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The Secret Message Behind Being in Quarantine and Shaking Hands


Blog #1: The Secret Message Behind Being in Quarantine

In the following article, Rabbi Benjamin Blech provides us with a deeper understanding of what being in quarantine is all about:   

The word for quarantine has an etymological – and fascinating historical truth that in all probability is rooted in a biblical connection.

To find the origin of the word we must go back to 14th century Europe. It was then that repeated waves of plagues swept across the continent and after arriving in southern Europe in 1347 spread rapidly to England, Germany and Russia by 1350. It’s estimated that one third of Europe’s population perished as a result and the impact of the epidemic led to the institution of extreme infection control measures. In 1374 Viscount Bernabo of Reggio Italy declared that every person with plague must be taken out of the city into the fields, there to die or to recover.

In the Mediterranean seaport of Ragusa, the city’s famous Jewish chief physician Jacob of Padua counseled the establishment of a place outside the city walls for treatment of ill townspeople and outsiders seeking a cure. Somehow the doctor intuited the contagion theory that promoted separation of healthy persons from those who are sick.

With that idea in mind, in 1377 the Great Council passed a law establishing a thirty-day isolation for ships arriving from plague infested areas. No one from Ragusa was allowed to visit those ships under trentino, the 30-day isolation period, and if someone broke the law, they too would be isolated for the mandatory 30 days. The law seemed to be effective in diminishing the ravages of the Black Death and it caught on. Over the next 80 years, Marseilles, Pisa, and various other cities adopted similar measures. Only one change was instituted for the trentino. For some reason the 30 days were extended to 40 – hence quarantine from the Italian root for the 40 days of isolation.

Historians are uncertain about what prompted the change and why in particular the number 40 was chosen. Of course, it is possible that it was simply because of the feeling that the shorter period was insufficient to prevent spread of the disease. But many scholars believe that in an age of profound religious belief and of reverence for the Bible the number 40 resonated with great meaning – the same meaning that both Christians and Jews have recognized by its emphasis in Torah narratives.

The story of Noah and the flood had a 40-day timeline. That was enough to change the world. Later, Moses would ascend Mount Sinai and remain there precisely for 40 days to return with the two tablets of stone containing the 10 Commandments. That too would alter human history. When the Jews who left Egypt were hesitant about fulfilling God’s command to enter Israel, they insisted on first sending delegates to “spy out the land.” Their trip lasted 40 days. Their report was filled with pessimism and caused despair among the freed slaves. That angered God for its lack of faith in the divine promise and for that reason the Jews would be forced to wander in the desert for 40 years – a year for a day of their sin – until a new generation could arise who were no longer marked by the slave mentality of defeatism.

For Jews the number 40 maintains its symbolic significance for the concept of change and renewal in the realm of Jewish law as well. Someone ritually impure must immerse in a body of water, a mikveh, filled with 40 se’ahs, a liquid measure, in order to change their spiritual identity. A non-Jew wishing to convert to Judaism must similarly enter a mikveh to become considered as if newly born – the water symbolically echoing the prelude to birth of the fetus in the amniotic sac. It takes 40 days for and embryo to be formed in the mother’s womb; until then it is considered little more than water. And every year, when Jews spend the time from the first day of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur totally dedicated to introspection, change, and teshuvah, repentance, it is in the profound hope that these 40 days will make them into new and better versions of themselves.

How remarkable then that the word to describe the attempt of the world to combat the dreaded consequence of a deadly plague affecting us physically is quarantine - the same reference to the number 40 so fundamental to the biblical emphasis on change, on self-improvement, on rebirth to a higher level from a spiritual perspective.

Yes, the world will survive the coronavirus pandemic. And hopefully sooner rather than later, we will come out of quarantine and resume our lives of normalcy. But the time we spent in our homes confined together with our loved ones and removed from the harried lives we have become accustomed to, lives that allow us no time for personal reflection, ought in retrospect inspire us to greater connection with the more meaningful references of the number 40. 

Perhaps the 40 of quarantine can imbue us with the kind of clarity about our life’s purpose that will better link us to the 40 days of Moses on Mount Sinai.

It is a formidable task to find any ray of light in our present darkness. It is faith, however, that asks of us to hear the message of 40 – change, renewal, and hope for a better future.

Blog #2:

One of the first “casualties” of the Coronavirus pandemic was the custom/societal norm of handshaking (even on Shabbat). Once we are finally over and done with COVID-19 (which hopefully will be sooner rather than later) will we return to shaking hands? Or perhaps handshaking will be replaced by something else? In the following article, “The Handshake is Dead. Long Live the…” Amy Friedman shares her perspective.

I think I am in the minority here, but I happen to love to shake hands.

The night before I left for college, my dad taught me how in our suburban New Jersey kitchen. “O.K., so what if the college president introduces himself to you? You need a good handshake,” he advised. “Look him right in the eye, firm shake, smile, and say your name proudly.”

This was 1982, and I was headed to the University of Pennsylvania, so for 90 minutes we walked back and forth across that familiar linoleum floor. My dad would say, “Hi… I’m Sheldon Hackney,” with his hand out for a shake, and I would say, “Hi, I’m Amy Friedman,” with a smile and a firm grip. And we’d cross again. And again. And again.

Now, you don’t need to be a Freudian analyst to understand what we were really rehearsing. The notion of leaving home and entering the real world, where handshakes were required, was a transition my family had planned for, saved for, obsessed about. But who was really ready to say goodbye?

Ever since, I have been complimented on my handshake. Colleagues, especially men of a certain age, seem almost surprised. Because I came of career age when female professionals and executives were still something of a novelty, my handshake was a quiet, proud badge of membership in the second-wave feminism club.

Most of my contemporaries disagree with me that handshaking is fun. There’s the ubiquitous issue of sweaty palms. There’s the plain old awkwardness of touching a relative stranger. And there’s the feeling that shaking hands is a decidedly male tradition that women never quite owned.

In fact, the history of the handshake goes all the way back to the 5th century B.C.E., in Greece, and did indeed skew male. The grasping of hands was used as a gesture of peace, demonstrating that neither party was carrying a weapon. The up and down motion is thought to have been added later, in Medieval Europe, and was designed to shake loose any hidden weapons in clothing… “See, I have nothing in my hands, or up my sleeve”.

The handshake had become relatively ubiquitous in my own pre-COVID modern work world. An ice-breaker. A signal to end the meeting. Perhaps, sometimes, a bit of a test?

Now, the future of the handshake is one of many aspects of post-pandemic life we’re all spending way too much time pondering. What will return? What will be forever changed?

Will “working from home” lose it’s ironic “quotation marks” since no one can deny that productivity is actually possible? Will those of us currently embracing our gray roots skip the salon or go running back? Will we continue to acknowledge and respect the work of postal workers, food delivery people, and grocery checkers?

Reasonable minds will disagree. But it seems clear to me that the future of the handshake is deeply in doubt. When I see handshakes in movies now, I actually wince.

So, dear reader, some possible substitutions, understanding that I am neither the first nor the most qualified to offer them (CNN, for example, recently put out this guide).

In looking for substitutes, my filters include warmth, eye contact, and hygiene, not necessarily in that order. Here are four to consider:

Warm Hands

At my synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., instead of applauding at a brilliant D’var Torah or moving song during services, we rub our hands together then hold them up in front of us, to signal warm appreciation for what was just shared. Is it a little corny? Yes it is. Do we all love it anyway? Yes we do!

Heart to Heart

This is an original, as far as I know, but check me if you like. Put your hand on your own heart, as you nod and make direct eye contact with whomever you are greeting. Can be done in unison.

(Alternate would be the modified “al cheyt,” borrowing from the chest-thumping many Jews do while reciting the confession on Yom Kippur. The number of thumps could signify the relationship type — two for business, three for friends, four for beloved elderly relatives you haven’t seen in a long time.)

There is no “I” in Team

This is where you clasp your own hands together, almost Rocky-style only in front of your chest rather than overhead. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned handshake (from way back in February 2020) only safer! Add a head nod and the signature eye contact, and you’re ready to start the meeting.

(Advanced hug version: crisscross arms in front of your chest, fists balled, kind of like an old-fashioned hug (circa Feb. 2020). With eye contact and a head nod, almost feels like the real thing

Grasping for Elbows

This one may be disqualified for obvious social-distancing reasons, but I’m wondering if there’s something in double elbow grasp on the outside part of the elbow that is both safe enough and satisfying. Crossing into another’s sneeze zone might make this one controversial in some circles, but let’s consult Dr. Fauci and see if we can get a waiver.

I do hope that whatever we end up with, our post-COVID handshake replacement can capture some of the more important lessons of this “unprecedented” time: that we are all connected, respected, and depend on each other. I’ll shake to that.