Despite the closure of mikvas, ritual baths, for men due to the coronavirus outbreak, Jewish visitors continued to ascend to the Temple Mount on Sunday morning after finding immersion alternatives.
Jewish law requires that that Jewish men and women immerse in a ritual bath before going up to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism, in order to purify themselves and failure to do so is considered a serious violation of Jewish practice.
Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount, March 15, 2020 (Credit: Association of Temple Mount Organizations)
Following the announcement on Saturday night by the Religious Services Ministry that all mikvas for men, who unlike women are not required by Jewish law to immerse on a regular basis, were being shut, concerns were raised that Jewish men would effectively be barred from the Temple Mount.
Jewish activist groups have however recommended that those who wish to ascend to the site should immerse in natural springs or the sea, which are considered natural mikvas in Jewish law and can be used for purification purposes.
There are several natural springs in the Jerusalem region, including the Shiloah spring close to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount itself, the Lifta spring close to the Givat Shaul neighborhood, the Sataf spring close to the village of Ein Karem, and the Ein Lavan spring close to Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood.
On Sunday morning, 42 Jewish visitors went up to the Temple Mount, compared to 35 on the same day last year, and did so in groups of ten, in accordance with instructions from the Health Ministry for the public to refrain from gatherings of ten people or more.
Asaf Fried, a spokesman for an association of Temple Mount activist groups, said that Jewish visitors to the site were reciting psalms and prayers for the health of those sick from coronavirus and for the success of the country’s efforts to stop the spread of the disease.
“We are always insistent that we want much more than visitation to the Temple Mount, we want to build the temple, but at this time we hope very much that we will be able to pray at the one and only site God ever instructed the Jewish people to pray,” said Friend.
He also recalled the incident from the Book of Samuel II in the Bible, where it is recorded that King David purchased land on the Temple Mount and built and altar to God there to stop the spread of a plague which had killed 70,000 people in the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
“There is a direct connection between a plague and the Temple Mount, as is recorded in the second book of Samuel. The Temple Mount is where God promised to hear our prayer, and all Jews turn to the Temple Mount wherever they are in the world when they pray,” continued Fried.
On Saturday night, the Chief Rabbi's office announced Saturday night that the instructions published by the Health Ministry are to be followed closely, saying that "all health-related instructions are today's Halacha (Jewish Law)."
The office reported they are holding discussions with professionals regarding weddings, minyans (prayer services with ten or more people), funerals and other issues, adding that any decision would be reported once it is made.
The Chief Rabbi called upon all Jews to follow the Health Ministry's instructions and to give their thoughts and prayers to stop the pandemic.
"Following discussions [Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman Tov] held with Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and [Religious Services] Minister Yitzhak Vaknin, it has been decided to shut down all mikvehs (ritual baths) for men starting tomorrow morning," the ministry said.
"The announcement applies to all mikvehs for men, both public and private."
On Sunday morning, Chief Rabbi David Lau asked worshipers in Modi'in, his hometown, to separate into smaller prayer services in order to prevent any gathering of over ten people. Lau prayed outside with a small group on Sunday as well.
The Health Ministry later changed its recommendations, allowing citizens to hold funerals and circumcisions with up to 20 participants, as long as a two-meter (6.6-feet) distance is kept between those attending the events.
According to Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, minyans are to be held with up to 20 participants, as long as they keep a distance of at least one person between them, with the optimal distance standing at two meters (6.6 feet).
According to Eliyahu, all participants must wash their hands or use hand sanitizer and refrain from kissing the Torah or the mezuzahs, as well as shaking hands. Any participant who experiences a fever must return home.
Rabbis from the national-religious rabbinical association Tzohar responded to the Health Ministry's updated instructions, calling upon rabbis to cancel minyans that do not meet the ministry's standards.
"The government's instructions regarding gatherings require many changes," Tzohar said. "Due to the restriction of gatherings to ten participants, we recommend [people] pray individually and not in groups, unless the conditions allow so.”
In light of the new directives by the Health Ministry, the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues published new instructions for synagogues during the coronavirus outbreak.
In any place where a prayer service cannot be held according to the directives issued by the Health Ministry, no services should be held. In places where the directives can be kept, the services should consist of no more than ten people. If there are separated rooms, additional services can be held. In places with a big enough women's section, up to ten worshipers can stand in there.
Each worshiper should be two meters away from other worshipers, including during Torah reading. Worshipers should use their own, personal prayer book and wash and sanitize their hands and should not shake hands or use a public tallit (prayer shawl). Those who are at risk for the virus or do not feel well should not come to a synagogue.
Those praying alone should try and pray at the same time as a minyan. Worshipers should pray for the recovery of those who are ill.