A report from the NYC Department of Health points out a problem with Orthodox Judaism – hand washing.
What do Orthodox Jews do after using a bathroom or changing a baby's diaper?
They was their hands using a ritual washing cup and – on Shabbat – cold water. Each had has water poured over it 2 (or 3) times, the same process used when washing for bread, except the hands are washed alternately, once on the right, then once on the left, again on the right, again on the left, until each hand is washed three times.
But what many Orthodox Jews – especially hasidim and other haredim – do not do on Shabbat is use soap. And, perhaps worse than that, they use the same ritual washing cup as others who also may not have fist washed their hands normally with soap.
Enter the latest disease outbreak, concentrated – no surprise here – in Williamsburg and Borough Park, two heavily hasidic neighborhoods:
From the NYC Department of Health via VosIZNeais:
The Health Department today notified Orthodox Jewish residents of the Borough Park and Williamsburg communities in Brooklyn of an ongoing outbreak of shigella, an intestinal infection. So far this year, the two communities have had more than 150 cases of shigella, more than half of them among very young children. In the hardest-hit area – zip code 11219 – 60 people have been infected.
The Health Department is working with community leaders, including rabbis and City Council members, to raise awareness of the outbreak and to provide advice on prevention.
Shigella is a bacterial infection which is spread when food or water become contaminated with microscopic amounts of fecal matter from an infected person. It spreads when people do not wash hands well enough and have a tiny amount of infected stool on their hands, after using the bathroom or changing a diaper. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, nausea and cramps. Shigella infections can last several weeks, and people typically recover without treatment. Antibiotics should only be given for severe cases as the shigella bacteria causing the outbreak in Brooklyn are already resistant to many common antibiotics. To avoid spreading the infection, people who are sick should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and should stay home from work or school until they are better. If you think you may be infected, call your doctor.
Because shigella spreads through fecal matter, prevention requires washing hands frequently and carefully with soap and warm, running water. Everyone should wash their hands for 20 seconds after using the toilet or changing diapers, and before eating or preparing food. If residents perform ritual hand washing (Asher Yatsar) after using the bathroom, they should also wash their hands with soap and warm water.
Shigella spreads easily among young children in daycare and preschool environments. Parents, teachers and caregivers should help young children wash their hands thoroughly and should make sure it is done properly. It takes very few shigella bacteria to cause illness.
“We encourage residents to be vigilant about hand-washing,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, Medical Epidemiologist in the Health Department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease. “Visit your doctor if you are sick, and stay home until you are well. It is especially important for children to stay home from school or day care when sick so that they don’t spread the disease to other kids.”
Large outbreaks of shigella have occurred in recent decades in traditionally observant Jewish communities in Borough Park, Williamsburg and other parts of New York State, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland and Canada. Some 274 cases of shigella were reported in New York City in 2006, a rate of 3.4 cases per 100,000 people.
So why do Jews was their hands with a ritual washing cup after using a bathroom or the like? Cleanliness?
The do it because of superstition. And this superstition is found nowhere in the Torah.
Thank you for your question. There are two primary reasons for the requirement to wash our hands. One is because of Nekius - cleanliness, after we engage in an activity which would dirty or sully our hands, and before we Daven, learn, eat, etc. For this, we can wash our hands with anything that cleans them, there is no required amount of times to wash, and no cup is necessary. The other is because of Ruach Ra'ah, a "spirit of impurity" which can come onto a person and will only leave after they have washed their hands three times, alternating hands each time, and with a proper cup. Examples of when this would be required are when waking up in the morning, after taking a haircut, and after entering a bathhouse or bathroom, even if you did not bathe or use the facilities.
The actual act of going to the bathroom is in the first category, and just for going to the bathroom there is no requirement to wash your hands three times. However, as we mentioned above, there is a Ruach Ra'ah in a bathroom. Many Poskim today qualify this and say that our bathrooms don't have a Ruach Ra'ah, since there is no buildup of waste in the bathroom itself, it is immediately flushed away. It is also not so simple according to Halacha that our showers qualify as the bathhouses that Chaza"l spoke about. Therefore, many people are lenient today and don't wash three times after using the bathroom. If you DO wash three times, it isn't helpful to wash in the bathroom sink, as the requirement is after just BEING in the bathroom. This is why most Israeli apartments have sinks just outside the bathroom for washing, to circumvent this issue.
Rabbi Aaron Tendler
So the cup is used to to remove evil spirits that somehow will not come off with regular hand washing.
People could try to get around this health problem (a.k.a. a sakana) by first washing their hands with soap and water and then washing ritually.
But many haredim refuse to use any soap – even diluted liquid soap – on Shabbat. They consider it a violation of Shabbat law. I remember being told even Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said (and I paraphrase) "I don't see how liquid soap is permissible." I think Rav Moshe then goes on to find a way to, reluctantly, permit it.
So this superstition with no Torah source takes precedence in some corners of the haredi world over real health issues, issues that are governed by clear halakha with a Torah source.
So you're at a haredi family's home for Shabbat. You use the liquid soap. So you're safe, right?
As long as one person there does not use soap and correctly wash their hands, the bacteria, if present in that person, can easily be spread to everyone else.
Note the areas of outbreak are heavily hasidic.
The more Litvish areas seem to have largely escaped the outbreak. This is most likely because, when faced with clear medical evidence, most Litvish poskim (rabbinic judges, so to speak) will choose to heed medical advice and avoid danger, just as halakha demands.
Hasidim and Hungarian non-hasidic haredim, on the other hand, are far more concerned with custom and superstition. Just as these rabbis refused to stop metzitza b'pe despite evidence of clear danger, they will probably refuse to take the steps necessary to stop this outbreak.
The purveyors of toilet tissue, Preparation H and other necessities to Brooklyn's haredim can look forward to a very profitable Spring.
UPDATE 6-27-08: The outbreak worsens.