Just a Thought: COVID-19 and disruptions in Halacha

But what of real disruptions?

MINYAN WAITING for the tenth, exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MINYAN WAITING for the tenth, exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The tech world loves to talk about “disruption,” but nothing has disrupted our lives, our sense of security, and way of life as much as COVID-19. It is interesting to think about how COVID-19 will “disrupt” Halacha, and since we are all stuck at home with nothing to do but think, let’s put our heads to work.
The obvious changes begin with the fact that we are now obligated to check our phones on Shabbat. The reason for this is that we need to know right away whether we are infected, in order to enter into quarantine and prevent affecting others.
Another is that not only are synagogues closed, but even partaking in a minyan is now dangerous. While funerals demand 10 men to stand at least two meters apart, other than that unavoidable and unfortunate circumstance, we are being told not to gather for prayers.
But these are not changes in Halacha. Halacha has always championed piku’ah nefesh, the value of life over the performance of mitzvot. While avoiding synagogue attendance and checking our phones are disruptions to our lives, they are not in fact a disruption of Halacha, but rather, a continuance of the same Halacha being applied to new circumstances.
But what of real disruptions?

YEDIDIA EPHRAIM MESHULAMI has petitioned the Supreme Court of Israel for the Chief Rabbinate to declare a leap year. His goal was to push off the holiday of Passover by a month, in order to give the economy time to prepare for the holiday in light of COVID-19.
In ancient Jewish law, wide latitude was given to the Rabbis to declare a leap year for much more mundane reasons than a worldwide pandemic, and Meshulami believes that as a Jewish state, it is the role of the secular Supreme Court to force the Chief Rabbinate to act.
The Supreme Court rejected his petition, quoting Maimonides that only the ancient Sanhedrin had that power.
But what if the Supreme Court had accepted his petition and forced the Chief Rabbinate to declare a leap year, and added an extra month of Adar. It would have meant that we would have to celebrate Purim again, as Purim is in Adar II. It would also have meant that Passover would be in May, and Sukkot in November. Now we can begin to understand what I mean about disruptions!
Another disruption was the ruling that allowed one to fulfill the obligation to hear the megillah on Purim through electronic means such as a telephone or video. Until now, the halachic literature was almost unanimous in saying this is not allowed. Given the inability of many observant Jews to attend a live reading, because they were in quarantine, the rabbis permitted electronic readings (while still counseling that reading to oneself is much preferred).
Rabbis are now allowing kaddish to be recited in virtual minyanim. The obvious goal is to allow psychological relief to those who cannot say kaddish. But the rabbis have always rightly and presciently warned us of slippery slopes. After months of saying kaddish in a virtual minyan, will it be possible to put the genie back in the bottle? I am already hearing about people praying together virtually. They meet on their computers at a set time and pray together. They are not reciting prayers requiring a quorum of 10, but they are calling these prayer sessions minyanim, just for lack of a better word. As our world becomes more and more virtual, is this how real virtual minyanim with all the trimmings begin?
More questions: The Halacha is that if a majority of the minyan missed the Torah reading from the week before, the minyan should read both Torah portions that Shabbat as though it were a double parasha. Now, since most major Jewish communities in the world are barred from going to shuls or being in a minyan, the majority of the Jewish people will miss reading the parasha. What are the halachic implications, especially considering that it will be weeks before we are able to go to synagogue? Will we have to have one Shabbat sometime in July where we read all of the missed Torah portions? (I will be conveniently “sick” that Shabbat.)
Also, since we are social-distancing and cannot get haircuts before Passover, will they allow us to get haircuts in the middle of sefira, assuming we can start to get to barber shops then? The Ashkenazi chief rabbi has already declared that weddings will be allowed during this prohibited time. Will we finally find out what color everyone’s hair really is?
Will all of the firstborn fast this 14th of Nisan because they can’t attend a minyan? (For the record, the Fast of the Firstborn is a custom without the force of law. It is unlike the other fasts that were established by the Sages. In fact, is it a problematic custom, as fasting during Nisan is not allowed.) Will they just allow everyone to skip the fast?
Anyway, these are just some thoughts that are coming to my mind as I am balancing work, teaching, studying, reading, writing, children, spouse and Netflix. What comes to your mind?

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.