The Mask Mandate: A Biblical Polemic
The Bible bans making masekhot (Exod 34:17; Lev 19:4; Deut 27:15), and concern about this practice appears in 29 separate verses. The word מַסֵּכָה, masekhah is generally translated as “something molten,” from the root נ.ס.כ, and is understood to refer to an image or idol of some kind, such as the golden calf (Exod 32:4, 8). And yet, rarely does historical-critical biblical scholarship limit a word or verse to one meaning.
Moreover, as James Kugel points out, Judaism views scripture as “a fundamentally relevant text,” as תורת חיים, “a living Torah,” which should encourage us to find contemporary meaning in ancient verses. We can do this by translating the term masekhah based on its Modern Hebrew cognate, where a masekhah refers to a face mask.
A Mask Prohibition?
Some biblical scholars may object to this translation, citing the well-known rabbinic principle that post-biblical Hebrew cannot be used to elucidate biblical Hebrew, and arguing that the prohibition is unambiguously about graven images. This perspective is incorrect: Often later Hebrew is a much better indication of what a biblical word meant than a distant cognate, such as Arabic. The cultic decalogue—a fancy biblical term for a list of ten (if you can fudge the counting to suit your conclusions) laws that aren’t the famous Ten Commandments, but resembles them in some way—reads:
שמות לד:יז אֱלֹהֵ֥י מַסֵּכָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֶׂה לָּֽךְ.
Exod 34:17 Gods of masekhah you shall not make for yourself.
It might seem clear that this verse is referring to gods made from molten metal, but this is not necessarily the case. First, the verse can easily be translated as “Facemasks you shall not make for yourself” by simply ignoring the first word אֱלֹהֵ֥י, “gods of.” My late teacher, Nahum Sarna, would often say: “A good scholar should never let facts interfere with theories,” and as a senior Bible scholar, I can use my privilege to simply remove the word אֱלֹהֵ֥י, “gods of.” (Each of us gets a certain amount of these emendation privileges upon receiving tenure; they increase as we move up the academic ranks.)
But it doesn’t hurt to also include a substantial argument, especially if it accomplishes the same (pre-conceived) results. Biblical scribes sometimes accidentally left out a phrase, a word, or a letter if their eye skipped to the next occurrence of that word or letter, a phenomenon scholars call haplography. As a result, an originally doubled phrase, word, or letter, appears only once. This is clearly what happened here, and the original text read:
אֱלֹהִים מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ׃
God, a face mask you shall not make for yourself.
Readers may object that this is gibberish, but I suggest taking this first word as a vocative, yielding: “By God! (or, more colloquially, “By Jove!”) Don’t get masked up.”
On Biblical Ambiguities: Yes Is No and No Is Yes
So is the Torah unambiguously prohibiting facemasks? Well, yes and no, since I can read this very same verse as requiring facemasks. If this seems surprising to readers, it is likely because non-specialists are unfamiliar with the hermeneutic principle that, unlike in real life, in the Bible “no” sometimes means “yes—indeed.”
The locus classicus for this is in Amos 7:14, who says: לֹא־נָבִ֣יא אָנֹ֔כִי, which literally means “I am not a prophet” but likely means “I am indeed a prophet.” This makes much more sense: Certainly, Amos was a prophet, conceived of himself as a prophet, and knew that his book would be published in the Prophets section! Applying this meaning of לֹא to our verse yields the translation: “By God! Indeed you should mask yourself up!”
Some readers might think that reading a verse to say two opposite things at the same time just proves that, as Nahum Sarna used to say, academic biblical scholars are psychoceramics—his euphemism for “crackpots”—but I feel instead that we are the spiritual descendants of the rabbis of old (j. Sanhedrin 4:1, 22a):
תַּלְמִיד ווָתִיק הָיָה לְרִבִּי וְהָיָה מְטָהֵר אֶת הַשֶׁרֶץ וּמְטַמְּאוֹ ק׳ פְעָמִים .
R. Judah the Prince had an old student who render[ed] the sheretz [=creeping-crawling creature] pure and impure a hundred times.
Thus, following rabbinic precedent, biblical scholars interpret the very same verse in opposite ways.
On Gods and Masks
Perhaps I dismissed the whole god/mask connection too quickly. If we look at some biblical verses outside the Torah—yes these count—we can see that the prophets had a real fear that people would worship masks. Thus, Deutero-Isaiah writes:
ישעיה מב:יז נָסֹ֤גוּ אָחוֹר֙ יֵבֹ֣שׁוּ בֹ֔שֶׁת הַבֹּטְחִ֖ים בַּפָּ֑סֶל הָאֹמְרִ֥ים לְמַסֵּכָ֖ה אַתֶּ֥ם אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
Isa 42:17 Driven back and utterly shamed shall be those who trust in an image, those who say concerning masks (le-masekhah), ‘You are our gods!’”
This is also the view of the prophet Habakkuk:
חבקוק ב:יח מָֽה־הוֹעִ֣יל פֶּ֗סֶל כִּ֤י פְסָלוֹ֙ יֹֽצְר֔וֹ מַסֵּכָ֖ה וּמ֣וֹרֶה שָּׁ֑קֶר כִּ֣י בָטַ֞ח יֹצֵ֤ר יִצְרוֹ֙ עָלָ֔יו לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֱלִילִ֥ים אִלְּמִֽים׃
Hab 2:18 What has the carved image availed, that he who fashioned it has carved it to be a mask (masekhah) and a false oracle—that he who fashioned his product has trusted in it, making dumb idols?
These verses clearly foresee the position of some in the contemporary religious right, who argue that it is God, not masks, who protect people from Covid-19, and thus wearing a mask is idolatrous. If we apply this to our original verse, we can propose a new translation: “Gods that are masks you shall not make for yourself.”
What About the Golden Calf?
But doesn’t the story of the Golden Calf prove my translation wrong? Not at all. In fact, the Golden Calf story is the key to understanding the message of the mask controversy to our day and age. According to Exodus 32, when Moses tarries too long on the mountain, the people ask Aaron to make them a god. Aaron has the Israelites collect their gold and bring it to him, after which:
שמות לב:ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:4 This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a calf mask (ʿegel masekhah). And they exclaimed, “These are your gods O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
Apparently, Aaron made a golden mask for himself, in the shape of a calf, perhaps to protect himself from whatever diseases the Israelites were transmitting from all the partying the next day. According to the story, YHWH got angry with Aaron’s masking and the people worshipping the calf mask, and Moses destroyed it. (See also Deuteronomy 9:12, 16 which just says the same thing again, because hey, it’s Deuteronomy and that’s what it does.) One would think that this means that God unambiguously hates masks, but as historical-critical study shows, things are never that simple.
The Great Mask Debate: South versus North
Scholars have long noted that the story about the Golden Calf Mask is actually a polemic against the worship sites of northern Israel, established by King Jeroboam, as these temples used calf masks as part of their worship. The consensus of biblical scholarship is that in most official Southern, Judahite circles, YHWH was worshipped aniconically (with no image) in the Jerusalem Temple. The Torah is against masks because, as scholars have shown, it was written by southerners, some of whom anathemized Northern worship. In fact, the book of Kings, speaking from a southern perspective, argues that the calf masks were one reason why the north was destroyed:
מלכים ב יז:טז וַיַּעַזְב֗וּ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹת֙ יְ־הוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֔ם וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ לָהֶ֛ם מַסֵּכָ֖ה (שׁנים) [שְׁנֵ֣י] עֲגָלִ֑ים וַיַּעֲשׂ֣וּ אֲשֵׁירָ֗ה וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲווּ֙ לְכָל־צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיַּעַבְד֖וּ אֶת־הַבָּֽעַל׃
2 Kgs 17:16 They rejected all the commandments of YHWH their God; they made masks (masechah) for themselves—two calves—and they made a sacred post and they bowed down to all the host of heaven, and they worshiped Baal.
In a recent article on TheTorah.com (yes we know that we plug our own stuff a lot), “The Golden Calf: Bull-El Worship,” Rami Arav argues that the calf in these stories is really a bull. This agrees with the important observation of Bible scholar and professional punster Nahum Sarna, that the Judahite writers thought that Northern worship was a lot of bull. What we see here is a clear ancient division between north and south about whether masking is godly or an abomination to God.
A careful reading of the Bible—scholarly code for “my reading of the Bible”—shows us that this tension was not limited to north versus south but would sometimes spill over into marital strife. In the Song of Songs, which describes the life of Solomon’s wives, or random shepherd girls—no one actually knows what this book is about—she complains to her husband/boyfriend/lover:
שיר השירים א:ז הַגִּ֣ידָה לִּ֗י שֶׁ֤אָהֲבָה֙ נַפְשִׁ֔י אֵיכָ֣ה תִרְעֶ֔ה אֵיכָ֖ה תַּרְבִּ֣יץ בַּֽצָּהֳרָ֑יִם שַׁלָּמָ֤ה אֶֽהְיֶה֙ כְּעֹ֣טְיָ֔ה עַ֖ל עֶדְרֵ֥י חֲבֵרֶֽיךָ׃
Song 1:7 Tell me, you whom I love so well: where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon? Why should I be masked beside the flocks of your fellows.
The verb ע.ט.ה is unusual, and is often understood as a reference to veiling, but again, following the Modern Hebrew cognate, I understand it as a reference to wearing a face mask. The woman clearly does not believe in the efficacy of masks, which is why she is asking her male suitor for a place to meet away from the other shepherds who were apparently sticklers for the mask mandate. The man responds to her in a teasing but brusque fashion:
שיר השירים א:ח אִם־לֹ֤א תֵדְעִי֙ לָ֔ךְ הַיָּפָ֖ה בַּנָּשִׁ֑ים צְֽאִי־לָ֞ךְ בְּעִקְבֵ֣י הַצֹּ֗אן וּרְעִי֙ אֶת־גְּדִיֹּתַ֔יִךְ עַ֖ל מִשְׁכְּנ֥וֹת הָרֹעִֽים׃
Song 1:8 If you do not know, O fairest of women, go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds.
Scholars debate the nuances of the shepherd’s reply, but I think it is best rendered colloquially as “go to hell”; apparently, he too was a mask zealot.
A Prophecy for Contemporary Times
The community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls believed that the Bible was speaking to their times, and wrote pesharim, interpretations of biblical passages that showed how they predicted specific events in their experience. Similarly, the rabbis believed that ma’aseh avot siman levanim, “the events of the ancestors prefigure those of their descendants,” which approaches the notion of typology. My reading of the great mask debate in the Bible confirms this principle.
During the pandemic, Northern states in the US had many more masekhah /mask mandates than Southern states, and in general the obligations concerning the masekhah mandate were observed much more in the north than in the south. And just as this debate caused southerners and northerners to hate each other and call each other sinners in biblical times, the same is true of our times.
Excursus: On Homemade Masks
The last word of the Exodus 34:17, אֱלֹהֵ֥י מַסֵּכָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃, presents a halachic problem, especially if you agree with my new reading of this verse as mandating (or forbidding) mask-wearing. לָּךְ is typically translated as “for yourself,” which might imply that this verse specifically applies to homemade masks that you sew yourselves.
This is likely the position of the school of R. Akiva, where every word of scripture comes to teach us something. According to that school, you may not make homemade masks; the great rationalist Maimonides has connected this to the idea that their efficacy is lower than disposable, high-filtration rate N-95 masks.
This close reading (see above definition) of the biblical texts raises yet another halachic issue: What of third-party masks, such as those purchased via Etsy? They are homemade, but the wearers themselves have not made them, and thus the strictures around לָּֽךְ, “yourself,” may not apply.
The answer to this question is to be found in the Tosafot to Tractate Covid 1b, which suggests that only Elijah the Prophet knows the answer to this quandary. Elijah is supposed to arrive on Passover, which is soon, and I hope he will resolve the question of what kind of mask to wear (or not wear), or better yet, will announce the end of the pandemic.
This Purim-Torah, for the festival when many wear masks of different sorts is not meant to diminish the horrific nature of the pandemic, or the proven importance of wearing proper masks. As a biblical scholar who was in Israel for most of the pandemic, and is still here, every time I saw or heard a mask announcement, its vocabulary brought me back to the biblical text.
I wrote this piece as a release from the Covid-19 difficulties that have turned our lives upside down—to use the words of the megillah, וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא (Esth 9:1). I knew people who have died from Corona, who have become very sick, who have lost jobs, and who have had their lived upended by the pandemic. It is even unclear now when our lives may return to normal, and if they indeed will be normal, or if we must get used to a new normal. In the spirit of Esther, I hope that we will find (Esther 9:1) רֶ֣וַח וְהַצָּלָ֞ה... מִמָּק֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר “relief and salvation from an unexpected (or depending on how you read Esther—An Unexpected) place.”
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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