How can we keep dry on a winter Shabbat at outdoor prayer services?

Jewish law prohibits building structures on Shabbat.

COLORFUL UMBRELLAS with ‘dancing feet’ adorn the the Suzanne Dellal Center plaza, in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek in 2018 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
COLORFUL UMBRELLAS with ‘dancing feet’ adorn the the Suzanne Dellal Center plaza, in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek in 2018
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
The coronavirus has created many new challenges with ritual life. With the onset of the winter rainy season in Israel, many Jews will begin to deal with the problems of keeping dry on Shabbat. This is a problem in a normal year because traditional Jews abstain from using umbrellas on Shabbat, making it difficult to walk to synagogue or a friend’s home when it’s raining. The problem becomes more acute this year now that many Jews are praying outdoors, making it crucial to have protection from the sun’s rays or raindrops, even after arriving for prayers.
Jewish law prohibits building structures on Shabbat. The paradigm for this prohibition is building a permanent land-based structure, such as the Tabernacle in biblical times or a home in our era. Similarly, Jewish law bans adding accessories to an already completed structure, such as carpeting a floor or attaching sliding or hinged windows and doors, since they are meant to stay in place and become fully integrated into the structure.
An addition that is loosely-connected and structurally temporary, however, is not a problem. Thus, one can throw a small carpet or rug onto the floor, even if it is meant to stay there for a long time, since it is not installed into the structure of the house. Similarly, one may snap a toilet paper dispenser in or out, or add a leaf to a table, since their intended mode of use is for it to be regularly removed and replaced. Many rabbinic decisors, like Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, similarly argue that Lego sets and other similar toys may be built on Shabbat, since they are designed to be regularly disassembled.
The sages also asserted that there was an ancillary prohibition of constructing overhead shelters on Shabbat. This prohibition includes not only tents with walls but even a temporary canopy, such as a netting over a bed, as long as it is the size of a tefach (roughly eight centimeters, about three inches). Yet one may add a temporary canopy to a pre-existing cover, such as placing an overhanging plastic sheet from an existing roof.
Similarly, a cover that is built in a manner in which it is opened or shut on hinges or a slide may be pulled open, as in the case of a sliding roof to a porch. This is especially true if a minimal overhead remains even in the “closed” position. Thus, it is permissible to open the hinged hood of a baby stroller and to extend a plastic sheet from it to provide extra protection from the rain. One may certainly open a folding table or chair, even though an overhead covering is created under the seat or table.
Based on these considerations, decisors of Jewish law have permitted opening and closing an awning that is attached to a house above a window or deck, even if it had not been open at all before Shabbat. This is primarily because it opens and shuts on its hinges. In many cases, moreover, the overhang still exists in its “closed”position and one is merely extending the opening.
Given this background, one might expect that a regular umbrella should be allowed on Shabbat, since it is a temporary cover that further opens and closes with its hinges. This was the theoretical conclusion of the great 19th-century decisor, Rabbi Moshe Sofer. Nonetheless, he concluded his detailed responsum on the topic by differing to the position of earlier authorities who opposed using umbrellas. As Rabbi Elli Fischer has noted, parasols were the fashion rage in many parts of 18th-century Europe to utilize against the sun or the rain, and it appears that some Jews were using them on Shabbat.
Two leading decisors, Rabbi David Pardo and Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, emphatically argued that an umbrella was essentially a tent that becomes a functional shelter once a person lifts it above their head. As such, it becomes a forbidden type of tent and is prohibited on Shabbat and festivals. While some decisors entertained the idea that it may be use an umbrella left open before Shabbat, Landau demurred, since the “shelter” was created from scratch by lifting the parasol above one’s head. He further noted that it would also be forbidden to use pre-opened parasols lest people mistakenly believe (marit ayin) that one can open it on Shabbat.
Over the past two centuries, many decisors, including Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, have questioned the logic of this stringent ruling, yet nonetheless concluded that one should not be lenient on the matter. As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed prudently formulates it, “The universal custom is to forbid using an umbrella on Shabbat because it resembles an ohel [tent].” Others add strong warnings to anyone who would tinker with this practice.
It’s possible that if there is a particularly rainy season, there may be some pressure to rethink this prohibition. I suspect, however, that this won’t happen because: a) the prohibitive practice is so well-established, and b) umbrellas are helpful when walking but don’t provide real shelter over significant time periods, especially during heavy rain. We should note, however, that it is permissible to utilize a portable or pop-up canopy that has been set up before Shabbat. Many communities have set these up on sidewalks or fields, and these might help in some circumstances.
Wishing everyone a healthy and dry winter!
The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.