How have the recent COVID-19 related lockdowns affected Jewish religious pracitce? Yuval Katz-Wilfing’s text reflects upon the challenges that the pandemic poses to Jewish laws regarding prayers and rituals and gives an insight into the various ways different Jewish communities have responded to these difficult times.
The first lockdown in Israel lasted from March to May of 2020. It fell between the middle of Adar and the middle of Sivan in the Jewish year of 5780. The middle of Adar is marked by the feast of Purim, the middle of Nissan by the feast of Pesach. The month of Iyyar, between Adar and Nissan, has the memorial days for the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the wars in Israel as well as Israeli Independence Day. Sivan is marked by the feast of Shavuot. In the year 2020 this season of many holidays, family, and public gatherings has stood under the shadow of a pandemic. This first lockdown of three, until the middle of 2021, has forced many changes in the way Jewish communities all over the world marked these days, and broke apart large family gatherings and public events.
The challenges of life with the coronavirus have made the practical and ideological differences between the various Jewish groups even more noticeable. Especially in a season where so many public and familial events are taking place. The deep differences of values could not be greater between most of the Jews (secular, traditional and religious) and the ultra-orthodox in the state of Israel.
Ultra-orthodox tend to be suspicious of the secular state of Israel. When the state asked not to gather in great numbers and closed the schools, the most important ultra-orthodox rabbi, Kanievsky claimed that studying Torah (which is a general name of texts from the rabbinical tradition) in their schools must not stop since in his eyes the spiritual danger to the kids and the community as a whole is greater than the health risks from COVID-19. When the government wanted to limit people’s movement to fight the spread of the virus but allowed people with dogs to walk them so they could go to the toilet, the most senior ultra-orthodox politician and minister of health said that there is no way that dogs can leave the house but he would be barred from going to the public ritual bath, a Mikveh, every morning.
Even before the first lockdown, gathering in synagogues was forbidden, forcing people to create ad hoc courtyard prayer assemblies. In these outdoor minyanim not all synagogue conditions could be recreated. A proper physical separation between men and women could not be set up, so women were more visible. Since there were limitations on movement for long stretches of time, sometimes to within 100 meters of one’s address, people could not always reach the area they usually pray in, forcing them to pray close to their families, sometimes with the families in the immediate vicinity of their home. This created geographical organic prayer groups of families and neighbors.
For some central prayers one must have a public, a quorum of ten grown up Jews, to actually say them. In times of social distancing, this becomes a real problem, with numerous halachic (Jewish legal) questions arising: what does it mean to be in public? When can we say that the participants of the prayer are actually together? Is it a spatial question, that of being in the same space. Or is it a sensory question, meaning that one should see and/or hear the others prayers.
A porch minyan allows people to be in their home and still praying together in a quorum of ten. This is done by the participants going out to the porch, balcony or door, as long as the participants are linked by sight to each other.
Allowing porch minyanim is based on an 18th century halachic text from Rabbi Chaim Josef David Azulai, which was in quarantine himself after traveling by boat. He wanted to pray with others but was barred from leaving his quarters.
The spring days of Pesach saw debates about the use of tele-video conferencing in the context of the communal family ritual meal of Pesach, the Seder meal. Some Moroccan rabies followed their own tradition to allow it, within certain limitations, and progressive rabbis were happy to adopt the technological tools, other orthodox rabbis made a stand against it and some tried to find various compromises. The debate was a practical debate about how to preserve the spirit of the home holiday, when the most important liturgy takes place in the extended family setting; where grandchildren learn from their grandparents about their communal heritage. It is a delicate balancing act: to what extent the presence of the technology would destroy the familial interactions within one’s home and to what extent would it enable these interactions to family members torn apart by social distancing? At the end of the day, with the sunset approaching and the holiday setting in, it was the individual decision of every household.
The challenges of periphery communities to obtain foodstuffs for the Pesach were exacerbated while the advantages of central communities were stressed. While in Israel people could gather to pray by simply going out to their porch window or door, creating a porch minyan, the Jews in the diaspora, which are more sparsely distributed even within areas that have a Jewish population, could only solo pray or join video minyanim to fulfill the requirement of being together by seeing/hearing each other.
With the breakup of the geographical order, online lessons were available in an unprecedented abundance, combining the Jewish learning traditions with modern communication technology. This was stressed in the time around Shavuot when people emphasize this tradition, by gathering for an all night study session to celebrate the reception of the Torah. Old concepts of space were challenged by the situation; groups gathering for study could be made of people from around the globe online, while a physical encounter to make a prayer quorum was restricted to the four walls of one’s home.
The ceremonial affection that Jews show towards their tradition by kissing holy items such as the Torah roll, and the Mezuzah, and the handshakes congratulating each other on roles taken during liturgy was also under threat from social distancing. The crisis threatens to make Jews colder and show less affection. Corona has put into question the most basic principle of beit haknesset – the house of assembly-, that of actually being assembled. These trying conditions sped up some processes while others grounded to a halt. Jewish religious life tends to be rather slow to embrace changes, but the crisis has accelerated the rate of change. It leveraged the position of the various tools and techniques of communication, from this age of information we are living through, into our religious life. Authority figures found themselves unprepared to deal with this crisis, pushed by its implication to the edges of their comfort zones and sometimes beyond.
The emergence of COVID-19 has highlighted many of the theological and practical divisions within the Jewish world. Secular Jews and Reform Jews seem eager to adopt the newest technological tools to allow them to continue their daily life as much as possible. While more religious and Orthodox Jews are very suspicious towards these tools when it relates to their ritual practice. Some reject these tools completely, for halachic reasons, even glorifying the longing to the true form of prayer they know before the plague and some are cautiously trying to integrate these tools within their religious practice. Some rabbis say that the unique halachic measures, such as distance minyanim, taken despite long traditions will disappear with the virus and will have no lasting effects; others claim that we already see how these unique measures become the new norm.
It is hard to estimate what kind of effect these times will have in the long term. We know from history that sometimes temporary changes become permanent and even get sanctified as a custom and given a theological meaning. Therefore, both sides of the argument can be understood, one trying to salvage the religious experience of the present while the other wants to maintain the religious experience of the past for future generations. It seems that some changes are unavoidable in order to maintain communities in times of social distancing, but one must be careful of the thought that these changes are easily reversible. Therefore, all these changes must be made with a gentle hand as to preserve the tradition.
Like with all people and communities, it seems this extended time of plague has pushed the Jewish world out of balance. Rather than striving for old normality, some strove for a new one; one where social distancing masks and non-physical meetings are the norm. For the Jewish law and the traditional Jewish practice with its focus on a physical meeting of people to pray, on the physical demonstration of love for the Torah and the people around it, this is a very difficult challenge.
In the middle of September 2020, on the eve of Rosh haShana, the new year of 5781, the lockdown was resumed for a second time. A text on social media said, “At midnight don’t forget to move your watch half a year backwards”. This just showed many that this plague is more resilient than was first thought and one needs to be prepared to live with it in the long run.
In the second quarter of 2021, after the third lockdown was finished, another and more optimistic argument arose, that around how to relate to the vaccine. While some argued that one should or at least can utter a blessing when receiving the vaccine, others objected to it.
While various blessings can be said for many occasions, the question was what kind of occasion is the reception of a vaccine. Does it have a personal or communal importance? Two blessings from the choice of traditional blessings were considered. One blessing for the better times the individual came to (“sheHechayanu”) and one regarding the good and benevolent God (“hatov vehaMetiv”) which is more about community. One emphasizes the importance of the vaccine for the individual being vaccinated and the improvement in his personal situation while the other one stresses the public aspect of the vaccine and its importance for the entire community, its material and spiritual life.
In this short text, I have only reviewed a few issues relating to how Jews and Judaism were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, and the measures utilized to combat it, could be seen in all areas of religious life. From public policy and how it is affected by religious consideration to the communal aspects of how to hold family and other events in times of social distancing to the very personal dimension of how individual religious life reacts to the pandemic.
Yuval Katz-Wilfing is a FWF fellow in the department of Religious studies, University of Vienna, and the CEO of the coordination committee for Christian- Jewish cooperation. He is interested in Identity and the definition of the soul as well as interreligious dialog. He writes and speaks regularly about Jewish and interfaith topics.
https://mishmar.org.il/%D7%A9%D7%A8-%D7%94%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%90%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%91%D7%AA-%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%9E%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%90-%D7%99%D7%99%D7%AA%D7%9B%D7%9F-%D7%A9%D7%A0%D7%99/ (accessed on 12.5.21)
https://midrash.jct.ac.il/%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%99-%D7%91%D7%99%D7%AA-%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%A9/%D7%94%D7%9C%D7%9B%D7%94/%D7%A9%D7%94%D7%97%D7%99%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%95-%D7%90%D7%95-%D7%94%D7%98%D7%95%D7%91-%D7%95%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%98%D7%99%D7%91-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%97%D7%99%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%94 (accessed on 14.5.21)
 שערי תשובה או“ח סי‘ נה ס“ק טו בשם רבי חיים יוסף דוד אזולאי בספרו ‚מחזיק ברכה‘
https://www.srugim.co.il/436525-%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%9E%D7%A8%D7%A4%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%90%D7%95-%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%A4%D7%AA%D7%97%D7%99-%D7%91%D7%AA%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%91-%D7%A9%D7%9E%D7%95 (accessed on 12.5.21)
https://midrash.jct.ac.il/%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%99-%D7%91%D7%99%D7%AA-%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%A9/%D7%94%D7%9C%D7%9B%D7%94/%D7%A9%D7%94%D7%97%D7%99%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%95-%D7%90%D7%95-%D7%94%D7%98%D7%95%D7%91-%D7%95%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%98%D7%99%D7%91-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%97%D7%99%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%94 (accessed on 13.5.21)
RaT-Blog Nr. 32/2021