Thursday, March 5, 2020

Happy Birthday Sung Twice

Happy Birthday sung twice is the length of time for which one should wash one hands. It how long one should wash after possible contact with the corona virus, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested today. He said that people should wash their hands with hot, soapy water. And they should wash for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.

A lot of thought has gone into that advice, that may not be apparent. And it has a long history.

The Talmud


In the Talmud a question is asked as to how long one should allow a witness under oath to change the narrative of their evidence.

Should one believe them if they say something and then fifteen minutes later contradict what they said?

Peace Be With You, Teacher And Rabbi


The Talmud considered the question and decided the length of time for testimony to be accepted as continuous without alteration. They decided it should be the time it takes a person to say Peace be with you, teacher and rabbi.

The beauty of this is something we all recognise. That is that there is a speed and a cadence to the way that a person would say this. He would not rush the sentence, or if he did then we would say that is not the correct speed. And if he were to slow down to a crawl we would say that is not correct.

Therefore, anyone can estimate the time without needing a watch or a timer. And it is something that can span all ages. Therefore we can always know how long a witness can take to correct his testimony.

To confuse things a little, another version gives a slightly shorter version, which is Peace be with you rabbi. I guess the decision might hinge on what testimony is being given and by whom.

I forgot the source of the decision. So I asked at the place I used to study – and received this reply.

The source is the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkos 6. The Talmud teaches that a witness can retract their testimony within tokh k’dei dibur (תוך כדי דיבור) or the space between what is said.

Happy Birthday Sung Twice


And for washing one’s hands after possible contact with the corona virus, let’s say Happy Birthday sung twice.

The question in my mind is how someone came up with that advice. And who was it?

Was it Boris Johnson himself? He has a good educational background, so he may know about the Talmudic decision.

Originally published in No More Pencils under the same title

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