Now’s the time for halakhic creativity — but don’t hold your breath

I recently had occasion to experience some rather deft rabbinic creativity when I visited the new kosher McDonalds in Terminal 1 of Ben Gurion Airport. Somehow the rabbis manage to give their imprimatur to a business that operates openly on the Sabbath. The halakhic hocus pocus that makes this possible involves the deployment of computerized order/pay stations where one places their order and charges it to a credit card. This autonomous electronic device then transmits a printout of the order to the workers who assemble and package the customer’s meal. There is no human cashier to handle any transaction.

The Ben Gurion McDonalds does not offer hamburgers or fries – McDonalds’ signature items – as these would require cooking on the Sabbath. Instead they serve up something that, perhaps once upon time, came from a chicken, along with reheated roast potatoes which were all cooked prior to the holy day. How the employees arrive to their jobs on Shabbat does not, apparently, concern the Rabbanut so long as ‘technically’ there is no violation of the Sabbath at the enterprise itself. After all, the payments are handled mechanically, and the cooking is completed before the onset of Shabbat.

One can only wonder how much it cost the owners of McDonalds to arrange this halakhic sleight of hand which, if not actually violating any laws of Shabbat most assuredly violate its spirit. Nevertheless, throughout history our esteemed rabbis have always had a soft spot for big business. They would find ingenious creative halakhic solutions that allow large, profitable corporations to do business on Shabbat while making no such accommodations for small mom and pop businesses whose owners are barely making ends meet.

Which brings me to the current Coronavirus crisis.

Most synagogues are shutting their doors in order to thwart the spread of infection. Yet even those shuls that remain open are telling their older congregants to stay away. If nothing else, this means the people most likely to be saying kaddish for a loved are unable to recite this prayer which requires a minyan – a quorum of thirteen adult males.

As someone who just recently finished saying kaddish for my father, I can readily understand the pain and frustration of being deprived of the opportunity to so honor a departed parent.   If our esteemed rabbis would make a ‘horaat sha’ah’, a temporarily ruling that would allow for a minyan to be held via Skype, kaddish could continue despite the quarantine. Thus far there has been no such ruling.

In less than a month we will be observing Passover. In Israel there are thousands of people who count on large public seders in order to celebrate the holiday. Most of these people are poor, many are aged and infirm, while others are recent immigrants who never learned how to do a seder on their own.

This year, for the first time, such people will have no seder in which they can partake. Because the only solution would be a seder broadcast into their homes by TV or Skype, and this would not be halakhically permissible.

Surely, if the Rabbanut were to put its collective head to it, they could find a way to make such a seder feasible, just as they found a way to keep McDonald’s piling in the profits at Ben Gurion Airport on Shabbat. But McDonalds has deep pockets. The people who need a seder have only holes in theirs.

Somehow it seems to me that enabling thousands of lost souls to celebrate the seder is a wee bit more important than allowing McDonalds to operate 24/7. The only thing missing here is a way to make it worth the rabbis’ while. Alas, poverty-stricken Israelis don’t have the resources of McDonalds.   So I wouldn’t hold my breath.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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