To Mask or Not to Mask

By Rabbi Carl Choper, Temple Beth Shalom


Hezkiya taught (in Jeremiah 50:17): "Israel are scattered sheep" - why are Israel likened to a sheep? Just as a sheep, when hurt on its head or some other body part, all of its body parts feel it. So it is with Israel when one of them sins and everyone feels it (as it says in Numbers 16:22): "When one man sins [will You be wrathful with the whole community]." Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: Men were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him: What are sitting and doing?! He replied: What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship. This is as Job said (Job 19:4): "If indeed I have erred, my error remains with me." But his friends said to him (in Job 34:37): "He adds transgression to his sin; he extends it among us." [The men on the ship said]: You extend your sins among us.

Leviticus Rabbah 4:6 as found on


There is much controversy these days about whether people should be required to wear masks in public to protect others from becoming infected by a potentially lethal virus.  The argument against the requirement to wear a mask seems to be that it should be a personal choice, and that, at any rate, it might not be very helpful anyway.

Because we are dealing with questions of life, death, and great suffering, there are deep moral problems with this approach to the situation.

First, the question as to whether or not wearing a mask may be helpful is not a question of opinion.  That is a question as to what are the facts.  In this case, we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to ask those most in a position to know what the facts actually are. Since the potential consequences are so great, the only moral option is to base our decisions on the facts as they are currently best understood by those best equipped to know.  In other words, we should ask those trained in science what the scientifically understood facts are.  To do anything else brings with it the greater likelihood that we are putting those around us at great risk to life and limb, which is an immoral act.

The second objection to this argument against wearing masks gets to the moral heart of the matter.  The decision whether or not to wear a mask in public is not a matter of my own civil right to choose to do what I want to do regardless of what anyone says. The decision to wear a mask is a matter of my civic responsibility and my moral obligation to others around me not to put their life in danger.

It is like the Rabbinic story where there were several people in a boat, and one man started drilling into the floor of the boat under his own seat.  All the others in the boat were quite certain that if the one man put a hole in the floor of the boat under his own seat the result would be that the boat would sink with everyone.  But the man drilling the hole insisted he was only drilling under his own seat, and that was nobody’s business but his own.

The issue ultimately is communal responsibility.  Do we as individuals have a moral obligation to protect our community?  And does the community have the right to expect that we as individuals will not put the community unnecessarily at risk?  The ethical answer to both questions is yes.

Arguing that your decision whether or not to wear a mask in public is totally your own private decision is like arguing that drilling into the floor of a boat under your own seat is not at all the concern of everyone else on the boat you are about to sink. It takes the argument of individual liberty, which may be the most beautiful aspect of the American social ethic, and stretches it to the point of absurdity. It is illogical, and most importantly, it is immoral.