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Rabbis Ponder COVID-19 Queries of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Life

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a chicken as part of the Kaparot ritual, Sept. 27, 2020. The solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur sees annually Israeli life grind to a halt, arrived on Sunday in a nation already under a sweeping coronavirus lockdown.

Must an observant Jew who has lost his sense of taste and smell because of COVID-19 recite blessings for food and drink? Can one bend the metal nosepiece of a surgical face mask on the Sabbath? May one participate in communal prayers held in a courtyard from a nearby balcony?

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel are addressing questions like these as their legions of followers seek advice on how to maintain proper Jewish observance under the restrictions of the outbreak.

Social distancing and nationwide lockdowns have become a reality around the globe in 2020, but for religious Jews they can further complicate rites and customs that form the fabric of daily life in Orthodox communities. Many of these customs are performed in groups and public gatherings, making it especially challenging for the religious public to maintain its lifestyle.

One religious publisher in Jerusalem released a book in July with over 600 pages of guidance from 46 prominent rabbis. Topics range from socially distanced circumcisions (allowed) to Passover Seders over Zoom (forbidden) to praying with a quorum from a balcony (it’s complicated).

One rabbi responded to a query about blessings on food for those who lost their sense of taste and smell due to the coronavirus. His ruling? Prayers are still required, for “even though one does not sense the flavor of the food, his intestines nonetheless benefit and are satisfied by the food and its nutrition.” He then launched into a two-page legal argument citing rabbinic sources from the Talmud on down.

The collection — titled “Havieni Hadarav,” Hebrew for “Bring me to his chambers” — is one of many pamphlets, books, radio and social media Q&As published in recent months addressing matters of halacha, or Jewish religious law, during the pandemic.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a little over 10% of Israel’s 9 million citizens and adhere to a close observance of Jewish law. The foundations of halacha are built on the Torah’s commandments and prohibitions, and the Talmud, a codification of Jewish law written down over the course of the early centuries of the first millennium.

Orthodox Jewish practice is the byproduct of generations of rabbis issuing legal arguments and rulings. Their decisions, known as responsa, can sometimes be lenient and other times strict.

“Every time a rabbi is asked a question, he has to essentially do what a judge would do, and bring up previous cases which he builds upon to come to his decision in this particular case,” said Issamar Ginzberg, a Jerusalem-based Hassidic rabbi. The method of questions and responses has underpinned centuries of the Jewish legal code.

There’s no way to say for sure how many people will follow this particular book’s rulings. But there are hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and opinions by prominent rabbis often carry great significance in daily life within the community.

“It’s more like a law textbook than a novel on the bestseller list,” said Ginzberg.
Rabbi Natan Feldman, head of the Tzuf Publishing House and editor of “Havieni Hadarav,” said the company has sold around 3,000 copies of the book, which meets “the need of the hour.”

“If people didn’t have it, they would err in all kinds of ways,” Feldman said. “It’s something with a lot of utility.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with cities and neighborhoods where they live among the country’s current hot zones. Overall, Israel has recorded around 200,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 1,300 deaths. The Health Ministry does not break down those numbers by population groups.

Religious areas have been hard hit in part because they tend to be poorer and crowded, but also because of the tight-knit communal lifestyles, in which synagogues and seminaries play a central role. Some ultra-Orthodox schools have remained open in defiance of a nationwide lockdown imposed earlier this month to help clamp down on the country’s surge in new cases. While some rabbis have resisted orders to limit crowd sizes at prayers, especially for the current High Holiday season and this week’s gatherings for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the government has tried to work with religious leaders to spread the word on promoting public health regulations and restricting the sizes of prayer gatherings.

Many of the responsa contend with the complications of holding prayers — which traditionally require a quorum of 10 adult men — outdoors and in a manner that complies with social distance regulations. The rabbis offered differing opinions on what the law allows regarding participating in a minyan held in a communal courtyard from a balcony above.

Innovation has helped overcome some of the challenges of the lockdown but has also raised additional concerns for observant Jews. For example, can one enter a hospital on the Jewish Sabbath if there is a thermal camera at the entrance that takes visitors’ temperatures?

Activating such an electronic device could violate multiple prohibitions, so Rabbi Asher Weiss — a prominent ultra-Orthodox legal scholar involved in “Havieni Hadarav” — advised refraining from entering if only visiting a patient, but those in need of medical care ought not “avoid entering the hospital and endanger their lives.”

But the bottom line, written by Weiss in the book’s introduction, is that people must “take extra care to adhere to the instructions of qualified medical officials and the regulations of the Health Ministry and not violate them.”

Weiss did not respond to interview requests.

For Feldman, the publishing head, the tome of coronavirus laws not only helps those who desire to adhere to halacha, it’s a reminder for the future of the tribulations Jews faced during this outbreak.

“If there should be, God forbid, another pandemic in the century to come, there will at least be a memory, some kind of necessity for the coming generations,” he said.