Shabbat in Shul is the Highlight of the Week (Eruvin 59)

Simchas Torah is one of the most dangerous holidays on the Jewish calendar.  It’s always been a worry, and shuls have gone to great lengths to curtail underage drinking.  But this year, the concerns are far greater: singing, dancing, and everything else that could lead to the spread of coronavirus.

Here’s the thing: Simchas Torah or any other time, it won’t be long before we have coronavirus in shul.  That’s a fact.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest with themselves.  Should we be attending shul on Shabbos, let alone Simchas Torah?

מַתְנִי׳ עִיר שֶׁל יָחִיד, וְנַעֲשֵׂית שֶׁל רַבִּים — מְעָרְבִין אֶת כּוּלָּהּ. גְּמָ׳ הֵיכִי דָּמֵי עִיר שֶׁל יָחִיד וְנַעֲשֵׂית שֶׁל רַבִּים? אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: כְּגוֹן דִּאיסְקַרְתָּא דְּרֵישׁ גָּלוּתָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן: מַאי טַעְמָא? אִילֵּימָא מִשּׁוּם דִּשְׁכִיחִי גַּבֵּי הַרְמָנָא, מַדְכְּרִי אַהֲדָדֵי — כּוּלְּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל נָמֵי בְּצַפְרָא דְּשַׁבְּתָא שְׁכִיחִי גַּבֵּי הֲדָדֵי.

MISHNA: If a private city (which does not have many residents) grows and becomes a public city, one may still establish an eruv by joining the courtyards all together.

GEMARA: What is an example of a private city that becomes a public city? Rav Yehuda said: For example, the Exilarch’s village. Rav Nachman said to him: What is the reason for bringing this example? If you say that because large numbers of people are to be found at the residence of the governor, and they remind one another (of the particular laws of Shabbat relating to that place), then every city should have the same status, as all Jews are found together on Shabbat morning.

Ahad Ha’am’s line has become a modern classic: “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” There are so many aspects to Shabbos that ensure our survival.  The physical and mental health qualities of Shabbos were already espoused by Moshe to Pharaoh, as he impressed upon him the ability of the Hebrew slaves to work more efficiently if they were given a day off each week to rest.

Rav Nachman reminds us of an additional integral aspect of how Shabbos keeps us intact as a people.  There are those who look at Shabbos, and all they see are restrictions.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  But the rules and regulations are really a means to an end.  By demarcating our lives, we are transplanted to an island in time and space, removed from the worries and concerns of the world around us, be they work considerations or national and global affairs.  One day a week, we can focus on God, family, and community.

That third branch mustn’t be dismissed lightly.  Shabbos maintains the element of community, so essential to who we are as social beings.  We don’t just come to shul to pray.  The Gemara already recognized the social aspect of Shabbos life.  It’s axiomatic that “all Jews are found together on Shabbat morning.”  We come to shul and people “remind one another” of the keys to leading a successful Jewish life.

When we come together each week, we don’t just remind one another.  We are reminded of one another.  It’s easy to forget the needs of our fellow community members when we haven’t seen them for weeks and months on end.  But when we encounter them weekly, we have the ability to seek their welfare, and they ours.  These are all keys to leading a successful Jewish life.

Right now, we’re blessed with an opportunity not afforded most of the population.  While the UK Government’s ‘Rule of Six’ rules out non-familial social interactions for almost all, there is one place that we are still permitted to come out and see our friends each week.  In this country, shuls have no limits on participation, provided social distancing guidelines are observed.

It was heartwarming to see so many back in shul for the High Holy days.  We had over a thousand people in shul on Yom Kippur.  It’s not the five thousand we normally see, but we will get there at the right time.  Certainly, for those still shielding, please maintain your steadfastness.  Pikuach nefesh is of paramount importance.

But for those who were able to make it over the High Holy days, we want to see you back more regularly!  It’s time to come back to shul on Shabbat.  That’s the time when we really get together and are there for one another as a community.  This Shabbos, we’re privileged to be hosting the Chief Rabbi, who will address Hashkoma, the Main Service, and the Youth Service.

Now for the tricky news.  The longer shuls stay open during the pandemic, the greater the likelihood that we will have coronavirus in shul.  It’s only a matter of time before we all get an email telling us that there’s been a confirmed case of covid reported by a shul attendee.

I’m telling you this now, because it’s inevitable.  It’s statistically inevitable.  And if we are not mentally prepared for the inevitability, there will be a reaction of massive panic.  The naysayers will point fingers and say ‘We told you so.  Shuls should never have reopened.  They’re super-spreaders of the virus.’

Here’s what you need to know when that announcement about coronavirus in shul comes.  The carrier didn’t get the virus in shul.  They caught it from their teenager who went to a party and acted foolishly.  Now, the kid has gone and infected the members of their household and one of them has come to shul, not knowing they were about to develop symptoms.

Now for the good news: All decent, law-abiding, responsible shuls (such as HGSS) are the safest venues on the planet right now.  We maintain social distancing, we wear masks, the chazan is surrounded by Perspex, we reduce touch-points, hand-sanitizing is mandatory, doors are all open for continual ventilation, we wear gloves to handle the Sefer Torah, all siddurim are quarantined after use, the list goes on.  We are being so careful that we’re not even allowing the sharing of Lulav and Etrog!

And so, while we are utilizing track and trace systems to cover all bases, even if a case were reported, the likelihood that others would have to self-isolate is miniscule.  “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Synagogues are bastions of health and safety right now.  You can come to shul and feel secure physically, and spiritually.

It goes without saying that we won’t be dancing together this Simchas Torah.  But that won’t diminish our joy of having completed another cycle of the Torah.  It hasn’t been easy.  Many parshiyot were leined over Zoom (we did ours on Friday afternoons).  But we’ve made it and we’re here.  And we’re now allowed to lein each week.  And bar mitzvahs are all ready to go.

That’s certainly reason to celebrate and be grateful this Simchas Torah. May Shabbos morning in shul forever be the highlight of your week, through thick and thin!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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