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Ten Brief Responsa/Halakhic Reactions to the Corona Crisis
Responsa in a Moment: Volume 14, Number 5

Miscellaneous
Responsa by David Golinkin

Since March 4, 2020, I have been asked many halakhic questions about the current crisis by rabbis and laypeople living in Israel, the US, France, Argentina, Chile and Ukraine. Some of the questions have been asked multiple times. I answered all of the questions as they came in. In some cases, I referred to existing responsa or to websites; in five cases, I wrote responsa in Hebrew or in English. I have collected ten of these replies below. They are written in a telegraphic fashion because of the volume, frequency and urgency of the questions and, due to the crisis situation, I only had access to my library at Schechter in a sporadic fashion. I have listed all of the questions at the beginning according to the order of the Shulkhan Arukh so that readers may skip to the topic which is most urgent for them.     

I want to thank Rabbis Phil Scheim, Avi Novis Deutsch, Irina Gritzevskaya, David Arias and Josh Heller and Dr. Peri Sinclair who sent me some responsa related to some of these issues or who discussed these issues with me.

I hope and pray that this plague may end in the near future so that, in the words of the Haggadah: “We shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the liberation of our soul”. David Golinkin


The Questions:

  1. Virtual minyanim on weekdays (Orah Hayyim 55:20; 90:9)
  2. Virtual minyanim on Shabbat or right before and after Shabbat (Orah Hayyim 261:4)
  3. Selling Hametz via telephone, fax, or the internet (Orah Hayyim 448:3)
  4. Holding an online Seder (Orah Hayyim 495, 496, 502, 511, 514)
  5. Holding a Seder this year on Pesah Sheni (not in the Shulhan Arukh)
  6. Hearing the Megillah via radio, television, telephone or the internet (Orah Hayyim 587:1)
  7. Immersing in a Mikveh (Yoreh Deah 183ff., 195, 198, 201)
  8. Holding a Pidyon Haben ceremony for a firstborn son on the 31st day (Yoreh Deah 305)
  9. Performing the Tohorah (cleansing the body) for a person who died (Yoreh Deah 352:4 in the Rema)
  10. Sitting shivah when one is in quarantine (Yoreh Deah 374:11 in the Rema)

  1. Virtual minyanim on weekdays (Orah Hayyim 55:20; 90:9)

I agree with the responsum of Rabbi Avram Reisner approved by the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards in 2001 (available at www.rabbinicalassembly.org under CJLS to OH 55:15), that if there is a physical minyan of ten, one may join that minyan via the internet. Similarly, one can recite Kaddish via the internet if one of the people in the physical minyan recites Kaddish as well. This is in keeping with Shulhan Arukh OH 55:20, and the sources in the Talmud and Tosafot cited by Rabbi Reisner. Please read Rabbi Reisner’s responsum for other crucial details.

(For an interesting discussion of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuvah, see Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, “Worship in the Cloud” in: Rabbi Walter Jacob, ed., The Internet Revolution and Jewish Law, Pittsburgh, 2014, pp. 51-79.)

More recently, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote an unpublished responsum on 28 Heshvan 5777 (November 2016), which rules that a person living in a remote location may join a physical minyan of ten via the internet and answer Amen to devarim shebikdushah, things which require a minyan. He says that he is basing himself on what he wrote in Yalkut Yosef (Yamim Noraim, 5776, Selihot, p. 50, note 9) and he stresses twice that he heard from his father Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef z”l that one may answer Amen and the 13 Attributes of God when joining Selihot over the internet. Neither of them seems to have addressed the question as to whether a mourner may recite Kaddish while participating remotely.

During the current crisis the RA published “CJLS Guidance for Remote Minyanim in a time of COVID-19”. The majority still agree with Rabbi Reisner’s teshuvah.

That letter offers another option of a remote minyan where all ten people are in ten different locations, based on their understanding of OH 55:14 and on a recent responsum by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein of Bnai Brak (born 1934) in his Hashukei Hemed to Berakhot 21b, pp. 135-137. I do not find this convincing. OH 55:14 is talking about counting ONE person in a minyan who can be seen via a window, not ten, while Rabbi Zilberstein is talking about ten people who are standing in the same cemetery who can see and hear each other.

The letter offers a third opinion, that an online minyan of ten people in ten locations is only allowed for the recitation of mourner’s Kaddish since the Kaddish is not listed in the devarim shebikdushah in Mishnah Megillah 4:3 = fol. 23b. (For all the sources re the origins of mourners’ kaddish in the 12th century, see my responsum “How long should a child recite the mourner’s kaddish for a parent?”, Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 3, Jerusalem, 2014, No. 21, also at www.schechter.edu).) I find this approach very problematic. In order to allow people to recite Kaddish via the internet, we must demote the Kaddish and say that it’s not a real davar shebikdushah. This means that when the current crisis ends, people can say that since it’s not in the Mishnah Megillah, we may recite it without a minyan.

Similarly, Rabbi Benny Lau recently asked Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a well-known Israeli religious Zionist posek, what may be recited in a Zoom “tefillah”. Rabbi Melamed replied that such a meeting is not a minyan and devarim shebikdushsha may not be recited. “Reciting Kaddish yatom and Kaddish derabbanan do not include a berakhah levatalah [= a blessing in vain] and therefore this electronic connection can be considered mei-ein minyan (a pseudo-minyan).” I don’t know what a pseudo-minyan is, but I certainly do not recommend it.

Therefore, if a physical minyan is no longer possible due to the virus, Jews can gather for communal prayer via the internet and skip the devarim shebikdushah such as Kaddish, Barchu, and Kedushah. In such a case, mourners can recite one of the prayers which have been composed for mourners who are not able to join a minyan. See, for example, “Prayer in Place of Mourner’s Kaddish” by Rabbis Jan Uhrbach and Ed Feld on the Rabbinical Assembly website.

  1. Virtual minyanim on Shabbat or right before and after Shabbat (Orah Hayyim 261:4)

Rabbis have been debating the use of electricity on Shabbat since Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1878. There are hundreds of responsa and articles on the subject. Most rabbis say that electricity on Shabbat is forbidden biblically or rabbinically. Many in the Conservative movement rely on responsa of the CJLS from 1950 (Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 14 (1950), pp. 128-130, 165-171 = David Golinkin, ed., Proceedings of the CJLS 1927-1970, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 1125-1127, 1162-1168) which allows turning on electric lights on Shabbat. Those who follow that approach might allow internet tefillah or minyan as described above on Shabbat as well. I do not find that approach convincing. Aside from the many reasons for forbidding the use of electricity on Shabbat according to biblical or rabbinic law as one of the 39 forms of forbidden labor, I am opposed to the use of electricity on Shabbat for meta-halakhic reasons. As Rabbi Danny Nevins explained in his CJLS responsum about electricity in 2012, electricity is the main way that we control everything in the modern world from lights to computers to telephones to iPhones to heavy machinery. In my opinion, the use of electricity on Shabbat is the antithesis of the “Palace in Time” which Prof. Heschel described in his classic work, The Sabbath.

For those who agree with me that electricity is forbidden on Shabbat, I recommend what is now being done by many synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora. The people get together via Zoom approximately 30-45 minutes before candle lighting time for a Minhah service without Kaddish or Kedushah, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat without the Maariv service. Kabbalat Shabbat, which consists of chapters of Psalms and Lekha Dodi, is a beautiful custom developed by the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century. Since it is has no statutory status, it does not require a minyan.

After Kabbalat Shabbat, people turn off their computers and recite Maariv in their homes. For the person who lights candles, Shabbat begins when they light candles (OH 263:10). For those who are not lighting candles, there are three opinions as to when Shabbat begins (see OH 261:4 with the Mishnah Berurah along with what I wrote in Aseh Lekha Rav: She’elot Uteshuvot, Jerusalem, 2019, p. 102, note 8): at Barekhu, with Pslam 92, or with Lekha Dodi. Thus, one can stop the Zoom conference at one of these three points. Similarly, people can get together after Shabbat for Maariv and Havdalah. After tzet hakochavim, the appearance of three stars, one says the phrase barukh hamavdil bein kodesh l’hol, “blessed is the One who differentiates between weekdays and Holy Days” and then one can use electricity and connect to an online gathering for Maariv (without Barekhu and Kaddish) and Havdalah.

  1. Selling Hametz via telephone, fax, or the internet (Orah Hayyim 448:3)

It’s perfectly permissible to sell hametz via telephone, fax or the internet. As I have written every year since 1997 in my annual letter to Masorti rabbis and synagogues in Israel:

It’s permissible to sell the hametz via telephone, fax or the internet on the basis of Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 448, paragraph 51 who refers to the Magen Avraham and many poskim who determined that it’s permissible to sell the hametz “with whatever method the merchants use for acquisition”. Those poskim refer in turn to Hoshen Mishpat 201:2 which rules that, in general, one can sell “with anything that merchants use for acquisition”. Indeed, that is why Rabbi Gedaliah Felder ruled in the 1970s (Yesodei Yeshurun, Vol. 6, p. 299) that one can sell hametz via the telephone.

  1. Holding an online Seder (Orah Hayyim 495, 496, 502, 511, 514)

For me, this is the thorniest issue. On the one hand, there is a positive commandment of “v’samahta b’hagekha”, you shall rejoice in your Festivals (Deut. 16:14; Pesahim 109a; Rambam, Yom Tov 6:17; Sefer Hahinukh, No. 488).  This year, many single people and/or elderly people will have to do the Seder alone without participating in the usual large family Seder. Others have never run a Seder before and don’t know what to do, or they may decide not to have a Seder at all. This could very well make people even more depressed than they are from the general situation.

On the other hand, there are two major halakhic problems related to the use of Zoom, Skype, Facebook etc. on Yom Tov. (Hereafter I shall use the term “Zoom” as a generic term for the sake of brevity.)

  1. The standard practice among most observant Jews in the world for many years has been that one does not use electricity on Yom Tov just as on Shabbat.
  2. If one types words or numbers into the computer while using Zoom, one may be violating the prohibition of writing, which is identical on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

After consulting with a number of rabbis and much deliberation, I am recommending the following in order of preference. The first suggestion can be done in future years. The other suggestions are for this year only since this is a She’at Hadehak, an emergency situation which has not occurred on such a global scale since the swine flu epidemic of 2009-2010 and the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago.

I am listing the suggestions below in order of halakhic preference:

Have family or synagogue gatherings by Zoom before sunset during which the participants in different locations can sing/read the main parts of the Magid section and the Nirtzah section (of songs) at the end of the Seder. The main parts of Magid which can be done on Zoom are:

Mah nishtanah
Avadim hayinu
The five Sages in B’nai B’rak
The four sons
Mithilah ovdei avaodah zarah
V’hi sheamdah
The ten plagues
Dayeinu
Rabban Gamliel: Pesah, matzah umaror
B’khol dor vador
L’fichach.

This session can also be used as an opportunity to review what should be done at the Seder. After the computers are turned off before sunset, each family or individual should do a regular Seder including all of the above. There is no fear of a berakha l’vatalah [=a wasted blessing] because the sections listed do not contain any blessings.

The Nirtzah section of songs does not need to be repeated at the end of the Seder because it’s not obligatory and was only added to the Haggadah in the Middle Ages.

This suggestion is not only permissible, but it’s similar to the medieval custom of reciting or studying the Haggadah on Shabbat Hagadol (OH 430) or to the modern custom of a Model Seder as a way of preparing for the Seder.

If people want to use Zoom on Yom Tov itself, then they can do one of the following in the following order of preference. It should be stressed that it’s forbidden to record the Seder since such a recording might be considered a form of writing:

  1. Have a non-Jew run the Zoom Seder on Yom Tov. This might work well if the elderly parents are in an assisted living facility or if they have a non-Jewish caregiver who lives with them. This is called shvut dishvut bimkom mitzvah lo gazru (Orah Hayyim 307:5 and elsewhere), i.e. you may ask a non-Jew to do something which is a rabbinic prohibition on Shabbat/Yom Tov.
  2. In the Diaspora, do the Zoom Seder on the second night – Yom Tov Sheni –and wait until at least 18 minutes after sunset. This is preferable because a number of rabbinic prohibitions are allowed on Yom Tov Sheni (Orah Hayyim 496:2).
  3. Turn on the Zoom before Yom Tov and just let it run or arrange for it to turn off automatically after the Seder. It would be best to put some sort of physical barrier in front of the controls as a reminder not to touch the controls (cf. Yoreh Deah 88:2 for a similar ruling).

The problem with this last suggestion is that Zoom and similar computer programs often act up and require human adjustment. So if a person by habit adjusts the computer or types some letters and numbers won’t this violate the prohibitions of electricity and writing on Yom Tov?

Re electricity, the accepted practice today is that it’s forbidden on Yom Tov, but there are quite a few prominent poskim who ruled that while it’s forbidden to turn on electric lights on Shabbat, it’s permissible to turn on lights on Yom Tov (but most ruled that one may not turn them off). This is because one may transfer fire and cook on Yom Tov for the sake of Okhel Nefesh_(Exodus 12:16; Orah Hayyim 495) or heating (OH 511). They say that turning on a light is like transferring fire as opposed to lighting a fire or that it’s Gerama (indirect action) or that one may transfer fire on Yom Tov even when it’s not for the sake of eating or that one may do this because it gives a person direct enjoyment on Yom Tov.

This is commonly considered a kula (leniency) of North African rabbis, but, in fact, it was also the opinion of some very prominent Ashkenazic poskim:

Ashkenazic poskim:

Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Novogrudok, d. 1908)  Rabbi Y.L Maimon, Sarei Hameah, Vol. 6, pp. 114-115;
Rabbi Binyamin Aryeh Hacohen Weiss (Chernowitz, d. 1912) Even Yekara, Vol. 3, No. 168;
Rabbi Zvi Pesah Frank (Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, d. 1960) Kol Torah 5694, No. 1-2;
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenbeg (Dayan, Jerusalem, d. 2006) Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 1, No. 20, chapter 6, pp. 116-118.

Sefardic and North African poskim:

Rabbi Meir Ben Zion Hai Ouziel (first Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Jerusalem, d. 1953) Mishpetei Uziel, OH, No. 19, chapter 3;
Rabbi Refael Aaron Ben Shimon (Chief Rabbi of Cairo, d. 1928) Mitzur Devash, No. 10;
Rabbi David Hacohen Sakali (Oran, Algeria, d. after 1936) Kiryat Hana David, Part 2, No. 56;
Rabbi Masud Hacohen (Algeria, d. 1950) Pirhei Kehunah, OH, No. 16;
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano (Av Bet Din of Cairo; Chief Rabbi of Alexandria and Tel Aviv, d. 1960) Yam Hagadol, No. 26;
Rabbi Yosef Mashash (Messas) (Dayan in Meknes; Chief Rabbi of Haifa, d. 1974) Mayim Hayim, Part 1, No. 94, pp. 88-90;
Rabbi Shalom Mashash (Messas) (Chief Rabbi of Casablanca, Morocco, Jerusalem, d. 2003) summary in Yalkut Shemesh, p. 110.

Similarly, while many Poskim say that one may not write on a computer on Shabbat or Yom Tov (see Rabbi Danny Nevins’ responsum on electricity, pp. 32-36), others say that writing on a computer screen is technically not writing because the letters consist of pixels, they are not permanent, no one intends for them to remain on the screen etc. (See the summary by Rabbi Dr. Raphael Hulkower, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society LXV [Spring 2013], pp. 37-42).

In other words, one should not touch the computer on Yom Tov, but if one does, one can rely on these two lenient opinions because of she’at hadehak.

Bibliography about the use of electricity on Yom Tov

Hahashmal Bahalakhah, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1981
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer, Vol. 2, OH, No. 26
Idem, Yehaveh Da’at, Vol. 1, No. 32
Idem, Hazon Ovadia: Yom Tov, p. 53
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef: Moadim, Jerusalem, 1988, pp. 468-469
Rabbi Zekharia Zarmati, Hod Yosef Hai, Jerusalem, 2008, pp. 150-158
A letter from Igud Hakhmei Hamaarav B’eretz Yisrael, signed by 14 prominent rabbis of North African origin, Nisan 5780
A letter from Rabbi Shlomo Buhbut, Chief Rabbi of Napoli and southern Italy, 6 Nisan 5780
A letter from Rabbi Joshua Heller on the CJLS website
A letter from the Vaad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5780

  1. Holding a Seder this year on Pesah Sheni (not in the Shulhan Arukh)

It has been suggested by a number of people in Israel and abroad that, since families will not be able to gather for the Seder on the 15th of Nisan, the Seder be postponed this year until Pesah Sheni on the 14th of Iyar, since hopefully by then, the crisis will have ended.

Pesah Sheni was instituted in the Sinai desert – see Numbers 9:1-13. It was a solution after the fact for a person who was Tameh (ritually impure) or far away and could not participate in the Korban Pesah (paschal sacrifice).

In II Chronicles chapter 30, we are told that King Hezekiah decided to do Pesah in the second month (it’s not called Pesah Sheni) because they were not able to observe Pesah in Nisan. They gathered the people and slaughtered the Korban Pesah on the 14th of Iyar and they observed Pesah for seven days with great joy.

The basic rabbinic laws re Pesah Sheni are found in Mishnah Pesahim 9:1-3. See a good summary of the rabbinic sources in Yosef Tabori, Moadei Yisrael Bitkufat Hamishnah V’hatalmud, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 95-99. However, we don’t even know if the rabbinic rules of Pesah Sheni were actually followed in the Second Temple Period. The rabbis frequently say what they think should have happened in the Temple even if it did not.

The only remnant of Pesah Sheni after 70ce is that we don’t say Tahanun on that day, and even this minor custom is not found in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 131:6-7).

If one wanted to observe Pesah Sheni this year, one would need to:

  1. Rebuild the Temple before Pesah;
  2. Become Tameh before Pesah or be too far from Jerusalem;
  3. Sacrifice Korban Pesah on Pesah Sheni in Jerusalem;
  4. And, following II Chronicles, observe Pesah Sheni for seven days.

In other words, Pesah Sheni is not relevant to our current crisis.

  1. Hearing the Megillah via radio, television, telephone or the internet (Orah Hayyim 587:1)

I published my Responsum about this before Purim. See Responsa in a Moment at Schechter.edu or Aseh Lekha Rav at Schechter.ac.il

  1. Immersing in a Mikveh (Yoreh Deah 183ff., 195, 198, 201)

According to Biblical Law, a couple cannot have sexual relations until the woman immerses in a Mikveh. According to Rabbinic law, the husband and wife cannot touch each other until the wife goes to the Mikveh (Yoreh Deah 195).

Rabbis and States have had different reactions to the virus regarding this issue. In Israel, the Ministry of Health has not closed the Mikvaot. They say that women should do the preparations at home, keep a distance of two meters between the woman and the Mikveh attendant, use the usual amount of chlorine, and there must be a break of ten minutes between the women using the Mikveh. Women in quarantine or who have the virus may not go the Mikveh. Some religious women and doctors in Israel have issued strong statements urging women not to go the Mikveh because of pikuah nefesh.

Outside of Israel, there have been various reactions. I was informed that in Strasbourg the rabbis have closed the Mikvaot, while in Paris they have not. In Argentina, the government seems to have closed the Mikvaot. In the U.S., the rabbis in specific cities have closed the Mikvaot.

A woman may also immerse in a loose-fitting garment in a lake, river or ocean if that is possible.

The Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel suggested (Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5780) that when women cannot go to the Mikveh because of the current crisis, the couple can relax the rabbinic laws regarding touching, hugging and kissing.

Bibliography

  1. The Hebrew and English websites of “Nishmat”: yoatzot.org which is updated every few days.
  2. gov.il/he/Departments/news/mikve_seker
  3. A letter from the Ministry of Health, 19/3/20 at www.health.gov.il
  4. Dina Halutz, Ynet, March 24, 2020
  5. Josefin Dolsten, JTA, March 20, 2020
  1. Holding a Pidyon Haben ceremony for a firstborn son on the 31st day (Yoreh Deah 305)

Question from Rabbi Andy Sacks, Jerusalem: According to halakhah, one must perform the pidyon haben ceremony after 30 days, on the 31st day of the boy’s life. Can the ceremony be postponed until the corona crisis ends?

Responsum: In general, it’s forbidden to delay the ceremony.

Yoreh Deah 305:11
Arukh Hashulhan 305:44
Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Mekor Hayyim Hashalem, Vol. 5, p. 123
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Part 2, No. 118
Rabbi Eugene Cohen, Guide to Ritual Circumcision…, New York, 1984, p. 88
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer, Part 1, p. 96; Part 6, fols. 224a-b and 361-361 (summarized by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Sova Semahot, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 311-312).

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, as usual, summarizes most of the opinions. Many poskim say that if you delay the ceremony you are transgressing a positive commandment, while many others say that one may not delay because of the principal that “the zealous do their religious duty as early as possible” (Pesahim 4a).

However, after the fact, if the ceremony was not performed on time, it can be performed later on. (Rabbi Feinstein, ibid.; Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Responsa 1991-2000, pp. 166-170, also available at the RA/CJLS website). Indeed, if a father did not redeem his son, the son must redeem himself when he grows up (Yoreh Deah 305:15).

Is it required to have a minyan for the ceremony?

Responsa of Rav Natronai Goan (Sura, ca. 850), ed. Brody, Vol. 2, No. 278, pp. 417-418: one only needs a Kohen.
Rabbi Avraham ben Yitzhak Av Bet Din (Narbonne, d. 1179), Sefer Haeshkol, ed. Albeck, Part 1, p. 241: one only needs a Kohen; if the father wants to gather a minyan, he is allowed to do so.
Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Provence, d. 1315), Bet Habehira to Pesahim 121b, ed. Klein, p. 257: “This ceremony does not need ten [= a minyan], but for the sake of hiddur mitzvah, it’s customary to have ten”.
This ruling was followed in our day by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, p. 315 and Rabbi Cohen, pp. 101-102.
In other words, one can hold a modest ceremony consisting of the parents, the baby and the Kohen.

Is it required to make a seudat mitzvah (a mitzvah feast)?

There is a disagreement about this, but according to some major poskim, the seudah is optional:

Responsa Rashba (Barcelona, d. 1310), No. 199 presents it as optional, if the father wants to do it.
The Meiri (loc. cit.) writes: “and if the father wants to make a seudah, then it’s a seudat mitzvah”.
The Rema (Cracow, d. 1572) says in Yoreh Deah 305:10: “And some wrote that they were accustomed to make a seudah at the time of pidyon”.

On the other hand, other poskim, mostly in Ashkenaz (Germany) maintained that it is a seudat mitzvah (see the summary in Yalkut Yosef, pp. 342-344).

However, in the current she’at hadhak we can rely on those who say that it’s optional.

May the money be paid to the Kohen via Paypal, thus eliminating the need for physical contact?

This is forbidden. Pidyon haben is not a business transaction like selling the hametz (see above). It’s a religious ceremony. The father needs to give the Kohen five Selaim or its equivalent in silver.

For calculations as to how much silver, see:

Yoreh Daeh 305: 1, 3;
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yehaveh Da’at, Part 4, No. 54;
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, pp. 179-185;
Rabbi Cohen, pp. 91-95;
Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society LXX (Fall 2015), pp. 81-97.

Therefore, as of this writing in Israel, in general one is required to do the pidyon haben ceremony on the 31st day in a modest ceremony for the parents, the baby and the Kohen. People should wear gloves and face masks. The ceremony takes 5-10 minutes, less time than a visit to the supermarket. If people live in an area where there is a full quarantine, then the ceremony should be put off until people are allowed to leave their homes.

  1. Performing the Tohorah (cleansing the body) for a person who died (Yoreh Deah 352:4 in the Rema)

Question from Rabbi Yonny Szewkis, Chile: Is it permissible/required at the current time to do Tohorah for a person who died?

Responsum: In general, Tohorah is a custom. (See my responsum in Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah, Vol. 5, pp. 125-136, also available at Responsafortoday.com)

Pikuah Nefesh takes precedence over most mitzvot, including this custom.

Therefore, you need to check:

A) What does the State or city government say? If they prohibit Tohorah now for health reasons, then it’s forbidden. In Israel, the State does not allow Tohorah for highly infectious diseases, and this was decided before the corona crisis (see the circular of the Ministry of Health 1/2019, January 23, 2019).

B) What do the doctors in Chile say?

It’s worth noting that there were times in the past when Tohorah was not performed due to a plague. In 1852, Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher of Greidetz/Gratz ruled that since there were so many dead bodies due to a cholera epidemic, the Hevra Kadisha could put symbolic tachrichim over plain clothes without performing a Tohorah (Rabbi Elie Fischer, “Rov in a Time of Cholera”, Jewish Review of Books, March 19, 2020).

If the city and the doctors allow Tohorah, then you can do it as follows:

The people doing Tohorah should wear: Rubber gloves; a gown; a face mask; and goggles to protect the eyes.

You should clean all the equipment very thoroughly after the Tohorah.

You should wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds after you take off the gloves.

This is what Rabbi Simcha Roth z”l wrote in his responsum re doing Tohorah for a person who died of AIDS (Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah, Vol. 5, pp. 137-142, also available at Responsafortoday.com)

  1. Sitting shivah when one is in quarantine (Yoreh Deah 374:11 in the Rema)

Question from Rabbi Bill Hamilton of Brookline, Mass.: How should one observe shiva when the mourner is in quarantine?

Responsum:

  1. According to the Rambam (Avel 1:1), the first day of mourning for a relative is a biblical commandment, while shivah has the status of a rabbinic takkanah. This was similar to the opinion of the Geonim, the Rif and Ramban (see Kesef Mishnah and Radbaz ad loc.).
  2. One can sit shivah without a minyan and observe all of the restrictions, such as sitting on the floor or a low stool, not bathing, not studying Torah, not having sexual relations etc.
  3. comforting the mourner, if it’s allowed by the authorities, friends can take turns, one at a time.
  4. a minyan, it depends on the local situation:
    1. They can hold a minyan in the courtyard or outside with two meters between the participants
    2. The mourner can join a virtual minyan as I explained above in paragraph 1.
  5. There is, however, one sentence in the Shulhan Arukh which appears to say that in a time of plague, mourners do not mourn i.e. do not sit shivah. I have now discovered that this sentence is based on a defective version of a certain responsum.

The Rema says (Yoreh Deah 374:11): “some say that in time of plague one does not mourn because of fright (Responsa Maharil No. 3), and I heard that some did this.” This sentence doesn’t make sense. The Rema doesn’t say that one does not sit shivah or allow people to comfort the mourner because of the plague; he says that one does not mourn! This passage is not in the Responsa of the Maharil No. 3.

In his Darkei Moshe (to Tur YD 374, end of paragraph 6) the Rema makes a similar statement but the Tur Hashalem refers to Responsa of the Maharil, No. 50.

In the new edition of the Responsa of the Maharil, ed. Satz, Jerusalem, 1980, this is No. 41:1. Since Rava says in Bava Kamma 60b that in time of plague one should stay inside and close the windows, the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moellin, d. 1423) had to justify the fact that many Jews in the Middle Ages did not follow Rava but ran away. After quoting a number of sources, he writes:

…and for this reason it’s found in a responsum that one does need to mourn in time of plague, and so is their custom in the land of Lombardia…

Apparently the Maharil understood this responsum to mean that you don’t have to mourn during a plague – because you can or should run away. While running away, you don’t have the time or place to sit shiva at all.

However, Rabbi Satz refers in a note to Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Cracow, d. 1573), Yam Shel Shlomo to Bava Batra 60b, paragraph 26 without any comment. That source clears up the mystery because it contains five words – placed in brackets below — that are missing from the Maharil:

…and for this reason it’s found in a responsum that mourners do not need to mourn [and sit on the ground with a change in the air], and so is their custom in the land of Lombardia…

In other words, the anonymous author of this responsum did not say that a mourner does not need to mourn or can run away in time of plague; rather, he said that mourners – perhaps during a time of plague – do not need to sit on the ground because the air there is not healthy. Thus, this responsum has nothing to do with our current crisis. In any case, the Maharil’s ruling is not relevant to our current situation. The doctors today have ruled according to Rava and not according to the Maharil – one should “close the windows” and stay home. Therefore, mourners should observe all the usual laws of Shivah at home.

May we soon see the fulfillment of the verse: “all of the illness that I brought upon the Egyptians, I will not bring upon you, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exodus 15:26).

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
8 Nisan 5780


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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