In a remarkable ruling, senior Orthodox rabbis have given permission for people to use the Zoom video conferencing service at the Passover Seder to allow families separated by the coronavirus pandemic to connect with one another on what is one of the high points of the Jewish calendar.
Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, a highly respected arbiter of Jewish law who served as the head of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court for a decade, together with several other municipal chief rabbis, wrote in response to requests to use Zoom at the Passover Seder that it would be possible under certain restrictions due to the “time of emergency” currently being experienced.
The rabbis wrote that families that want to connect with each other at this upcoming Seder night could use Zoom if they turn on their electronic devices and the Zoom application before the holiday begins.
Orthodox rabbis forbade the use of electricity on Shabbat when it began to become commonplace at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and this prohibition has become standard practice throughout the Orthodox world.
The rabbis’ permission to allow the use of Zoom for Seder night, even with the stipulation that it must be already working before the holiday begins, is a significant ruling, given that Orthodox Judaism has been very strict about prohibiting the use of electricity and electronic devices on Shabbat and the holidays.
The rabbis introduced their ruling by saying that they had been asked by a wise Torah scholar whether the Zoom program could be used at the Passover Seder to connect between the elderly and family members whom they are unable to join for the holiday ceremony because of social-distancing regulations.
The rabbis, who are Sephardic, began by noting that many Sephardic and North African rabbis had permitted the use of electricity on Jewish holidays, including the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel.
The rabbis went on to say that in the question under discussion, it was asked merely whether one could turn on the electronic device before the Passover holiday begins and leave the Zoom program running during the Seder to allow family members to connect.
They said that although there is a concern that someone would turn the device off when finished, which is also generally prohibited, the position of the Sephardic rabbis that use of electricity is not in fact prohibited meant that this concern could be ignored and the ruling of the Sephardic rabbis relied upon.
The rabbis said that a second concern of permitting something associated with the regular days of the week, such as use of electronic devices, could also be dismissed since use of the Zoom video conference was being done for the sake of a religious commandment of performing the Passover Seder.
And regarding the concern that people would become regularly accustomed to use Zoom on Jewish holidays, the rabbis said that it was “clear to all” that their permission to use the video conference program was “for emergency times only.”
The rabbis continued: “Passover is a special holiday, especially the Seder night which everyone sees as a special event which is a covenant between God and Israel.”
They also said that allowing the use of Zoom was all the more important since many Jewish youth “might not have a Seder if not for their connection with their grandfather and grandmother.”
Additionally, the rabbis wrote that it was important “to remove the sadness from seniors and the elderly and to give them motivation to keep fighting for their lives, and to prevent depression and mental weakness which could lead them to despair of life.”
They said therefore that they were permitting the use of Zoomunder the stated restrictions, and that it was an emergency measure only for the Passover Seder.
Along with Abergel, the other signatories to the decision were municipal Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Gat Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, Rabbi Yehudah Shlush, municipal rabbi of east Netanya, municipal Chief Rabbi of Shlomi Rabbi Moshe Elharar, Rabbi Refael Daloiah, Rabbi David Zano and Rabbi Daniel Boskilah.
The decision aroused controversy immediately, with Chief Rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu saying that the rabbis who gave the permission to use Zoom had been “mistaken.”