Drink Corona: Israel's rabbis offer mixed advice on outbreak

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Drink a Corona beer to fortify your prayers or get ready for the arrival of the messiah: rabbis in Israel have a offered an array of guidance on responding to coronavirus.

Some rabbis, as well Palestinian imams and Christian leaders, have sought to influence people to follow health ministry guidelines on containing the outbreak.

But several rabbis have dispensed advice with no scientific basis or peddled baseless xenophobic theories related to the origins of the virus.

A video posted on social media by Rabbi Simcha Halevi Ashlag, a leader of Ashlag ultra-Orthodox community, shows him encouraging followers to drink the Mexican beer Corona.

"When we pray and drink an alcoholic drink, the prayers have more force," he said.

Rabbi Zamir Cohen, an Orthodox televangelist who is himself under quarantine, said "the virus is the result of the fact that non-Jews eat anything," in an apparent reference to the belief that the virus originated in animals trafficked for food in China.

Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ron Chaya encouraged followers to prepare for the arrival of the messiah.

"All the warning signs of the coming of the messiah are there and to remain indifferent would be a tragedy," he said, in a video posted on social media viewed more than 50,000 times.

- 'Go to a doctor' -

The Jewish holiday of Purim, which takes place this week, normally includes public celebrations and, for many, services in synagogue.

Most public celebrations in Israel have been cancelled, with 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Seeking to promote health ministry advice on limiting large gatherings, some rabbis have given exceptional permission for followers to participate in religious services over the radio.

Prominent Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Aviner told his followers that the best course of action for anyone who thinks they are sick is "to go to a doctor".

Israel has ordered tens of thousands of people into home-quarantine, notably anyone who has travelled to European or Asian countries with the highest prevalence.

Israel's Chief Rabbi David Lau was unequivocal this week in telling Jews that "following the health ministry directives is a religious obligation".

- Transmission a 'sin' -

The city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which includes the Church of Nativity built on the site Christians believe was the birthplace of Jesus, is under lockdown following 20 confirmed cases of the virus.

Palestinian authorities have declared a 30-day state of emergency and a ban on tourists visiting the church.

Meanwhile, Christians in the city have been ordered to pray in small groups of 15 and to only take communion in their hand, rather than orally.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has told priests to post mass on social media, so adherents do not have to go church.

The highest Muslim authority in Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, said on radio that health is "more important than religious practice," and that "protecting oneself is one of the foundations of Islam".

Sheikh Majed Saqer, an official with the Palestinian religion affairs ministry, told AFP that anyone who is ill has been ordered to avoid public places.

"If a Muslim transmits the virus, he is considered to have sinned," Saqer said.