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Wearing a face mask? You’re doing a mitzvah. Make a brachah!

Among the Jewish tradition’s most cherished values is the sanctity of human life. With a few notable exceptions, one must not endanger their life in order to fulfill a religious obligation. And one must violate even the most significant commandments in order to save another person’s life. Saving one life is regarded as the equivalent of saving an entire world, and consequently, taking a life is seen as tantamount to destroying an entire world.

It’s not just about saving people who are in mortal danger (known as pikuah ha-nefesh). Jewish tradition also expresses its commitment to the supreme importance of human life through laws related to the preservation and protection of life. This class of commandments is known as shmirat ha-nefesh; literally, protecting life. It is derived from a biblical verse which teaches, “Be cautious with yourself and seriously guard your life” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Rabbinic tradition understood this verse to mean that we are not allowed to knowingly endanger our lives or engage in behaviors that would likely result in disease or death. And we are similarly obligated to take steps to protect others’ lives, like building a parapet around the roofs of our houses to minimize the risk of someone accidentally falling.

Seen from this perspective, Jews ought to regard actions which help prevent us and others from contracting or communicating the novel coronavirus, like thoroughly washing our hands, wearing face masks, and remaining at home, as mitzvot, sacred obligations. These behaviors are more than wise acts of self-preservation and kind contributions to public health; they are holy deeds, religious requirements, with the force of divine injunction.

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And if behaviors like thoroughly washing our hands, wearing face masks, and remaining at home are mitzvot, then they should be preceded by blessings. Relevant blessings accompany the performance of most other mitzvot.

To offer a timely example, consider matzah, the unleavened bread Jews are obligated to eat on the first night of Passover. Before eating matzah at the Passover Seder, one is supposed to recite, “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about eating matzah.”

We recite a blessing before fulfilling a commandment to indicate that the deed we are about to perform is thoughtful and deliberate. We affirm that we are doing the action intentionally, and for the sake of fulfilling a religious obligation. In this way, we affirm the spiritual significance of the behavior, turning the thoughtless and the mundane into the intentional and the sacred, and helping us live with more meaning and purpose.

Since protective acts like hygienic hand-washing, wearing face masks, and sheltering in place should be considered mitzvot, at least during this pandemic, it seems to me that they should be preceded by an appropriate blessing, just like other mitzvot. Requiring a blessing would underscore the significance of these acts and encourage vigilant observance.

Additionally, since several months into the coronavirus pandemic these protective actions increasingly feel habitual or burdensome to many, requiring a blessing would properly elevate them, reminding us of their profound sanctity.

And yet, for some unknown or inscrutable reason, there are not traditional blessings over each and every act that could be considered shmirat ha-nefesh. There is a blessing for constructing a parapet: “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us to make a parapet.” But by tradition, building a parapet is the only act of protecting life that has an associated blessing.

Since there is a traditional blessing over erecting a parapet, it is tempting to simply apply that blessing to actions like hygienic hand-washing, wearing face masks, and staying at home. There are undoubtedly parallels between putting a fence on one’s roof for others’ safety and, say, putting a mask on one’s face for others’ safety. Still, it feels odd to use the same blessing for both acts. While analogous, they aren’t identical. Putting on a mask while reciting “to make a parapet” could diminish, rather than enhance, the intentionality of the act.

Instead, I propose creating a new blessing for the actions we take to keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy during a pandemic: “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about protecting life.” Or, in Hebrew: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, Asher keed’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzeevanu al sh’mirat ha-nefesh.

While it is unusual for contemporary rabbis to create and mandate new blessings, it is not without precedent. And moreover, this novel blessing is in no way radical. It merely fills a gap in the tradition, giving an inexplicably blessingless commandment a traditional benediction like other sacred deeds.

More importantly, a blessing will remind us that these actions are not just good but godly, not just for safety but for sanctity, not just required but righteous.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.


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