Coronavirus: Observing Passover in the time of the 11th plague

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jews everywhere find new ways to celebrate the biblical holiday

People wear face masks to protect them from the coronavirus as they buy matzot, unleavened bread traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, at a supermarket in Jerusalem. March 31, 2020. (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
People wear face masks to protect them from the coronavirus as they buy matzot, unleavened bread traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, at a supermarket in Jerusalem. March 31, 2020.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
Passover is the calendar’s first major Jewish holiday being observed since the severity of the global coronavirus pandemic became evident to all. Indeed, observing the festival in an era of social distancing will require a great deal of creative adaptation.
Ironically, the holiday sees large groups gathering around Seder tables to celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from bondage in Egypt by reciting passages about great suffering and the 10 plagues that God visited upon Egypt. In light of this, some are referring to the pandemic and the resulting harsh restrictions by calling them – perhaps only half in jest – the 11th plague.
According to Dr. Raymond Apple, rabbi emeritus of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, Pesach, or Passover in Hebrew, is the most widely observed Jewish holiday.
“Almost 100% of Jewish people attend a Seder,” he told The Media Line. “This year, family gatherings are out, and people will have a Seder on their own, often just one [person], and it will be a bitter-sweet celebration.”
The most widely referenced adaptation this year is the “virtual” Seder, where individuals scattered in different places can observe the holiday together using video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom.
“Normally, we have between 150 and 200 people here for the first night of Pesach, divided into four Seders for young families, students, Holocaust survivors and other community members and guests,” Jonathan Ornstein, executive director at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, told The Media Line.
“The building is closed, so we have had to move a lot of our activities, like many others have, online,” he noted.
“We decided to deliver food to community members so they can celebrate at home,” Ornstein continued. “We made care packages of the foods from the Seder plate, as well as matzah, and are delivering them to the community before the first Seder. Additionally, we are delivering meals for those who have trouble cooking or affording food.”
While Alan Freedman, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas, is not holding a virtual Seder for his congregation, he is helping members host their own.
“In our community, we feel it’s best to help people create their own virtual Seders,” he told The Media Line. “We’ve created a guide to doing a virtual Seder on our website. We’re trying to provide enough information to facilitate people doing their own.” 
Freedman says virtual Seders come with both pluses and minuses.
“The bad news is that we’re not in the same room, so the ruach [spirit] is somewhat different than normal. But there is a bright side to this, and that is we get to see people we haven’t seen in years,” he said.
Even though progressive Jews are more likely to hold virtual Seders, some Orthodox rabbis have approved participation even though, according to stricter interpretations, this would violate the ban on holiday use of the technology.
Yosef Ote, the community rabbi of Hazvi Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem, said there had been a lot of questions surrounding the use of Zoom and keeping Halacha (Jewish law), particularly centering on setting up the technology before the holiday and leaving the devices on and untouched until it is permissible to do so.
While he said that conducting the Seders in this manner would be permissible, he nonetheless advised against the practice.
“There technically isn’t a violation of Halacha, but… it might take away from the spirit of chag [holiday],” Ote told The Media Line.
He added that using the technology was not foolproof, which could have a negative impact on the holiday.
“Let’s say you set up a Seder with your Zoom, and one of your grandchildren starts to say [the Four Questions]. If the Zoom fails or doesn’t work, or it freezes, that’s not a very good situation to be in because your automatic response is to touch the computer to… fix it,” he said.
Instead, Ote advises having a mock Seder using video-conferencing before the holiday starts at sundown, where people could dress up and do some of the things they normally would do together.
“Though they won’t be able to conduct a real Seder with their families, at least they had a wonderful experience,” he said.
“Passover is all about what is different,” he noted. “Everyone admits it’s very easy this year because a lot is different than in any other year….”
For people who will be celebrating alone, Ote suggests pre-arranging a time before Passover for everyone to go to their balcony to sing a holiday song.
When it comes to other Passover obligations, such as the traditional “selling” of hametz, the forbidden foods with leavening agents, and the boiling of cookware to make it kosher for the holiday, Ote says the changes are relatively moderate.
Normally, congregants come to Ote in person and designate him as an emissary to “sell” their hametz. This year, they are either calling him on the phone or going online to websites that allow one to “sell” the prohibited food ahead of the holiday.
“It might be emotionally different than every other year, but it’s quicker and it’s easier and it’s halachic as well,” Ote said regarding the online option.
Making cookware kosher for Passover, he said, would be done indoors instead of outdoors.
His advice to families on how to cope during this Passover holiday is to make health a top priority.
“We should continue striving to keep our health and follow all the Ministry of Health’s guidelines so that we can continue to celebrate later on with our loved ones as we always have,” he said.
Ote also advises families not to go “overboard,” where people do more than what is required. This includes cleaning, about which he said: “Halachically, you only have to get rid of every [piece of] hametz the size of an olive [or greater].”
Then there are kitniyot, or legumes, which many Ashkenazi Jews, who trace their lineage to Russia and Eastern Europe, do not consume during this time, and the Haggadah, which is recited during the Seder.
“This year, we should all go back to the roots of kitniyot. That is, that actual kitniyot shouldn’t be eaten by Ashkenazim, but mixtures or things that might have oils of kitniyot should be kept only because it is difficult to buy all the things we need to buy,” he said.
“Additionally, when it comes to the Seder… the Haggadah was only codified in the last 1,000 years. Before that, Jews didn’t have any set Haggadah,” he added.
“[Families] don’t have to go crazy making sure they read every word,” he emphasized. “Yes, generally it should be read properly, but the focus should be talking to each other about the Exodus… and how we got to where we are today, which is no less important than following the Haggadah.”
Even with all the creative changes, many will miss certain aspects of the usual Seder.
“Every year, I lead the ‘Survivor Seder’ at JCC Krakow with my friend Zosia Radzikowska, a [Holocaust] survivor and active JCC member,” Ornstein said. “It is a rare honor and privilege to be sitting at a table and reliving the story of our people leaving slavery with people who actually lived through slavery themselves, and I hope to be doing it once again next year and for many years to come.”
Raphi Bloom, director of fund-raising and marketing at the Federation of Jewish Services in Manchester, England, said that Passover would be a challenging time for the 190 older residents at the Heathlands Village care home. 
“Pesach is going to be very different due to COVID-19,” he told The Media Line. “Many families used to come and hold a Seder with their elderly relatives, which cannot happen and will be missed.”
Still, Bloom is optimistic.
“If Jews could hold a Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto, we can, and will, hold Seders during COVID-19,” he said.
Meanwhile, Freedman believes that some of the changes we make this holiday might last longer than the pandemic.
“[I’m] not looking to repeat this year after year, but like so many other things, our lives are impacted forever by this crisis, and one of [the ways] is that our vision of who can sit at a Seder table is going to be expanded, even when this is over,” he said.
“There may be [additional] virtual elements… in the sense that people are going to be using online content a lot more this year because you may not be sharing a Haggadah or your Haggadah is online,” he continued. “These, I think, are going to be permanent changes that are going to come into [regular] Passover observance.”
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