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Jewish Custom in the Time of Swine Flu

August 13, 2009

ISRAEL/In Israel, the death count for the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak reached 7 yesterday, and for some citizens, fighting the virus has taken on some religious dimensions.

Israel’s leading paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote an article about health concerns raised by Israel’s Ultra Orthodox media: kissing mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny encasement holding a piece of parchment with a Jewish prayer enscribed on it. Mezuzahs are nailed to most doorways inside a Jewish home, and traditionally, Jews will touch the mezuzah and kiss their fingers when entering a house.  An ultra-orthodox journalist decided to ask seven doctors their opinion on whether this tradition could be dangerous in the Swine flu era.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, “The doctors unanimously agreed that bacteria leave high levels of residue on such objects, but six of them refused to comment on mezuzot in particular, ‘so as not to get in trouble with the rabbis’.”

Only one doctor in the article affirmed that their could be a direct link between kissing a mezuzah and contracting the virus.

The results lead some rabbis to make suggestions for how to preserve the practice in light of potential health hazards. Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said, “If a specific order is given in the matter, the mezuzah must be kissed from the air, to ensure that the custom is not forgotten.”

It’s not the first problem there’s been concerning the disease and local beliefs. When it arrived in Israel earlier this year, the Ultra-Orthodox deputy health minister insisted on respect for the kosher dietary traditions that ban the eating of pork: he banned references to the illness as “swine” flu…

Earlier this week, we wrote about the ”flying rabbis” trying to combat the flu: “Dozens of rabbis and Kabbalah mystics armed with ceremonial trumpets have taken to the skies over Israel to battle the H1N1 flu virus.”

After the flight, Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri said “we are certain that, thanks to prayer, the danger is already behind us.”

According to an article in Ha’aretz, there have been  2,148 cases of verified swine flu in Israel and half of them have been under the age of 30.

PHOTO:Israeli doctor at the health clinic in Ben Gurion Airport, Israel. The clinic was opened as part of an effort to combat the virus’ spread from high-risk countries. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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