This year’s Purim is a little different than most. Not only are we thinking about the story of Queen Esther, everyone has coronavirus on the mind. COVID-19 has been detected in almost 90 locations around the world, and on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared it a “public health emergency of international concern.”
As a result, synagogues and Jewish organizations have amended their Purim festivities to eliminate the spread of disease. Parties and carnivals have been canceled, and some individuals have opted out of attending Purim services at all.
“Purim is considered a celebration of hidden miracles,” said Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt of Park East Synagogue in New York City. “Hidden or unhidden, we definitely need some divine intervention over here.”
While we eagerly await Israeli scientists to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, the Purim celebrations must go on! Here are 6 tips to stay healthy and safe during the holiday.
1) Don’t wear a coronavirus costume.
The most obvious costume for Purim this year is the coronavirus itself (followed closely by Bernie Sanders, Harley Quinn, and Baby Yoda). Whether you interpret this to dress as a sickly patient, a person in a surgical mask and HAZMAT suit, or whatever that thing is pictured above… we urge you to think twice before doing this.
This opens up a much broader question: Is it okay to joke about the coronavirus? On one hand, the internet has exploded with memes about the hot topic since it broke out late last year. On the other hand, certain public figures, like Prince William and PewDiePie, have received flack for taking the deadly disease too lightly.
Paul Lewis, author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, says, “This virus is a terrible scary thing, and, therefore, we should expect joking….People usually make jokes about everything, but then news narrows down, and has this element of fear, jokes are a way of temporarily triumphing over and repressing it.”
While gallows humor is an efficient way to ease tension, perhaps it’s something to keep to yourself or among close friends. Not among the entire Jewish community, where others may have friends or family already affected by the virus. On a holiday when we’re celebrating how the Jews of Persia overcame an attempted genocide, joking about a deathly illness seems particularly morbid.
2) Greet your friends without shaking hands or hugging.
One recommendation to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay 3 feet away from other people, particularly those coughing and sneezing. The World Health Organization refers to this as “social distancing.”
This may be standard practice if you’re shomer negiah, but for everyone else, how can you possibly go to synagogue on Purim and not greet others with a handshake or a hug? And especially on a day as joyous as Purim!
Dr. Mark Sklansky, medical director of the UCLA Children’s Heart Center, has some suggestions for noncontact greetings. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, he and his colleagues recommend waving, placing the right palm over the heart, or making a Namaste gesture. Dr. Sklansky points out there are noncontact greetings that don’t even involve hands, such as simply making eye contact or smiling.
Another idea is to replace a handshake with the Vulcan salute, as popularized by Mr. Spock of Star Trek. The gesture was invented by Spock’s actor Leonard Nimoy, who based it on the Jewish Priestly Blessing. (We have an article all about this coming up in a few weeks!)
3) Don’t use vodka as hand sanitizer.
Everyone knows the tradition of drinking on Purim so that one “cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). In fact, we wrote a drinking game a few years ago to help you get started. That means there is probably an open bar somewhere in reach. But remember, please use the alcohol for drinking, not for sterilizing your hands.
As anxiety continues to rise, hand sanitizer has quickly disappeared from pharmacy shelves and online stores. People have begun making their own hand sanitizer with rubbing alcohol, but that’s been running out of stock too. So naturally, the next DIY step is vodka, right?
Tito’s Handmake Vodka tweeted last week that this is a bad idea. They said, “Per the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC.”
So don’t waste your alcohol and keep it in your cup. Besides, the CDC only recommends hand sanitizer when you can’t use soap and water. Which brings us to our next piece of advice…
4) Wash your hands while singing a Purim song for 20 seconds.
The CDC says that washing your hands is one of the best ways to protect yourself from illness. In order to wash effectively, you should scrub for at least twenty seconds. If you need a timer, you can sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
But in the spirit of the holiday, we suggest singing a Purim song, such as “La Kova Sheli” (or the English equivalent, “My Hat, It Has Three Corners”). By the time you finish the second round of the song (where you remove the word “kova”), 20 seconds will have likely passed. Of course, you are free to finish the song and/or continue washing your hands.
If La Kov Sheli feels just a bit too childish, we also suggest “Chag Purim” or “Once There Was a Wicked, Wicked Man.”
5) Stay home and live stream a Megillah reading if you feel sick.
Another thing the CDC suggests is to stay home if you feel sick. This is absolutely important. Don’t worry, you can still participate in Purim festivities from the comfort of your own home. Many synagogues will stream the Megillah reading over the internet, so you may follow along as it is read live.
Some more traditional Jews will argue that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah read, it must be done so in person. However, there are exceptions to this when it comes to saving lives. The Rabbinical Council of America, a body of Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement saying, “There is a higher obligation not to harm others and one is not permitted to risk doing so in such cases.”
Similarly, The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism say: “Hearing the Megillah being read via telephone or live streaming, is permitted when necessary, so long as the sound is undistorted, live and not a recording.”
You can contact your local synagogue to find out if they offer a livestream, but here is a list (courtesy of My Jewish Learning) of congregations who will provide online services:
- Adas Israel, Washington, D.C.
- B’nai Jeshurun, Cleveland, Ohio
- Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, New York
- Beth Yeshurun, Houston, Texas
- Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills, California
And if you absolutely despise these streaming options, you could just watch One Night with the King instead.
6) Relax and enjoy yourself.
At the end of the day, it’s important not to worry too much about the COVID-19 outbreak. “When threats are uncertain, such as the current coronavirus situation, our anxious minds can easily overestimate the actual threat and underestimate our ability to cope with it,” says Dr. Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at UC San Francisco.
Purim is the happiest holiday on the Jewish calendar, and it is important to celebrate it as such. If you are feeling well and able, get in costume, go to synagogue, and eat some individually-wrapped hamantashen. Take the appropriate precautions and recite a misheberach for those who are ill, but other than that, otherwise enjoy yourself and have a Chag Smeach.