Nathan Abusal wrote, ”One of the profoundest religious changes effected by the synagogue almost immediately upon its establishment twenty-five centuries ago was to bring communion with God directly and easily to the individual worshiper.”
The Synagogue, or shul, is a key focal point of traditional Judaism. Rav Yosef Karo wrote in The Shulchan Aruch, “It is a mitzvah to run when one travels to synagogue…even on Shabbat, when it is otherwise forbidden to take big steps! But when one leaves the synagogue, it is forbidden to run,” and “A person should try to pray in the synagogue with a congregation.”
It isn’t only the Synagogue that plays a crucial role in prayer, “Communal prayer is always heard. Even when there are transgressors among the congregation God does not reject the prayers of the many. Therefore, a person should include himself in the community and should not pray alone whenever he is able to pray with the community,” wrote the Rambam about the importance of praying with a minyan. It is understandable why people have such a difficult time praying outside of the Synagogue and privately without a minyan.
Saving and preserving life is of utmost importance in Judaism. Rav Karo wrote that, “it is a mitzvah to break Shabbat for someone who has a dangerous illness. One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks if they should break Shabbat before acting is considered a murderer.” The Chafetz Chaim in his Mishna Berurah wrote that a rabbi is required to teach their congregation the importance of always erring on the side of caution when it comes to saving life, and that the rabbi is held responsible if their congregation doesn’t know this. Rav Yaakov Ben Asher wrote in his “Tur,” “Even if we are in doubt if a person’s life is in danger on Shabbat, we do everything we can to save him: We not only violate one Shabbat, but if the treatment for the illness we are in doubt about requires the breaking of two Shabbatot, we still perform the treatment.”
With the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the Israeli Ministry of Health’s warning to stay at home as much as possible, the question of whether to close the Shuls and require everyone to pray privately at home has become a controversial topic. There are those who maintain that today’s minyanim are clearly not cases of possible danger to life according to the experts. Corona is not rampant and the obligation of prayer with a minyan still stands. The Ministry of Health has not demanded the Synagogues be closed and Rabbis have released guidelines on how to pray with only twenty well spread out people.
There are many Rabbis who disagree. Rav Hershel Schachter and others have disagreed. say that in light of expert medical opinion regarding the current catastrophic danger the following measures are halachically required and must be adhered to by all. Everyone should daven privately (B’yichudut). No Minyan should be formed in any venue. Now is not a time to be a chacham. Your children need their parents to be alive and well. I think it’s best for everyone to stay home and not look for trouble. The doctors in Eretz Yisrael who I have spoken with are also very concerned. It’s not a time to be a hero or such a tzaddik by making minyanim.” Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of the town of Shoham and head of the Orthodox Tzohar organization wrote “After consulting with public health experts and talmidei hachamim, I realized there was no other way. For the first time in my life, I’m asking my congregation to close the synagogues…the decision to close synagogues must be taken out of great love and responsibility for each and every member of the community.”
While I understand that the Ministry of Health of Israel has not demanded the Shuls be closed, I am left wondering why Rabbis are allowing them to be left open. If we are so careful about a possible danger to life that we’d violate Shabbat, how much more so should we instruct people to forgo prayer in a Synagogue and with a minyan and quickly close the Synagogues to ensure the virus isn’t spread further! I do not understand how we can risk so much at this critical point.