Last update - 15:13 10/07/2009

Amid swine flu fears, Hassidic rabbi ditches communal cups

By Yair Ettinger, Haaretz Correspondent

Tags: Bnei Brak, Ultra-Orthodox

The swine flu scare has recently prompted one of the leading spiritual figures of the ultra-Orthodox world to change one of Judaism's time-honored traditions - that of drinking wine together from the same glass.

Yaakov Aryeh Alter, seventh and current rabbi of the Hasidic dynasty of Ger, instructed his disciples in Jerusalem a few weeks ago to toast with individual and disposable plastic cups containing a few drops of wine from the rabbi's own glass.

Hasidic Jews have toasted from the same cup at events and meals for at least 200 years.

The rabbi, who heads the largest Hasidic group in Israel, is known for his sensitivity to health issues. A few years ago, when Israel was gripped by the avian flu scare, he refrained from eating eggs until he received ones specially-imported from abroad.

Sources close to him say that his latest decision about toasting was in no way meant to protect his own health, but that of the thousands of people who follow him.

Yeshiva students who recently came from the United States and sought to meet the rabbi were asked by his aides not to shake the rabbi's hand when they see him in his Bnei Brak home.

A popular story about the rabbi's grandfather, Abraham Mordechai Alter - the dynasty's second head and a prominent writer and ruler on religion - says that when he visited Israel in the early 1900s, he rebuked a man who hesitated about drinking from the communal glass of wine.

"A hundred Jews sipped from this glass, and yet you think the wine isn't clean enough," the popular legend quotes him as saying to the germophobe.

So far, Israel has had more than 750 confirmed cases of the virus, many of whom frequent of the crowded seminaries of the ultra-Orthodox public.

Alter is not the only ultra-Orthodox leader to take precautions. Other spiritual leaders and yeshiva heads are reportedly weary of the prospect of infection in their institutions.

This concern is also reflected in Haredi media, though they prefer the term "Mexican flu." The Health Ministry, under Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman from United Torah Judaism - who is known to be Alter's right hand man - calls the virus by its scientific name, H1N1.