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Men pray while keeping distance from each other outside their closed synagogue in Netanya on April 23, 2020, as Israel imposed measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images
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An Introduction to Pandemic Jewish Law

Responsa of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Asher Weiss

by
Michael Broyde
April 24, 2020
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images
Men pray while keeping distance from each other outside their closed synagogue in Netanya on April 23, 2020, as Israel imposed measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Halacha, or Jewish law, is an all-encompassing legal system that addresses every area of life, from ritual practice to commercial transactions to family relations, with side tours into medical ethics and much more. Emergency measures—or hora’at sha’ah in Hebrew—are part of the Jewish legal tradition as well, and the recent global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic spurred rabbinic authorities to grapple with specific and unusual questions about everything from praying when synagogues are closed to celebrating Passover without being able to leave one’s home.

Two collections of responsa, or rabbinic answers to pressing questions, stand out: Jewish Law Decisions Related to Corona by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and Minchat Asher: A Collection of Classes, Responsa, Letters and Articles Related to the Corona Pandemic, by Rabbi Asher Weiss.

A well-known American-born expert on Jewish law, Weiss currently serves as the Jewish law authority of Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. His new, thin volume has 31 responsa and five letters, dealing with an impressively diverse range of matters of Jewish law. To give the reader just a sampling, consider the following six questions, each addressed in this volume:

May a doctor who is at high risk or who has family at high risk work in the current pandemic?
How to conduct a bris (circumcision) in the current environment?
May one sell one’s chametz via the internet?
May a woman immerse in a mikvah during the day (rather than in the evening as mandated) due to the pandemic?
How should a person under quarantine conduct himself in a variety of religious ritual settings?
Does a person who is suffering from Corona and cannot taste the bitter herbs (marror) or matzo, need to eat them?

In each of these and the 25 other responsa, Weiss provides the reader with a detailed understanding of how he sees Jewish law functioning in the current time.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s Hebrew volume is a different work. Schachter is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, and the head of its primary kollel. Widely perceived to be the heir of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Schachter serves as the final authority of Jewish law at OU Kosher and is the author of many books on matters of Halacha. His new work is broad and well sourced, and contains 35 responsa on many different areas of Jewish law. Five examples suffice:

How should the communal sale of chametz take place?
How might we conduct triage in medical decisions?
How shall we address the needs of the physically and mentally ill on Pesach and Shabbat?
How may we conduct a burial in the current situation?
Is anyone permitted to run a minyan with social distancing?

Most of these topics are addressed both from the perspective of the individual and the community.

Schachter’s responsa differ from Weiss’ in several ways, each of which is noteworthy. First, Schachter ends most of his responsa with an English summary aimed at providing guidance to the typical lay member of the modern Orthodox community; sometimes the English text is as long as the Hebrew. Unlike Weiss, Schachter is seeking to guide the laity and the rabbinate alike, not just the rabbinic community. Second, Schachter’s responsa frequently focus on communal issues and adopt a more communal approach to questions focusing on the good of the whole. For example, Schachter now permits marriage without a quorum of 10 present rather than delaying the marriage, a decision that reflects a sense of communal responsibility rather than a religious ideal.

Third, Schachter is more aware of the status of Jews as a minority religion in a complex society and wants to ensure, as much as possible, that the religious practices of the Jewish community do not violate important secular societal norms and attract unfavorable public attention during these difficult times. Consider, for example, the following argument, in which Schachter decrees that, this year, Jews should do away with the traditional custom and refrain from burning their chametz before Passover. He notes:

Finally, we must also be careful of the public perception that Jews are going about their business as usual and conducting their affairs in public while the rest of the world is confining themselves to their homes. It could appear as if the Jewish people are not sharing the burden and pain with the rest of humanity because of our religion.

Perhaps this sensitivity comes from the fact that initial stories about the coronavirus in New York focused on a specific modern Orthodox synagogue, or the difficulties of ensuring universal vaccinations in some portions of the ultra-Orthodox community.

For those of us who are part of the Jewish law community, the simultaneous appearance of these two volumes on “Corona Halacha” is most welcome but not surprising. Similar collections have been written about other complex and challenging situations, and each one adds valuable and unique insights to the corpus of Jewish law. To outsiders, it might appear strange that anyone cares about the details and nuances of Jewish law in an emergency. However, in truth, it is a sign of the Jewish community’s vitality, resilience, sensitivity, and complexity that two such volumes have appeared.

Of course, only time will tell which of the rules advanced in these many responsa will be treated as emergency regulations that can never be followed in normal times, and which will become mainstream rules of Jewish law that will be used in the normal situations of complex life. This would not be the first case in which a rule first written in emergency times becomes normative.

May we be shortly blessed to study these volumes of Jewish law with a gratitude that the dangers they are discussing have passed and all has returned to normal.

Michael J. Broyde is a Professor of Law at Emory University as well as the Projects Director in its Center for the Study of Law & Religion and the author or editor of many books. He served for many years as a member of the Beth Din of America and edited “Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th,” reflecting on unique Jewish Law matters that developed at that tragic moment.

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