The High Holidays with Covid-19
The millions of worshippers expected at High Holiday prayers this year will be subject to Covid-19 restrictions. A halachic compilation was recently published to assist in dealing with them.
By Zvika Klein | August 9, 2020
Covid-19 makes it highly likely that the upcoming High Holidays will be different to anything we have known before. A recently published halachic compilation guides rabbis in Israel and abroad on adapting the customs and rituals of the Tishrei holidays to the reality of upcoming Hebrew year 5781.
A special chapter in this edition is entitled Guidelines for the Community, Believing, and Halacha Following Covid-19. It is dedicated to the religious requirements of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana as the Shofar is in effect a blowing instrument, and as such is capable of spreading the disease. The first guidelines calls upon communities to prepare as many Shofar blowers as possible, as congregating in large numbers is prohibited this year.
The halachic compilation was written and edited by rabbis of Ohr Torah Stone’s Amiel-Straus Institute for training emissaries for the diaspora. It explains that if there are health instructions that prohibit spending time near other people, then “the time spent in the synagogue should be shortened. For this reason there should be fewer Shofar blasts.” The Straus-Amiel rabbis explain that the number of Shofar blasts depends on the amount of time permitted for congregating. This means that the congregation may still fulfill its obligations even if it does not follow the usual custom of blowing over one hundred blasts on each of Rosh Hashana’s two days. The compilation goes on to detail how to fulfill this obligation in light of various constraints in different congregations.
“It is important to make sure the Shofar is thoroughly cleaned before use,” the rabbis instruct and add distancing guidelines: “The Shofar blower should stand behind a clear plastic partition or at a distance of four to five meters from the cantor and other congregants.” They also recommend that “the Shofar should be pointed in the direction opposite to the congregation” to prevent contagion. “For instance, the Shofar blower should stand at the front of the synagogue facing the ark.”
This year the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will probably be shorter than ever. According to medical experts, prayers should include as little singing as possible as voice and resonance waves increase the dispersion of the virus. “When necessary, it is best to shorten the prayers in order to enable other minyanim to take place and to shorten the length of time in which worshippers are together in the same place. The priorities are to pray with the congregation only those parts that require a minyan, forgoing other prayers such as piyyutim and psukei dezimra.”
In certain circumstances, the authors recommend partially forgoing Chazarat Hasha”tz: “If time is pressing, the Amida prayer of Shacharit should be brief.”
According to Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, head of the Straus-Amiel emissary training program, “Blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana and the Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur bring hundreds of thousands of people to synagogues in the Diaspora, people who are not used to joining the congregation during the year.” Ohr Torah Stone’s president, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, adds that “Jewish halacha is dynamic and constantly copes successfully with challenging and changing realities. We created the halachic guide book for this reason, out of a sense of responsibility towards the Jews of the Diaspora.” They both hope that by next year this compilation will no longer be necessary and will be shelved as emergency halachot that are no longer relevant.