Two factors must be balanced when deciding whether and how to “Zoom” someone in to a Pesach seder this year, with the Coronavirus precluding actual presence for many people, especially the elderly. One is the usual set of laws surrounding yom tov. The second is pikuach nefesh (the potential for mortal danger), which the Torah upholds above the laws of Shabbat and yom tov.
Due to considerations of pikuach nefesh, it is absolutely permitted, where there is the potential that extreme isolation could perhaps lead to physical or mental danger, to set up a Zoom feed so that one can experience a Pesach seder with others virtually and not feel alone.
The bar for pikuach nefesh is extremely low; even a whiff of a threat to someone’s physiological or psychological well-being is enough to justify the use of (preset) electronic technology to create an inclusive seder.
Halakha dictates that in cases of potential pikuach nefesh, one should keep the chilul Shabbat or yom tov to the minimum necessary. The following measures should be taken whenever possible:
- Activating a new Zoom session may be a biblical prohibition. Consequently, for the first night of chag, Zoom should be activated before yom tov and run until it expires or, alternatively, set on a timer that will deactivate it after the seder.
- For the second seder, since Zoom sessions expire after 24 hours, it would have to be activated on chag. Initiating a Zoom session on the second day of chag is quite possibly a Rabbinic prohibition and therefore should be done with a shinui — indirectly and in an unconventional manner, such as using one’s elbow or the back of one’s hand. This should be done after the first day has ended.
- Ideally, any action that entails a possible melacha (prohibited act) should be done by the person who is alone, the one for whom the Zoom is set up. (This is only a lechetchila — a priori — preference and should be ignored if it in any way poses a hindrance, for example in cases where an elderly person cannot learn how to use the technology.)
- The screen, if at all possible, should be kept active the whole time, from the beginning of chag until the end of the second seder. Activating a computer that has turned off completely is possibly a biblical prohibition on the first night of yom tov and a Rabbinic prohibition on the second night.
- If possible, a computer should not be moved around, as it is muktza (since its primary function is to do melacha-related activities). If it will have to be moved, it should be placed in advance on a tray that also holds a non-muktza item, and then the tray may be moved.
Once the program is activated, there are no limitations on the parties on either end of the Zoom session. Both are free to move around as much as they please in front of the camera, or talk to one another over the internet.
Caveat: It is important to remember that the above assumes a deep sense of integrity on the users’ part. The parameters of the heter must be honored and the heter must be applied only if there indeed is the possibility of sakanah. If staying off Zoom will merely cause inconvenience, then it is not allowed.
If there is no sakanah — no one is in danger of falling ill physically or emotionally — there is absolutely no heter to broadcast one’s seder on Zoom, even if it was activated before yom tov. It is not merely a biblical or Rabbinic prohibition; it is, in fact, much worse. Running a seder in front of an active screen absent the choleh sheyesh bo sakanah justification will undermine the core essence of Shabbat and chag. Shabbat and holidays are meant to be times when we suspend our weekday routines. Today we spend most of our days, every day, in front of a screen. Therefore, when we are told to suspend our work on Shabbat and chag, it means that we should absolutely not be sitting in front of a screen.
If one decides to ignore this important caveat and to Zoom one’s seder unnecessarily (to their own and their community’s detriment), it is hoped that at least the above guidelines are followed.
May we all have a meaningful chag; שנשמע ונתבשר בשורות טובות.
P.S. I am writing this as myself, not as a representative of any movement or institution.
Also, this is meant to serve as a short primer on the topic and is informed by certain halakhic assumptions that are debatable. I hope to eventually write a more expansive version in which I will more fully flesh out the various assumptions behind this presentation.
Here’s a link to a lightly annotated version: https://drive.google.com/open?id=10qu2WshDANHdRgIV8456ruiu8_FCnsUd