- Question: [Sunday, 14th Mar Cheshvan, 5781]
What is the Torah source for wearing masks? Meaning, aside for the general obligation to guard one’s health is prescribed by doctors is there any specific source in Torah that discusses the wearing of masks during an epidemic of which I am sure there were plenty of throughout history.
The wearing of a mask during a pandemic is first mentioned in a response of the Tzemach Tzedek to the famous scholar, Rabbi Nechemia of Dubravna during the infamous Cholera pandemic in Europe in the early 1800s. The ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek relates to the fast day of Tisha b’Av in face of the epidemic and what should be done. His ruling was later recorded in the Sefer Pischei Olam of Rav Dov Ber Karasik, volume 2 554:8, which was later brought in the Mishneh Berurah in Chapter 554:6 in the Biur Halacha. The following is a free translation of the statement of the Tzemach Tzedek printed in Shaalos Vetueshuvos Tzemach Tzedek O.C. 110, and in Divrei Nechemia O.C. 41: “Whoever desires to fast in an area where the epidemic is not very strong heaven forbid, should be advised and warned not to leave his home the entire day. Likewise, when he does have to leave, he should be forced to wear a small piece of camphor around his nose and mouth, have with them a little bit of mint leaf.” Camphor is a herb, and was believed to be one of the best homeopathic remedies against the cholera. Seemingly the same applies for the mint leaves. Now, in order for the camphor and little bit of mint leaf to be placed around his nose and mouth, it either had to be placed in a mask which was worn around the nose and mouth, possibly similar to the doctor masks that were used in previous times which contained a beak in which the herbs were placed, or that the leaves themselves covered ones nose and mouth. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Tzemach Tzedek is instructing that there be an item covering one’s nose and mouth, whether a cloth, herb, or beak. [Now, while one can certainly argue that the purpose of this was to inhale the medicinal attributes of these herbs, perhaps it was also said to be done in order to prevent inhaling the bad air which was believed to carry the Cholera. At the very least we have found a hint to the idea of wearing Covid masks, and the need to force the population to do whatever they can to prevent the spread of the disease in accordance to the believed medical directives of the time.]
To note that based on this statement it is understood that not only have we found a source in Poskim for wearing “masks” but also for quarantine, as he states, “should be advised and warned not to leave his home the entire day.”