A Public Health Issue: On Margarine, Masks, and Maris Ayin

A weight has been lifted with the circulation of a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully with this panacea and more vaccines on the way, we can see the light at the end of this long tunnel. While this is incredibly good news, we are still months away from any real salvation from this plague. 

I was excited to see that the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America put out a statement earlier this week outlining their guidance regarding a Covid-19 vaccine. Based on the guidance of Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Dovid Cohen, they wrote:

Halacha obligates us to care for our own health and to protect others from harm and illness. In addition, Halacha directs us to defer to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to both treating and preventing illness.

There has long been an almost uniform consensus among leading medical experts that vaccines are an effective and responsible manner of protecting life and advancing health. 

Similarly Rabbi Avi Weiss published a piece in the New York Post articulating the clear Torah obligation to preserve  life. Under advisement of your personal health care provider there is a mandate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available. But there still remains the question as to what we need to do during this  in-between period when some but not everyone has been vaccinated. After we get vaccinated, what is our mandate before the public health officials telling us that the coast is clear?

There is an interesting chapter in halachic history that might help us reflect on our current situation. In 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter, Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory butter substitute. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries won the prize with his invention of “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine. Serving a parve butter-like substance at a meat meal set off a halachic problem of Maris Ayin. It is prohibited to act in a way which strictly speaking is permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something forbidden. Or for us now, even if someone got a newly invented vaccine are they still obligated to wear a mask and maintain CDC social distancing rules? 

Unilever seeks buyer for its butter substitutes division

The original case for Maris Ayin comes from a Mishnah discussing the appropriate attire of the priests in the Temple- lest they even seem to be doing any impropriety. There we learn:

For it is one’s duty to seem be free of blame before others as before God, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) ( Shekalim 3:2)

In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably, nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. 

One of the more famous applications of Maris Ayin applies to cooking and/or eating  meat in pareve almond milk. To the onlooker it appears to be a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The simple solution to this mix up is to place almonds down to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring. Based on this idea, at the outset when people served margarine at a meat meal they would put the container on the table to signal that it was actually parve. We would not want anyone to believe that it was actually butter. But when did this practice stop? We clearly do not do this anymore. 

When dealing with issues of Maris Ayin Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz extrapolated a general halachic rule that any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion (Kreisi U’Pleisi Y”D 87, 8). The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. In the case of a COVID-19 vaccination, Rabbi Eibeshutz ruling is fascinating in that something being commonplace would practically coincide with our achieving herd immunity. This is to say that we will all need to keep on our masks on until none of us need them. Our obligation is not not limited to getting the vaccination. When it comes to wearing a mask and Maris Ayin, it  is an expression of physical and spiritual public health.

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