Thursday, May 23, 2024

Covid-19 and the Eternity of the Torah

For over seven months, we have all been affected by the Covid-19 epidemic. Although most of the world has been grappling with problems such as restaurant dining, vacations, and of course the more serious issues of a faltering economy and the constant threat of serious illness, Yisroel kedoshim have had a different agenda. We have been agonizing over tefillah b’tzibbur and chinuch habonim vehabanos. We tried to be mesameiach when we were depressed and to be menacheim when we needed consoling ourselves. All of this is a manifestation of the eternal phenomenon of mi ke’amcha Yisroel and will hopefully someday be looked upon as our finest hour.

Although this is not generally a halacha column, I would like to take this opportunity to briefly explore the vast Torah literature that has already been produced and published to deal with the mageifah and its repercussions. Every rov in his own domain has been inundated with Covid-related questions and the poskei hador have responded with numerous teshuvos (Torah responsa) in print and oral venues to these shaalos. For instance, one of the ziknei hador, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, has added an entire volume of his acclaimed Kovetz Halachos series devoted solely to this topic. The purpose of this column is firstly to give a sense of the range and depth of these discussions, but, more importantly, to convey a crucial message. Whereas the world at large has been searching for new methods to deal with a contemporary issue, Klal Yisroel has successfully returned to its ancient roots, which are able to deal with any inquiry facing humanity.


Nothing defines the essence of a Jew as much as davening. Dovid Hamelech states, “Va’ani tefillah,” which is translated literally as “And I pray.” However, it has also been explicated simply as “I am prayer.” Being forced out of our precious shuls has been very painful, yet some of the alternatives have raised severe halachic issues. Can people davening on one porch combine with those on another to create a minyan? What about people on two sides of the street with traffic moving regularly between them? The Mishnah Berurah (55:52) states that it is preferable for all ten people to be together. What if someone hears the brachos but does not see the one saying Kaddish or the chazzan? Some say no (Radbaz 650), some say yes (Me’iri, Pesachim 85b).

Interestingly, the issue came up in the Kovna Ghetto (Shaalos Uteshuvos Mimaamakim 4:4). Rav Ephraim Oshri ruled leniently because of the severity of the situation, as did some rabbonim in our own time. Some (Aruch Hashulchan 55:20) state that being able to see the others is sufficient, while others (Chayei Adam 30:1) conclude that it would be better to daven alone at home. Some sources (Shulchan Aruch 195:1) seem to rule that any public road splinters the minyan, while others (Machazik Brocha 55:11) take the position that the Shulchan Aruch was only speaking of a mezuman for bentching but not for tefillah b’tzibbur, where a road does not ruin the minyan. The various opinions resulted in a profusion of minhagim, although each had some major authority to rely upon.

May one answer amein to the Kaddish or Kedusha of a live broadcast? Some (Yechaveh Daas 2:68) say yes, while others (Minchas Shlomo) say no. It is fascinating to note that the source for answering amein even when one could not hear the brocha or see the one making it is a Gemara (Sukkah 51b) which describes the large shul in Alexandria, Egypt, where the congregants answered amein based upon a series of visual signals. Again, as always, our sages provided sources for all future phenomena and halachic issues.

Losing Sense of Smell

One of the common symptoms of Covid-19 has been loss of the senses of taste and/or smell. The poskim (Shulchan Aruch Harav 204:15) rule that one makes a brocha on food even if he cannot taste it. However, the brocha on besamim, made every Motzoei Shabbos, requires that we can actually smell the fragrance (Shulchan Aruch 297:5).

Toiveling (Immersing) Dishes

For a long time, the mikvaos for immersing new dishes were closed and unavailable. A number of poskim allowed us to give the utensils or vessels to a non-Jew and borrow them back (Shulchan Aruch 323:7; Rama, Yoreh Deah 120:16). Obviously, similar circumstances had arisen in Jewish history and solutions were found.

Causing Damage By Spreading Covid-19

If someone knew that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and knowingly spread the virus amongst people who were previously unaffected, there is no question that the spreader will be punished by heaven and may be culpable in court as well.

The Bais Shlomo (Choshen Mishpat 126) discusses the case of one whose animal was contagious and he nevertheless allowed it to graze with other animals. Although he initially treats this like a grama, an indirect action, he later reverses himself and takes the position that one who knowingly spreads a contagious disease is like one who infects someone else or an animal with poison, which is an actionable offense. Some poskim relate this situation to the difference between grama and garmi, two forms of indirect damage (Teshuvos Minchas Asher 1:114).

May One Delay the Day of a Wedding?

In the earliest phases of the epidemic, many thought that the crisis would be over soon and sought to delay their wedding to a time when everything would be more “normal.” This included the ability to have more guests, traditional dancing, no social distancing or masks, etc. Unfortunately, as it became obvious that the mageifah was lasting longer than anyone anticipated, weddings were rescheduled or moved, conforming to the legal and safe guidelines. However, the question of delaying a wedding is still being discussed.

The Chofetz Chaim has been quoted (Sefer Hatzaddik Rav Shlomo, page 114) as saying that if one must change the date of a chasunah, it should be moved earlier rather than later.

It is also quoted in the name of Rav Pinchos of Koritz that one should never change the date of a chasunah from that which is written in the Tennaim. The reason given is that the mazel of the young couple is set at the moment the Tennaim are written. Changing the date could, G-d forbid, erode that mazel. It would seem, therefore, that those who write the Tennaim at the chasunah itself have nothing to worry about, but those who write Tennaim significantly earlier than the wedding are committed to the date. Nevertheless, even many of those who do write the Tennaim at a separate earlier event are careful not to write the date of the wedding into the Tennaim. Indeed, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has been quoted as saying that one may postpone a wedding to save a significant amount of money.

Naming a Baby Daughter Without a Sefer Torah

It is almost a universal custom today to name a baby daughter when the father receives an aliyah at the Torah soon after her birth. At various times during the corona virus, there were almost no minyanim talking place with Torah reading. Can a girl still be named in these circumstances?

In truth, it is clear from poskim (see Drisha to Yoreh Deah, end of No. 60) that in previous centuries, babies were often named in the house and not at a minyan or at krias haTorah. One posek (Zichron Yosef, Orach Chaim 5) even describes various naming ceremonies that took place at home. He writes that the minhag to name a girl at the Torah may have arisen since when the mother could go out for the first time, she would go to shul where her husband would receive an aliyah in place of the korban (sacrifice) that she would offer during the times of the Bais Hamikdosh. Upon that occasion, the name of the baby would be announced, although it had already been assigned previously. This proves that naming at the Torah is not crucial and can be done at home if necessary.

There is so much more, including the complicated monetary issues of playgroups and tuition payments when services have become impossible due to Covid-19. However, this sampling should be sufficient to demonstrate that the Torah never leaves us unprepared to deal with the consequences of any eventuality.

Our poskim have taught us that at times of crisis, we must learn to differentiate between actual halacha and things that are not me’akeiv – actions that are not absolutely crucial to a mitzvah or avoiding a transgression. May Hashem wipe away this latest impediment to our avodas Hashem very soon and may everyone have a truly gezunten vinter.



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