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Can a person in home-quarantine read the megillah via Skype?

As coronavirus places people in isolation, rabbis grapple with how to help their communities fulfil Torah commandments

  | MARCH 5, 2020

As the coronavirus spreads across the world, requiring people of all faiths and nationalities to enter quarantine, rabbis are starting to address the practical religious ramifications of isolation.
If you are in quarantine, how do you hear Megillat Esther on Purim, which takes place next week? Should you kiss the Torah when it circles in the synagogue? Can you use hand sanitizer on Shabbat? And, if you are in a country like Italy where synagogues and other communal gathering places have been temporarily closed and people are being asked to live in isolation, how do you maintain a sense of community?
“Each and every day we are receiving practical and halachic questions and dilemmas from our emissaries in the field on how to best serve their communities and maintain a balance between adhering to local regulations, safeguarding the health of their congregants and fulfilling the communities’ religious needs,” said Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, director of the Straus-Amiel Institute of Ohr Torah Stone, which trains and places emissaries in Jewish communities across the globe.
As such, the institute issued a 12-page halachic guide to the communal and practical challenges resulting from the spread of the virus. Halacha is Jewish law. The questions above and others are answered.
“This guidebook is intended to provide them and others with the practical and halachic support they need,” Birnbaum said.
From a practical perspective, the guide answers religious questions, such as whether one should attend a public event or participate in a minyan – a daily quorum of 10 men who pray together – despite requests by health ministries to be in isolation.
“Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav David Lau recently ruled that ‘anyone who is required to remain in isolation is forbidden from davening with the tzibur,’” as explained in an article by Rabbi Asher Bush that is linked into the guide. “An issur gamur applies to anyone at risk of harming another person, even if the chances are very slight. Likewise, there is an issur to enter a place of danger and therefore one should refrain from visiting places where there is a risk of contracting [the virus].”
The word issur means forbidden act.
That same article confirms that it is acceptable by Jewish law to use hand sanitizer on Shabbat and also recommends that one refrain from kissing the Torah scroll.
The guide is just one example of how rabbis are addressing these new questions. On social media, multiple rabbis are answering questions about how to handle the mitzvot or commandments of Purim, such as hearing the Book of Esther read out loud and directly from the scroll, or delivering mishloah manot, gifts of food to one’s friends.
Rabbi Shlomo Brody, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, explained in a Facebook post that although there is a debate about whether one can hear the megillah via Skype or Zoom, it should be acceptable for one who is in quarantine.
“There is a general disagreement among Jewish legal decisors about listening to the megillah reading through a microphone, telephone and other electronic instruments,’ Brody explains in his post. “The majority position today (led by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach) contends that one is not hearing the voice of the reader directly but instead is listening to a new sound created by the amplifier. As such, this is equivalent to hearing an echo sound, which the Talmud, in the context of shofar blowing, deems as problematic.
“Yet other decisors suggested that factor is irrelevant: as long as one hears the sound immediately, the fact that sound waves were converted by some mechanism… is irrelevant,” he continues. “In general, decisors rule that people should not use electric devices to fulfil these mitzvot. Yet in cases of acute need… we rely on minority positions, following a well-established principle in Talmudic law.”
Thus, he encouraged that “if you’ve got someone in your community that is in a precautionary quarantine, or others who are avoiding crowds because of weak immune systems, please consider making such arrangements for them.”
Birnbaum recommended that if one cannot physically send mishloah manot that they send a nice message via Facebook or email.
“The gist of mishloah manot is to think about someone,” he told The Jerusalem Post.  “By sending a nice note or calling one another to say happy holiday it sends a good feeling, and that way you preserve the mitzvah’s value.”
At the same time, Birnbaum noted that a great challenge for some rabbis is keeping the community together and supportive of one another without the opportunity to physically interact.
Rabbi Daniel Touitto is serving as an emissary rabbi of the city of Venice, which has had a continuous Jewish presence since 1516. Venice is among the Italian cities most affected by the outbreak and Touitto said that the situation presented the prospect that there would be no Shabbat services in the city for the first time in centuries. 
“Even during the world wars the prayer services went on so it was inconceivable that we wouldn’t have a minyan,” the rabbi said.
In the end they were able to hold a very small service in a private home to ensure that the continuity of public prayer remained in one of Europe’s oldest continuously operating Jewish communities.
“While the nature of this disease is unique and unprecedented, Jewish tradition has within it the tools and concepts to deal with all types of crises, in particular the value placed on all human life,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of Ohr Torah Stone. “Our sincere hope is that by creating a sense of community togetherness and solidarity during these challenging times, we can help people all around the world deal with the challenge in a way that will limit the fear and uncertainty.
“With God’s help and the guidance of wise and committed people from around the world, the disease will be quickly eradicated, as we have confronted and defeated others over the course of history,” he concluded.

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