Amid COVID-19, OTS releases guide on how to safely observe High Holy Days
The High Holy Days, which refer to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are some of the most important in the Jewish calendar, with the communal aspect being very important.
By Aaron Reich | August 19, 2020
Ohr Torah Stone’s (OTS) Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program has published a guide for local Jewish communities on how to handle the numerous challenges relating to the High Holy Days during the coronavirus pandemic.
The High Holy Days, which refer to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are some of the most important in the Jewish calendar, with the communal aspect being very important. However, due to health restrictions put in place around the world to step the spread of COVID-19, many worshipers will find themselves unable to enter their synagogues to conduct their services in the traditional manner.
“The High Holy Days are coming up in one month, and we have no idea; will we be conducting services in the synagogues or in our gardens? Will we blow the shofar blasts in our homes or in public? Jewish communities around the world are feeling great uncertainty with regard to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days on which people of all observance levels usually flock to the synagogue and which are part of the worldwide Jewish identity,” program director Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum explained in a statement.
“Our goal with this guide is to help our emissaries address the concerns of the community and the individual, to offer alternatives to public prayer and holiday events, and to provide solutions for dilemmas that arise, so they know that even if this year the High Holidays will be very different they can still be observed with meaning and purpose.”
The program has 300 emissaries in Jewish communities throughout the world, and have already distributed their guides to rabbinical and community leaders.
While the guide does try to overcome the challenges caused by restrictions, it does stress that public health and safety comes before everything else. To this end, the guide seeks to find ways for communities to meet the requirements for many of the necessary rituals and prayer services without putting public health at risk. For example, one such challenge is the shofar, the most famous highlight of Rosh Hashanah, with worshipers required to hear 100 shofar blasts each day. As such, the guide recommends methods to ensure as many people as possible can hear the shofar even if they can’t attend a service in person.
Yom Kippur presents similar challenges, with the Kol Nidre and Yizkor prayers being of particular note, as they are characterized by widespread attendance in large gatherings. Due to the coronavirus, however, the guide suggests that if necessary, communities should broadcast these payers online before the holiday begins. However, these challenges are not uniform, with the guide acknowledging that the particular challenges may differ between communities, due to how COVID-19 itself spreads differently in different parts of the world.
“Through our emissaries across the world, we are reinforcing our commitment to Diaspora Jewry and ensuring that our traditions and sense of peoplehood are not compromised despite the obvious challenges imposed by this pandemic,” OTS president and rosh yeshiva Rabbi Kenneth Brander said.
“Particularly this year, the sanctity of the Holy Days is not solely defined by the place and the communal gathering, but in how we individually and as families make these days meaningful. This season of Atonement brings a new opportunity to connect with God more intimately, informally and as a family.
“Our sincere hope is that the High Holy Days will be defined by caution and concern for our fellow community members so that we will be blessed to see this pandemic period behind us and we can return to our beloved traditions and houses of prayer in the ways that we have always known and loved.”
The announcement comes as Israel is mulling over whether to institute another lockdown for the High Holy Days, with one leading health official warning that should Israel not lock down for the High Holy Days to prevent gatherings at synagogues and homes, then Israel could potentially see dozens if not hundreds of more patients in serious condition.
“Lock down during the holidays or even just the High Holy Days feels like a reasonable option,” Dr. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, told The Jerusalem Post.
“And if we don’t do it, we might find ourselves two weeks after Rosh Hashanah with grandparents – hundreds of grandparents – who were infected during Rosh Hashanah dinners. We cannot handle that.”
Maayan Hoffman contributed to this report.