I’ve been thinking about Caillou, a TV show for toddlers and preschoolers. It’s been on television since 1997. Caillou is a little bald French-Canadian kid. He’s broadcast in both French and English, and offers gentle lessons to kids everywhere. My twins watched a lot of Caillou.
The episode I’ve been remembering offers something basic that we should all know. The summary: Caillou’s doing art at preschool with glitter. When he finishes, he doesn’t clean up or wash his hands. The rest of the episode shows off exactly where the glitter ends up, from light switches to friends’ bodies to snack and the table and chairs. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands after playing with glitter.
The glitter message sticks with kids. It’s also a remarkably easy way to explain germ theory – useful during a pandemic. Glitter, like germs, gets everywhere.
As an early glitter fan, I found this lesson powerful. As a kid, I had several surgeries for birth defects by the time I was 5. I was in the hospital a lot. During one recovery period, I was brought to a big sunny room in the pediatrics ward to do arts and crafts, including glitter, which I loved. My mother still jokes about this more than 40 years later – remembering the day the surgeon came to check my incisions. My mom likely hovered, anxious, as he checked my abdomen and sides. He looked up and grinned when she asked how things were healing. He said things were coming along nicely and were “very colourful!”
What does this have to do with Judaism? I’ve been studying Tractate Pesachim as part of my pursuit of Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day). Pesachim’s topic is Passover. In Pesachim 15, the issue is how to burn all the chametz (leavened bread) that we get rid of right before the holiday. It’s considered “impure.”
Impurity here is often defined as something “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” There are many reasons why something is considered impure. The questions the rabbis are weighing are interesting. They wonder, “Is it OK to burn two different kinds of impure things together?” They imagine the Temple priests having to get rid of all this and finish cleaning by the start of the holiday.
The other impure things brought up – and this rabbinic impurity topic is complex – are pigul and nottar, two categories of sacrificial meats that have gone wrong. Jane Shapiro, in introducing this issue on the My Jewish Learning website, explains that pigul is something sacrificed “with improper thought.” That is, something sacrificed in error; that is, the priest thought it was to be burnt or eaten at the wrong time. Nottar was an offering made at the right time and not eaten – basically, leftovers, which are then considered impure. There’s common sense in this. Sometimes we cook things incorrectly (pigul) or, lacking refrigeration, we might just have to get rid of leftovers (nottar) to avoid food poisoning. In these cases, the impurity’s a mess-up. It’s not an unclean animal, another source of impurity, but, rather, a human mistake that leads to the disposing of something.
As the rabbis sort through what can be burned together, they examine how one kind of impurity causes a first-degree impurity, which, if it touches something else, becomes a second or a third degree of impurity. Something in this discussion reminded me of glitter and, then, germ theory.
Even the most careful person can be surprised by a sneeze, or get too close to someone when they are supposed to be social distancing. In fact, keeping oneself safe from invisible germs, like the coronavirus, can be difficult. Even healthcare workers, swathed in protective equipment, can slip up. In a sense, this rabbinic concept of impurity is a lot like catching germs. If we accidently mix items or people inappropriately, we pass along impurity, or germs.
If we visualize germs like Caillou’s glitter or my preschooler hospital craft project, we better understand how tricky a time we’re in. We’re still facing a long haul.
Yes, we hear a vaccine is on its way, but we don’t yet know how long it will take for enough Canadians to be vaccinated. We don’t know how effective the vaccine will be, or if enough people will be willing to take it. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is spreading just like that glitter. It’s everywhere that we are, and it’s scary. There’s every chance that we might encounter the virus through an inadvertent slip up (like the rabbinic impurity of pigul or nottar) but, since it’s germs and not glitter, we won’t know until later. We must act as if we are impure because the virus isn’t visible.
The most poignant part of this whole complicated impurity narrative is that the rabbis just can’t figure it all out. They say more than once that we’ll just have to wait for the prophet Elijah to return to give us the right answers. Reading it, you can imagine their shoulders shrugging as they struggle with what they don’t know and can’t figure out.
Scientists and doctors everywhere are also figuring things out as they go. They have to learn to live with the mystery. We don’t know everything – about the pandemic, how it works, when it will end and about those germs that spread like glitter.
For most, 2020 has been a rocky year. As we turn towards the secular year 2021, it’s important to remember that a vaccine might not be an instant fix. We face the future much as the rabbis faced some of these difficult questions about impurity long ago, and the researchers do today. We don’t know all the answers. We must do our best, square our shoulders, and keep on keeping on.
Yet, every week, as we end Shabbat, we sing about Eliyahu (Elijah) and we welcome him to every Passover and every bris. It’s in yearning for Elijah that we find the faith to keep trying.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2021! I hope your home celebrations are great – and without glitter!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.