Introducing Jewish Law live: Halachic discourse in time of coronavirus

While I remain very interested in these topics, the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the need for quick halachic answers to new types of questions that have emerged in this period.

MEN OBSERVE social distance during a morning prayer in Meron on May 1. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
MEN OBSERVE social distance during a morning prayer in Meron on May 1.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
For the last 13 years, I’ve had the privilege of writing this regular column for The Jerusalem Post on contemporary issues in Jewish law. We originally called it the “Ask the Rabbi” column because it was intended to take questions from the newspaper’s readership. Over time, it evolved into a regular column on dilemmas of Jewish law in the public sphere, covering subjects such as gender roles, military ethics and religion and state.
While I remain very interested in these topics, the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the need for quick halachic answers to new types of questions that have emerged in this period. These questions relate to a wide range of dilemmas ranging from doctors’ “duty to treat” to broken financial agreements to the requirement of immersing in a mikveh. For better and for worse, the pace of halachic discourse has rapidly increased as rabbis try to address these questions quickly.
To indicate this change, we’ve renamed this column “Jewish Law Live” as I try to provide high-quality data to inform my readers about this development. I also invite you to subscribe to videos about these topics on the Jewish Law Live YouTube channel and to join active discussions on the Jewish Law Live Facebook group. (You can find them by searching within YouTube or Facebook).
One of the interesting questions that has emerged from this pandemic is the feasibility of communal prayer. While rabbinic decisors debate whether there is a formal obligation to pray in a minyan (quorum), all agree that there are many spiritual and communal benefits from worshiping together in a synagogue. The nature of this pandemic, unfortunately, made synagogues a place for contagion, forcing communal prayer to cease for several weeks. Even as the pandemic has somewhat abated in certain countries, there is still no obligation to join a prayer quorum. Moreover, in areas where the pandemic remains a significant threat, like New Jersey’s Bergen County, it is absolutely forbidden to pray in a minyan, even within one’s private home.
Fortunately, the gravity of the situation has somewhat lessened in Israel, even as social distancing must continue to be observed. Congregating within indoor areas, however, can quickly create a hotspot, and therefore the question becomes whether a quorum of 10 may be created in an outdoor area. In some situations, this may be easily achieved in outdoor parking lots, provided that all participants wear masks, stand two meters apart and respect limits on participant numbers. In other situations, however, this is not feasible, raising questions of joining together from individual yards, courtyards or balconies. This remains a particularly important option for people at high-risk from infection who must not come within the proximity of others congregated together.
To understand the current debate over these minyanim, it is critical to understand that Jewish law distinguishes between joining a minyan as a core participant (tzeiruf) and those who answer to the various prayers. Once a quorum has been established, anyone within earshot of the minyan may participate in the service. The challenge is to join together 10 initial members to create a quorum even when they are not standing together. Can such a quorum be created?
The Talmud, when discussing the laws of the Grace after Meals, asserts that two groups of diners may join together in the introductory zimun (invitation to join in the recitation of the grace) if they plan it from the get-go and can see each other during their respective meals. Nahmanides, among other medieval commentators, asserted that this model is irrelevant for prayer since it requires a physical assembly joined together in which the Divine presence, so to speak, may enter.
However, his disciple, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Adret, contended that as long as the participants could see each other, this would be sufficient. This position was seemingly supported by Rabbi Yosef Karo, who in his code of law permitted a quorum comprised of nine men standing inside a synagogue while being joined by a 10th standing outside who was visible through a window. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan also seems to have accepted this ruling while adding that it may be sufficient if all 10 participants can see the prayer leader.
Further complicating matters are scenarios in which a public thoroughfare, like a street, divides the participants and seemingly breaks up their quorum. Many contemporary decisors have nonetheless asserted that such a minyan can work and cited the precedent ruling of the 18th-century scholar, Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azoulay (Hid”a), who permitted such quorums when he himself was quarantined during a pandemic in Italy.
While many contemporary rabbis accept these rulings, others have demurred, noting that many later authorities entirely rejected the analogy from the laws of zimun to apply to prayer quorums. Many more have further rejected so-called “staggered balcony minyanim” in which the different participants can only see a portion of the group. In these situations, I would not recommend stating aloud the portions of the service that require a quorum, even as a local rabbinic authority should be consulted.
All this being said, it’s important to reiterate that everyone is free to choose not to attend any service under these complex conditions. This is even true if someone would normally be reciting kaddish for a loved one. When assembling in public, it is also important to secure the permission of neighboring families, especially those who are not religious, so that they do not feel imposed upon.
Whether worshiping alone or in groups, we all ultimately pray together that the pandemic should be quickly eradicated and we can joyfully return to our holy synagogues.
The author directs the Tikvah Overseas Student Institute and moderates the Jewish Law Live YouTube channel and Facebook group.