I am relieved to see that as people gain a better understanding of the dangers of COVID-19, there has been an increase in precautions taken all around to keep people safe and healthy.
While I understand the various reasons men want to continue to convene for minyanim (communal prayer), I can not understand how they can do so without violating issues of health, halacha, and overall “derech eretz” (manners, or common decency).
It has become commonplace in religious neighborhoods in Israel for men to assemble for street minyanim. Some follow the safety guidelines, some do not. I am not here to discuss those that intentionally ignore the rules. We all understand how selfish and destructive those people are to society and themselves.
I want to address the well-meaning people who care about health, religion, and the law. Ideally, when halacha is followed properly it should promote proper mental, physical and psychological well-being for all, while living in harmony with others. If it doesn’t, then we are doing something wrong.
The overriding desire to pray in a minyan has caused confusion to many, as so much of our identity and activity are communal. This is especially true when it comes to prayer. So many of our prayers are said in the plural: Slach lanu (forgive us), Refaeinu (heal us), Shema koleinu (hear our voices), etc. We realize that we can not be fully healthy, prosperous, or successful if others are lacking therefore, we do not only pray for ourselves but for everyone.
The idea of a minyan is intricately connected to the power of togetherness. It has become part and parcel of who we are and how we survive that we have forgotten the purpose behind it. Much like the following story about Reb Zusha, which has been often quoted of late because of its applicability to our current situation.
Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk and Reb Zusha of Anipoli were arrested on false charges and thrown into prison. Reb Zusha cried bitterly because they were stuck in a cell with the pail, used for a toilet, which made it forbidden to study Torah and to daven. Reb Elimelech explained that by not learning or davening, they were not only upholding the halachah that prohibits them from doing so, but they were directly following the will of God in their situation.
Right now, it is our obligation to pray “b’yichidus” (individually). In these times, we not only ask for God to help others, but assist Him by doing what is required to save us all. This gives us the opportunity to strengthen our individual relationship with God through personal prayer while partnering with Him and saving lives. Not to mention that in doing so, it will lead us back to safe and proper minyanim sooner than later, which is what we all want.
In addition, Rav Dovid Gottlieb in a recent shiur quotes Rav Yehuda HaNasi, son of Rabbban Gamliel in discussing the second chapter in Pirkei Avot.
רַבִּי אוֹמֵר: אֵיזוֹ הִיא דֶֽרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבוֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם, כָּל שֶׁהִיא תִּפְאֶֽרֶת לְעֹשֶֽׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶֽרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם
Rabbi [Judah HaNasi]* would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.
He continues based on the Rabanu Yona to explain that this Mishneh is referring to how one does a mitzvah and the way in which that mitzvah is perceived by others. When doing a mitzvah, we must find the right balance between what is good for us and what is good for others. In doing so, we not only do the right thing, but are praiseworthy and sanctify the Name of God (kiddush Hashem). How we are perceived is in fact important. If we are doing mitzvot when they are not halachically required and desecrate the Name of God (chilul Hashem) by infringing the rights and freedoms of others, we are a disgrace.
Rav Gottlieb explains that the reason we need the mishnah to inform us of this detail is that it is human nature to just do the mitzvah anyway, thinking it would always be the right thing to do, since it is what’s commanded. Therefore, people need to be instructed that — if the timing is not right — even what’s a mitzvah under other circumstances can be the entirely wrong thing to do.
The streets are for public use and when men make minyanim — following the distance guidelines — they inevitably cause a disturbance to the general public. Cars, bikes, and pedestrians either have to navigate between stationary men in prayer or to alter their already complicated schedules for a few “pious men.”
I personally was extremely uncomfortable when, on my way home from the makolet, I had to walk serpentine, weaving in and out between men praying, who no doubt noticed me clumsily trying to navigate the heavy packages as fast and as inconspicuously as possible — to no avail. There are many women who have no choice but to navigate themselves through minyanim during Torah reading and Birkat Kohanim on the street. It is especially embarrassing and awkward for women on the way to and from the mikveh (particularly on Friday nights, when the destination is all too obvious) to be forced to walk through these makeshift outdoor evening services. Women have reported being so uncomfortable navigating minyanim on their way to the mikveh that they cried upon arrival.
In addition, why are those men any more entitled to a minyan then the other thousands of men who pray at home? Some men start to question if they should join such minyanim — and the more that join, the more the health risk and the more disturbance to the public. The streets cannot accommodate the needs of all of Israel’s religious population, so, in the end, either the guidelines will be violated or a select few have the privilege of a minyan, while the considerate others pray at home. So tell me: who gets to decide who deserves a minyan and who doesn’t?
Finally, I understand the compassion for mourners who want to pray in a minyan but if you truly have empathy for someone who has to say kaddish then don’t risk increasing that need for dozens more.