How Coronavirus has Impacted Jewish Ritual Practices

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Symbols of Judaism
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As the coronavirus spreads, communities are grappling with how best to approach daily living without a known vaccine.

And that includes Jewish communities.

Synagogues in all of Italy, like most everything else, are closed. As is Young Israel in New Rochelle, New York, where Purim festivities were canceled after that congregation’s rabbi tested positive for coronavirus. Several synagogues in and around New York City have canceled Purim events, and some have begun to change the way prayer will proceed, at least for now. Some congregations in New York were planning to stream Shabbat and Purim Megillah readings via live AudioStream, as opposed to in person.

Even where services go on with congregants in attendance, some synagogues are making fundamental, albeit temporary, alterations to how ritual prayer is handled. Last week, the Conference of European Rabbis urged people not to kiss ritual objects like Torahs, communal prayer books, tzitzit and mezuzahs, all objects that many observant Jews touch to their lips either in the course of daily life or routinely on Shabbat.

Locally, however, many synagogues, while circumspect, are taking a wait-and-see approach. In the meantime, at least as far as the ritual practice of Judaism is concerned, it’s business — or worship — as usual.

At Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Fort Washington, services, and the rituals and practices that constitute services, will proceed customarily, but the congregation has decided it most prudent to surgically alter one post-service tradition.

“We’ve revised our policy (at kiddush) of having one person cut challah with a knife, using a gloved hand, instead of the previous method of each person pulling it apart to get their own chunk,” said Barbara Rose Weisman, Or Hadash’s education director. “But we haven’t drastically changed anything to our services or the rituals that take place during services; really, it’s just getting everyone to act with good common sense.”

Rabbi Eli Hirsch, who leads the Center City Modern Orthodox congregation Mekor Habracha, is deferring to the good judgment of his congregants but he also believes in guiding this good judgment.

“In terms of ritual practices, we have one major overarching ideal, which is that if someone is sick in any way, we advise them not to come to shul or other communal gatherings or Shabbas during the week,” Hirsch said. “This takes precedence over things like saying Kaddish or reading Megillah or Parshat Zachor, which we’re reading this week, because this is a life-threatening issue.

“Even if there’s a small chance that someone could lose their life, we’re very strict about that in Jewish law. That supersedes almost everything else.”

That being said, if you’re well enough to be in shul, there aren’t any new proscriptions.

“We’re wiping everything down and making sure the building is very healthful in that regard,” Hirsch said. “But we leave the rest of it up to the congregation. We don’t give edicts as to what things people can or cannot touch. We just ask everyone to be vigilant, and we trust that the congregants will know what that means in light of what’s going on and act accordingly based on the news and everything else they know about what’s happening.”

Still, despite concerns, synagogue is supposed to be a sanctuary, Hirsch added. “On balance, we want to maintain a normal environment where people don’t feel like they’re in quarantine.”

The rules on post-Shabbat kiddush aren’t even cut and dry in the uncharted territory of coronavirus. Some say slice the challah instead of tearing it; others say if there’s already a sick person in the room, what’s the difference?

“At a meal like that, it’s very hard to avoid (the virus) if there’s already someone there who has it, regardless of whether they touch the bread,” said Hirsch.

“It’s hard,” he added. “I know the virus doesn’t always appear in somebody that’s sick … so, you’ve got to live your life. But it’s a balance; you’ve got to be careful. If someone’s sick, they shouldn’t be around.”

At Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation in Center City, congregants who felt healthy were encouraged to attend Purim festivities. BZBI officials said those events, which included a children’s carnival, a Purim spiel, a Megillah reading and a costume contest, are generally the most highly attended of the year outside of High Holidays.

Like most, BZBI has “adopted enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols,” but it’s also going a step beyond in other areas, encouraging congregants to “join the arm-bump crew” when saying hello and similarly urging congregants to “wave hello to the Torah and mezuzot” instead of touching these items to your lips, according to an email to congregants.

“Although the custom of kissing ritual objects is widespread, it is in fact a late custom of minor significance,” the email read. “Preservation of health carries significantly more weight, and our rabbis ask that all people attending services at BZBI refrain from touching mezuzot, Torah scrolls and other objects as a precaution against spreading germs.”

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