Masks and Shemoneh Esrei

MASKS DURING SHMONE ESRE In a letter issued this week Rav Sternbuch writes that one should not wear a mask when praying Shmone Esre.

Although doctors state that masks are useful in preventing the spread of the virus, only a situation of immediate and tangible danger is considered a situation of pikuach nefesh for halachik purposes (see Chazon Ish, Tehuvos Ukesovim, section 48).

A mask is not considered a respectable item of clothing, since it is not designed for the purpose of covering part of the body. In normal circumstances one would not wear it in front of an honorable personality. Even though currently heads of state are themselves walking around with a mask, they only agree to this affront to their dignity because of a far-fetched perceived danger. 

When we stand before the King of Kings we have to determine the parameters of pikuach nefesh according to the Torah. Even though doctors state that masks are useful in preventing the spread of the virus, it would appear that if one keeps a distance from people it is not considered a situation of pikuach nefesh. That being so, a mask maintains the status of a dishonorable item of clothing, and should not be worn when addressing Hashem during Shmone Esre.
If one keeps a sufficient distance from other people, one can rely on the principle that “he who observes a commandment will know no evil”, so that no harm will befall someone who takes off his mask during Shmone Esre. Since one is acting in accordance with halocho this is not considered to be a breach of one’s obligation to undertake human efforts to preserve health. On the contrary, one is entitled and even obligated to rely on Hashem that no harm will result from taking off one’s mask during Shmone Esre for the sake of Hashem’s honor. If someone feels uneasy about doing so, he should keep very far away from other people and take off his mask there, or cover his face with a tallis when praying Shmone Esre. However, one should not stand in a contemptible manner before Hashem.

One has to stand in prayer wearing beautiful clothes (see Brochos 30b), and wearing a mask when praying Shmone Esre is the antithesis of such conduct, and should only take place in a situation of halachik pikuach nefesh. In the merit of praying before the Creator with appropriate awe, may He listen to our prayers and save us from all evil.

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