccupation with cleanliness. Often one sees the refrain “do not touch” or, in the case of lepers, “pluck out”

Consider an 11th Commandment in the days and weeks to come: Thou shalt wash thy hands.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]


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