Can we Zoom in the Grandparents This Pesach? (Shabbos 18)

Why is this night different from all nights?  Vos iz andersh di nacht fun Pesach fun alle necht fun a gantz yor?  The Yiddish translation of the Ma Nishtana seems to offer a number of extra, unnecessary words.  Literally, the first line would be translated as, “What is different about this night of Pesach to all nights of a complete year?”  Not until this year did I appreciate the meaning of that translation.  This night of Pesach, the one we’re celebrating in the year 5780 (2020), will be different to any other night of Pesach held in a complete year.

This year, we are incomplete.  Many of us have lost loved ones, and many more are ill.  But the tragedy that has struck almost every family is our inability to fulfil the Torah’s Pesach commandment, “And you shall tell it to your children.”  The lockdown and isolation measures in place in most countries have resulted in an awful situation whereby children will be separated from parents and grandparents for the Pesach seder.

A number of Israeli rabbis recently issued a ruling permitted the use of a Zoom connection to connect families that are isolated from one another.  While it would not resolve the matter, it would certainly go a long way to ameliorate a terrible condition. Is their solution halachically acceptable?

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: פּוֹתְקִין מַיִם לַגִּינָּה עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת עִם חֲשֵׁיכָה וּמִתְמַלֵּאת וְהוֹלֶכֶת כׇּל הַיּוֹם כּוּלּוֹ, וּמַנִּיחִין מוּגְמָר תַּחַת הַכֵּלִים עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת וּמִתְגַּמְּרִין וְהוֹלְכִין כׇּל הַיּוֹם כּוּלּוֹ, וּמַנִּיחִין גׇּפְרִית תַּחַת הַכֵּלִים עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת עִם חֲשֵׁיכָה וּמִתְגַּפְּרִין וְהוֹלְכִין כׇּל הַשַּׁבָּת כּוּלָּהּ, וּמַנִּיחִין קִילוֹר עַל גַּבֵּי הָעַיִן וְאִיסְפְּלָנִית עַל גַּבֵּי מַכָּה עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת עִם חֲשֵׁיכָה וּמִתְרַפֵּאת וְהוֹלֶכֶת כׇּל הַיּוֹם כּוּלּוֹ. אֲבָל אֵין נוֹתְנִין חִטִּין לְתוֹךְ הָרֵיחַיִם שֶׁל מַיִם אֶלָּא בִּכְדֵי שֶׁיִּטָּחֲנוּ מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם. מַאי טַעְמָא? אָמַר רַבָּה: מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמַּשְׁמַעַת קוֹל

One may open a canal that passes adjacent to a garden on Shabbat eve at nightfall, so that water will flow into a garden and the garden continuously fills with water all day long on Shabbat. Similarly, one may place incense, perfumed herbs placed on coals to produce a fragrance, on coals beneath the clothes on Shabbat eve and the clothes may be continuously perfumed all day long. And, similarly, one may place sulfur beneath the silver vessels on Shabbat eve at nightfall for the purpose of coloring the vessels, and they may be continuously exposed to sulfur all day long. And one may place an eye salve on the eye and a bandage smeared with cream on a wound on Shabbat eve at nightfall, and the wound may continuously heal all day long on Shabbat. However, one may not place wheat kernels into the water mill unless he does so in a way so that they will be ground while it is still day on Friday and not on Shabbat. What is the reason? Rabba said: Because it makes noise.

Generally, starting a process before Shabbat that continues to work on its own once Shabbat begins is permissible.  The exception is called ‘avsha milsa’ and refers to situations where a lot of noise is involved.  Those hearing the noise might assume that you’re engaged in a forbidden activity on Shabbat and fail to realize that you kick-started the mechanism prior to the onset of Shabbat.

Some contemporary examples resulting from this prohibition include putting clothing into a washing machine or dryer just prior to Shabbat.  The noise produced runs the risk of drawing attention to the machine’s operation and may lead onlookers to assume you’re washing or drying your clothes on Shabbat.  While the Shu”T Or L’Zion generally forbids the use of a dryer in such a situation, he does permit such utilization in an urgent situation where one must leave town immediately after Shabbat and needs the clothes to be ready.   Likewise, the Chazon Ish permitted the use of a generator on Shabbat, suggesting that everyone knows that it was switched on prior to the holy day.

The Rema offers other examples that would supersede the concern of ‘avsha milsa’ such as a case of significant monetary loss or when it is clear to everyone that the activity began prior to Shabbat, such as the hourly chiming of a clock.   Based on this idea, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach permitted the setting of an alarm before Shabbat.

Apart from not being in the spirit of Shabbat, the reason that one may not leave the TV on over Shabbat is ‘avsha milsa’.  Generally, people don’t leave TVs on for 25 hours and the noisemaking will lead others to believe you’re engaged in non-Shabbat activity.  And ordinarily, the Zoom question would be treated the same way.  Nobody leaves their webcam and videoconference on all day long.  Seeing a livestream on yom tov would lead people to believe that it was switched on during the holy day.

Nevertheless, it is apparent to all that ‘this night of Pesach is different to all other nights of a complete year.’  Firstly, given the circumstances of isolation, nobody is walking in on anybody and suspecting them of wrongdoing on Shabbat.  Secondly, even if they were to walk in (which they legally cannot), everyone understands that this is an emergency situation.

So, are we allowed to Zoom our Pesach seder?  The matter is very controversial and is the topic of an international rabbinic debate right now.  Apart from the ruling by the Israeli rabbis, one of the foremost American halachic authorities issued a statement to rabbis that, even if there’s the slightest concern of danger to life, or slightest slightest concern (and that includes mental health dangers), one is obligated to pick up the phone or keep the videoconference streaming.  Nevertheless, he made it clear that matters of pikuach nefesh (risk to life) must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

While there appears to be a strong case to be made for emergency measures this year, such matters may not be taken lightly and require the adjudication by the greatest Sages of our time.  If you wish to discuss your personal circumstances with me, please do not hesitate to be in touch.  May the Almighty end the plague in time for us all to celebrate the Festival of Redemption together.

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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