Coronavirus: Purim could cause new outbreak in ultra-Orthodox sector

Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash: ‘We should not pay for rejoicing on Purim with human life.’

Purim groggers, masks and hamantaschen (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)
Purim groggers, masks and hamantaschen
(photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said he is extremely worried that the upcoming Purim holiday will cause a new and severe spike in COVID-19 infections in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.
Speaking in an online press briefing on Tuesday, he said although infections in the haredi sector are declining, they are still worryingly high. Ash called on the community to demonstrate responsibility regarding social distancing, mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings.
Purim, which begins on the evening of February 25, is marked with prayer services in synagogues and large festive meals among friends and family.
Last year, such gatherings were blamed for the large outbreak of COVID-19 in March. Ash expressed concern that a similar outbreak could take place this year.
“When [the Hebrew month of] Adar begins, we increase our joy,” he said, citing the Talmudic comment about the month in which Purim falls. “But this year we need to rejoice differently.”
“We need to stop this outbreak this year,” Ash said. “We remember what happened last year on Purim caused a lot of infection... We should not pay for rejoicing [on Purim] in the month of Adar with human life.”
“We can rejoice responsibly, which will not cause infection,” he said, adding that the Hanukkah holiday in December, when there was heavy use of public transportation, was one of the big causes of a spike in infections at the time in the haredi community.
Despite a declining rate of COVID-19 in the haredi community in recent days, Ash said it was “still high, and this is worrying.”
According to Health Ministry data, the weekly average for positive COVID-19 tests in the haredi sector is 17.4%, almost double the rate for the general population.
Infections in the haredi community account for 22% of all infections, even though the sector comprises 12% of the total population.
On February 3, the rate of average positive tests was 20%, and infections in the haredi community represented 25% of all coronavirus cases.
Also on Tuesday, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior haredi rabbis in the world, demanded “an immediate solution” to the ongoing closure of the education system because of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a statement released by his spokesman.
He did not specify the haredi sector and spoke about all school children. Schools have been closed since the lockdown began in early January.
“It is stated in the Talmud that boredom and inactivity bring about sin, and millions of children in Israel have been at home for a year already and face spiritual and psychological danger, and an immediate solution must be found to return them to their studies as quickly as possible, while observing the regulations and health requirements,” the statement said.
The spokesman cited “close associates of the rabbi” who noted that “government officials” had told the rabbi that the school closure would last only a few days and that more than a month has now passed since that time.
Before the nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Kanievsky’s grandson and aide Yanki Kanievsky to request that the rabbi not give permission to haredi schools to remain open.
Kanievsky reluctantly agreed, having permitted schools to remain open during the second lockdown in September and October last year.
The rabbi believes that Torah study, the primary topic in haredi schools, brings about metaphysical protection to the Jewish people and that ceasing Torah studies is spiritually and physically harmful for the nation.
Kanievsky and other leading haredi rabbis are also concerned that long-term closure of schools will lead haredi youth to delinquency and less religious observance.