Quarantine has many facets. One aspect is the loss of the daily experience of gathering as a community for prayer. Nowadays, anyone who is accustomed to praying with a minyan (a prayer quorum of 10 men, for the purpose of this discussion), whether once, twice, or three times a day, feels a deep break in their operating system.
There is a great difference between the language of religion and the language of Jewish law. In the language of Jewish law, the matter is very simple: “pikuach nefesh,” the obligation to save life, currently demands that we avoid all congregating. Consequently, public prayer is canceled and Jewish law forces everyone to pray at home.
But there is also religious language. This language recognizes inner and spiritual needs that reach down to the depth and root of our souls. Take, for example, the case of a person who is in the year of mourning for his or her parent, and makes sure to say Kaddish every day. During ordinary times, these mourners go to extreme lengths to arrange their entire schedule in a way that will ensure that they do not miss saying Kaddish. Often, the person who is saying Kaddish may not be particularly careful to pray with a minyan, or even to pray at all. But Kaddish activates an internal, intimate world of communication with God and a process of experiencing and internalizing grief.
In the language of Jewish law, the Mourner’s Kaddish is almost non-existent. It was born in a relatively late historical reality, during the Middle Ages, and ranks low in the hierarchy of halakha. But in the religious language of Judaism, Kaddish ranks very high in the religious priorities of the people who say it. This is why cancelling Kaddish causes great pain to a mourner’s deep and intimate world.
Last week, Chana and Aviad Friedman, well-known figures in the Modern Orthodox community in Israel, invited me to participate in a Shacharit prayer service on Zoom, which was organized by their synagogue, the Yachad congregation in Tel Aviv. This morning service, I was told, would omit three prayers considered to be “devarim shebikdusha” — prayers that can only be recited in the presence of a minyan: Kaddish, Kedusha, and Barchu.
I asked for permission to consult with Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Bracha and author of the series Peninei Halakha, and to ask him for guidelines for conducting a Zoom prayer service in accordance with Jewish law. His response regarding Kaddish and other components of communal prayer was as follows:
- All of the below is intended for those who want to take the extra step of praying in a minyan. According to Jewish law, though, at a time when it is difficult to pray in a minyan, one may pray individually at the outset.
- Due to questions regarding the exact definition of the terms “makom” (place) and “kol” (voice) in the context of communal prayer, it is impossible to define a group of people who have gathered for a virtual service via Zoom as a quorum of 10 for any of the prayers that are considered to be “dvarim shebikdusha” that require a minyan.
- The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom) and of the Rabbi’s Kaddish (Kaddish d’Rabanan) is not considered to be a recitation of a “blessing in vain” (“bracha l’vatala”). Therefore, a virtual meet up can be considered a kind of minyan for the recitation of these prayers.
- In a time of great need, when there is value for the entire community to pray together virtually, reciting “Barchu” before the recitation of the blessings leading up to the Shema is not considered to be a “blessing in vain.” It is therefore permissible to say Barchu at a virtual prayer service.
- In Jerusalem, it is customary to say the “Tachanun” prayer even when praying alone, not only in the presence of a minyan. In other places, Tachanun is recited by a sole worshiper if there are holy books in the place of prayer. According to Rabbi Melamed, a meeting via Zoom can be considered to be a place with holy books, and Tachanun can therefore be recited even if the prayer service is not considered to be a minyan.
- If there is a prayer leader who can recite the “13 Attributes of Mercy” out loud for the community, singing them in the Torah trop (cantillation) of those verses in the Torah, the community may recite the 13 attributes together with the prayer leader.
As we face this pandemic, with each passing day, more mourners are added to the worldwide Jewish community — mourners for whom it may be difficult to accept the possibility of not saying Kaddish at all. During these trying times, there are also many people who are reluctant to give up daily prayer as part of a community. It is my hope that the guidelines above may provide a solution for those people, and enable them to fulfill their communal prayer needs, even if it is by remote connection.
And as we approach Passover, it is imperative that we find ways to address the next impending need: how to alleviate the sense of loneliness and isolation of people who will find themselves alone for the seder due to the need to stay home and shelter in place. It is my hope to expand on this matter in the week to come.
Readers in Israel who are interested in information about Yachad’s Zoom minyan for the morning and evening prayers can find it on Aviad Friedman’s Facebook page (Hebrew).
The author thanks Shira Pasternak Be’eri and Avigail Ben Aryeh for their help in the preparation of this blog post.