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Q&A

Worshipping outdoors in the COVID era, issues and options

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I've chatted with Monica about this. She agreed with my assessment of the place I first heard about it, which I don't consider good enough to link to.

It's about a jurisdiction where COVID emergency measures forbade indoor religious services.

If the secular law requires holding services outdoors, how can that be reconciled with holding prayer books? As soon as someone is outdoors, it's carrying something on the Sabbath.

Even I know there's a principle that protecting life can override most laws. Would that principle actually apply, given that the law against indoor services is about reducing risk as opposed to directly saving a life or lives?

The next thing I wondered about was whether there was some good reason the person who posted about this didn't come up with the idea of an eruv. Monica, who spells it "eyruv" in English, said based on her studies it was an option.

Do I understand right that there is a principle, with important exceptions, of following secular law? That principle is at a low ebb if the secular law interferes with worship. The Bible is unmistakable about what Jews must do if the government says to pray to Darius or bow to a golden icon. Is having to go outside, prayer books in hand, enough of an interference that religious law would override secular law?

Are there other legal affordances that might be used?

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Wouldn't the issue be resolved by davening in an 'eruv ? I realise that this isn't always feasible, b... (1 comment)

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This doesn't strictly answer your question, but I think the background information and context will be helpful.

The halacha (Jewish law) is that we can violate any torah law to save a human life except for three (murder, idolatry, sexual transgressions). If it were a matter of preserving life, then carrying something outside on Shabbat would be permitted. For example, if a doctor witnesses an accident and needs to fetch medical tools from his house to save someone's life, he does so, even though it involves carrying them through the public thoroughfare.

The prohibition of carrying applies when moving through, into, or out of a public domain. It doesn't apply within a building, for instance; you can carry that prayer book from the library to the sanctuary within the synagogue, no problem. It also doesn't apply within an enclosed space that is outdoors. There are laws about this so I don't want to just say "any fenced courtyard suffices", but it is possible for people who know what they are doing to construct a border such that the synagogue building and its lawn are all enclosed within a private domain. Within a private domain you can carry -- problem solved, if the synagogue has such an adjacent space.

This constructed boundary is called an eiruv (transliterations of the Hebrew vary). It need not be restricted to one building and its lawn. There is an upper size limit, but it's large enough that a good-sized neighborhood can be enclosed in an eiruv, allowing people to carry books, push baby strollers, and otherwise carry things from home to synagogue to the friends you're having lunch with etc.

Given all this, I don't think there's an issue with secular law interfering with religious observance in most locations at most times of year. If it's physically possible to meet outside, and if there exists some outdoor space adjacent to a building where the books can be kept, then it's possible to build an eiruv and use those books outdoors. (If the synagogue has no suitable outdoor space, there might be a need to use a congregant's backyard or something.)

There's one more consideration: praying in a community is very much preferred, but one who is unable to do so -- for example someone who is sick, or in quarantine -- may pray alone, omitting certain parts. Because of this, if the only way to pray in community were to violate a secular law about gatherings, I think the rabbis would rule that people must instead pray at home. Unless it transgresses Jewish law we follow secular laws; the principle is known as dina d'malchuta dina, "the law (of the land) is the law".

There might be one more consideration, but I haven't studied enough to say for sure. Before printing, people didn't have individual prayerbooks; there was a leader, who was responsible for doing it correctly, and people said "amein" at the right places and added their individual prayers. If a group were able to gather for prayer but could not bring books, it seems to me that it could revert to this approach so long as there's one person present who is qualified to lead.

I know I haven't answered the root question of whether Jewish law would allow violating a secular law that, as a side effect, precludes communal prayer. I think, given the flexibility already present in Jewish law to handle situations like this, it probably wouldn't come up. "But if it did?" That, unfortunately, I haven't answered.

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"even though it involves carrying them through the public thoroughfare" There is an opinion in the mi... (9 comments)
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Fortunately, I live in an area that has had an active Eruv for the last few years. For the first few months of the pandemic, this was actually not much of an issue. Local regulations prohibited group religious gatherings, indoors or out. When regulations loosened a bit to allow small gatherings, indoors or out, then it became critical. In my synagogue, we had a temporary policy decisions of "bring your own Siddur" out of concern of transmission of virus through repeated contact of the same item. We had contingency plans - since there was limited attendance due to local regulations, we could set up separate boxes of Siddurim for each Minyan - but we never needed to do that.

In any case, while Davening with a Minyan is considered a very important Mitzvah, it does not override Shabbos. Very few Mitzvos outside the Beis Hamikdash do. A Bris on the 8th day does override Shabbos, but:

  • The Mohel must prepare things in advance (he has a week to do so).
  • If the birth took place in Bein Hashmashos (twilight) Friday night or Saturday night then the Bris is pushed to Sunday.
  • If there is a C-section, the Bris is pushed to Sunday.
  • If the baby was sick and the Bris was delayed such that Shabbos is the first possible day, it is pushed to Sunday.

On the other hand:

  • Blowing the Shofar is not done on Shabbos outside the Beis Hamikdash, not because of the act itself (a musical instrument of sorts, which would be prohibited if it were not a Mitzvah) but because of the concern about carrying the Shofar outside an Eruv! There are only two days a year to blow the Shofar - and in some years we skip one (and arguably the "best" one because Rosh Hashanah can be Saturday/Sunday but never Friday/Saturday) even in places that have an Eruv.
  • The Torah Mitzvah of Lulav is on the first day of Sukkos. The other days, outside the Beis Hamikdash, are a Rabbinic Mitzvah. And yet we do not do this Mitzvah on Shabbos even if if it is the first day of Sukkos, because of the concern about carrying a Lulav outside an Eruv!

There are so many reasons why a person can't Daven with a Minyan:

  • Health concerns (individually or, as in the case of COVID-19, as a group)
  • Not enough Jews in a small area
  • Fear of anti-semitism
  • Not permitted by the government (i.e., specifically about Jews, not general gatherings)

COVID-19 is just the latest reason, but it doesn't change the Halachic parameters.

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