Distancing Together

During the Ebola scare in 2014, Ben Zimmer tracked down the origin of the word “quarantine” in his Wall Street Journal language column.

“The original quarantine, dating back to the medieval era, actually lasted 40 days, and that history is embedded in the word itself. It comes to English from Old Italian ‘quarantina,’ originally from ‘quadraginta,’ the Latin word for the number 40.” Why 40? Zimmer theorized that it had Biblical origins.

On March 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines, including:

“Social distancing … remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Amid news of postponed bar mitzvahs and weddings, canceled flights and shul closings, my wife (she, and all of us, should only be well) decided to take action. She realized that neighbors who live alone may not have a place for Shabbos. Her theory is that it’s maaseh Satan — the Satan’s work — driving people apart at a time when people need to draw together.

Rav Dovid’l Lelover, zy”a, said that when Pharaoh ordered, “You shall not continue to give straw to the people to make the bricks…” the word for “continue” had an unusual spelling — with an alef instead of a vav. With an alef, the word means “to gather or come together.” Pharaoh tried to prevent Jews from gathering together because he knew uniting gave them the ability to overcome all evil decrees.

Yes, we have to keep a safe distance, but let’s not let that keep us apart.

Mordechai Schiller, BROOKLYN, N.Y.