In Israel, indoor synagogues will be allowed to meet for Yom Kippur, however, many medical experts are opposed to any type of indoor prayer service. Being inside a room with other people for a long time, especially with singing, is considered a real coronavirus risk -even if people are standing 2 meters apart and wearing masks. The Tzohar rabbinic organization recently put out a statement asking synagogues to move their services outside, in light of medical recommendations and the recommendation of Israeli coronavirus “czar” Ronni Gamzu to close indoor synagogues. The organization also committed to moving all its Yom Kippur services to outdoor spaces. Similarly, Rabbi Haim Yosef, of the famous Yosef rabbinic family, has issued a statement against prayers indoors, imploring people to pray in an outdoor minyan, or by themselves, over Yom Kippur. I wish that rabbinic opposition to indoor prayers would become more mainstream. I think that there are many halachic principles mandating against indoor prayer services, in light of the high number of coronavirus cases and the real risk caused by being inside the same space with other people:
- Rachmana Anus Patrey: People who are unable to fulfill mitzvot, are not obligated to fulfill those mitzvot. This year, we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah of public prayer on Yom Kippur. Being unable to do something in a way that doesn’t endanger our lives or the lives of others counts as not being able to do that thing.
- Venishmartem Meod Lenafshoteichem: The Torah instructs us not to endanger ourselves or take risks with our health. In a situation where indoor gatherings are a serious health risk, this Torah principle may override the rabbinic obligation for public prayer.
- Pikuach Nefesh: There is a halachic principle that saving people’s lives overrides negative commandments, including Torah prohibitions, such as not lighting a fire on Shabbat. In general in halacha, the justification needed for failing to fulfill a positive rabbinic commandment, such as public prayer, is less than the justification needed for disobeying a Torah negative commandment, such as violating Shabbat. So by definition, any principle that overrides Shabbat should override public prayer as well.
- Yom Kippur: To not eat on Yom Kippur is a Torah prohibition carrying the punishment of Karet, which is considered the most severe. However, the Talmud* rules that if a patient says they need to eat, they should be fed on Yom Kippur. Conversely, if a doctor says that a patient needs to eat -even if the patient says that they don’t need food -they should be fed on Yom Kippur. In cases of doubt, where both the patient and doctor say no food is required, but other doctors say that eating is necessary, we follow the opinion of the doctors who say that the patient should be fed, because “Safek Nefashot Lehakel”: In cases where there is a credible reason to think someone’s life is in danger, even if we don’t know for sure, we follow the more lenient opinion -even if that means allowing them to violate one of the Torah’s most serious commandments and eat on Yom Kippur. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Yom Kippur is the focal point of this discussion; the rabbis wanted to teach us the importance of saving lives, by showing how in a case of doubt, the injunction to save lives can supersede even the Torah’s most serious prohibitions. This Talmudic discussion is reflected in the Shulkhan Aruch**: “A sick person that needs to eat: If there is an expert doctor, even who is a Gentile***, who says if the sick person does not eat, it is possible his sickness will worsen and become dangerous, we feed him on the doctor’s word. It is unnecessary to say that if the doctor says maybe he’ll die (if he doesn’t eat), even if the sick person says it is not necessary (for him to eat), we listen to the doctor. Yet, if the sick person says I need to eat, even if 100 doctors say it is unnecessary, we listen to the sick person.” The standard for feeding a person on Yom Kippur here is not definite immediate threat to life, but rather the medical opinion that not eating will cause the patient to be in danger. As long as medical experts consider danger to be the real and likely outcome, the principle of saving a life overrides the injunction not to eat -even though, hypothetically, that danger might never come to pass. Why don’t we trust the sick person here? Because often, sick people will want to fast on Yom Kippur even if they feel weak, or know that their doctor recommends against it. For many people, it’s the holiest day of the year, so the fast has real meaning -not to mention feelings of guilt surrounding it. The sick person however, is not given a choice: They have to eat, even if it feels wrong, because the principle of saving lives is more important than the quality of our religious experiences.
According to these arguments, indoor minyan this year is certainly not an obligation, and possibly prohibited. I think sometimes, refraining from public religious activities because of coronavirus gets framed as the less religious option, when in fact, it is the the religiously ideal option.
The next question becomes, what about prayer services outdoors? As long as these adhere to government guidelines, they are thought to be less risky, since one is generally less likely to catch coronavirus outside. However, there is an expected heat wave in Israel for Yom Kippur. If standing outside in the sun while fasting would cause you to become dangerously dehydrated, then it should be forbidden, because it puts your health at risk. One would expect in such a situation for the principle of saving lives to take precedence over the obligation for public prayer. You don’t need to risk winding up in the ER in order to say kedusha. Also, putting yourself in a situation where you are likely to wind up in the ER, in a country whose health system is overloaded because of coronavirus, could constitute a danger to yourself and to other patients.
But what about going to outdoor prayer services and thinking to yourself, “If I get dehydrated, then I will be a sick person whose life is in danger. At that point, it will be halachically permissible for me to break my fast, so I will drink something -thereby avoiding overloading the hospitals, and avoiding breaking halacha.” The problem with that is that ultimately, not eating on Yom Kippur is a Torah prohibition. Praying in public on Yom Kippur is a positive rabbinic commandment. This means that the fast should take precedence. Yes, you can break it if your life’s in danger. But to consciously put yourself in a situation where you know you might have to break your fast, in order to have a religiously meaningful prayer experience, is halachically problematic. Doing what you can to be able to healthfully keep the fast for the duration of Yom Kippur should be the number one priority.
I once heard a drasha by a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum, in which she explained that fasting on Yom Kippur is an application of the Torah’s commandment to “afflict your souls”.**** For the sick person who must eat on Yom Kippur, the eating itself is its own type of affliction. Therefore, it’s through the eating that the sick person fulfills the Torah’s commandment of soul affliction. I think that perhaps, this year, to not pray inside a synagogue is our own form of soul affliction; we are spiritually “fasting” by depriving ourselves of our ideal prayer experience. The discrepancy between our “normal” Yom Kippur and the current one constitutes its own form of suffering. Our willingness to limit our own spiritual experience for the health of others constitutes its own type of prayer, in a way that words can’t contain.
May it be a safe and meaningful Yom Kippur, and a chatima tova –may we be inscribed in the book of health and happiness.
* Yoma 83a
** Orach Chayim, 618:1, translation adapted from Sefaria
*** If I can engage in apologetics for a minute: I know the term “even a Gentile” might sound jarring to contemporary readers, but I think here, the author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, is responding to a concern that maybe, because a Gentile doctor doesn’t understand the religious/cultural gravitas of Yom Kippur, they are more likely to tell a Jewish patient to eat on that day. In other words: He was responding to worries about lack of cultural understanding, as someone who lived in an era where people in the mainstream culture were not expected to know/learn anything about minority cultures, like Judaism.
**** Leviticus 23:27