Israeli Health Officials, Police Fear COVID Spike With Mass Prayers Expected on Sukkot

Though some non-Hasidic and Sephardic communities call for obedience, other leaders have threatened 'all out war' with police

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Sukkot in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, September 30, 2020
Sukkot in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, September 30, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

While the ultra-Orthodox community is tensely waiting for the possible health ramifications of tens of thousands of yeshiva students returning home, the health system is bracing itself for the next big coronavirus challenge – the festival of Sukkot.

It is specifically concerned with the mass events that usually take place in the various Haredi communities during Hol Hamo’ed, the intermediate days of the festival, and on Simhat Torah, as well as the mass prayer services expected to take place in contravention of the lockdown guidelines.

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“What we are seeing now [the spike in new coronavirus cases] is unequivocally the result of Rosh Hashanah prayers,” said a Health Ministry official. “Soon it will be Simhat Torah, second hakafot, and Simhat Beit Hasho’eva celebrations, and it’s clear what’s going to happen.”

Health Ministry director general Chezy Levy also sounded concerned on Wednesday. “The Haredi community is now responsible for a third of the instances of infection,” he told a briefing for Haredi journalists. “What disturbs us is that Sukkot has events with broad contagion potential … and that’s in addition to the yeshiva students who returned home.”

He noted that objective problems that are unique to the Haredi community, like overcrowding, as well as widespread violation of the guidelines, have caused a sharp increase in cases. “This has to be taken care of and a solution must be found, because this doesn’t only affect Haredi society but morbidity in general and the hospitals,” he said.

The Health Ministry is expected to back a demand by ultra-Orthodox politicians to allow groups of up to 20 worshipers to gather in sukkah, the booth observant Jews eat and sometimes sleep in during the holiday, given it has no more than two closed sides. A source familiar with the ministry's plan said this applies to prayer services alone.

Despite the data, several Hasidic courts were signaling business as usual, including the planning of mass events during Sukkot. Various communities are erecting huge sukkot for the thousands of people expected. The rebbe of Vizhnitz, who after Yom Kippur held a mass event that was only halted when police intervened, has told his adherents that they should maintain their routines and that in their next confrontation with the police, the Hasidim will not conduct themselves with kid gloves.

According to reports in a number of Haredi media outlets, the rebbe ordered the community’s ritual bath to open in Bnei Brak, and was quoted as saying, “Get ready for an all-out war.”

Jerusalem police over the past several days called in leaders of most sects in the city for "information talks" ahead of the holiday. District commander Doron Yadid intends to deploy massive forces to enforce the regulations.

But in contrast to the militant spirit emanating from the Hasidic communities, the non-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) and Sephardic communities are demonstrating an obedient attitude. Leaders of these communities are trying to limit the damage and have issued clear directives not to hold mass events or prayers during the holiday.

Shas’ Council of Torah Sages on Tuesday ordered all synagogues closed. In its announcement, it also said prayers should only be held outdoors with limited participants, social distancing and masks to be worn throughout the prayers. “There are to be no prayers in closed spaces,” they warned.

The rabbis added that during Simhat Torah extra caution must be taken: Torah scrolls should not be kissed or passed among the worshipers, there should be no circle dancing and distance should be maintained. “Everyone can jump and sway in place with joy and clapping,” they said. “Where it’s possible to shorten [the prayers] they should not be lengthened, and all the prayers and hakafot should be done quickly – it’s enough.”

The rabbis also demanded that families not eat with other families. “Every family unit should celebrate the holiday solely at home, with their families; do not visit anywhere during the holiday, a son should not even visit his father or a daughter-in-law, her mother-in-law. Nevertheless, do not be sad, because the joy of God is your strength, and everyone will see to it that their household members rejoice in any way they can.”

A similar call was issued by the leaders of the Lithuanian Haredim, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, although they did not expressly forbid prayer in synagogues.

The Health Ministry director general viewed these announcements positively, but stressed the dangerous behavior in the Haredi community. “It’s very distressing to see these violations, the tishim [mass gatherings with one’s rabbi], the weddings. People are acting as if there is no coronavirus, which in the end will take its cut, in both hospitalizations and from an economic perspective.

“It’s irresponsible and shows a lack of mutual concern. We are endangering our families,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and other senior ministry officials met recently with a number of Haredi leaders in an effort to persuade them to change their approach.

“Recently there was a meeting with Rabbi Kanievsky, after which he issued an announcement regarding the Yom Kippur prayers. That was a refreshing change from the position he’d presented earlier,” said Levy. “Most of the public is disciplined and follows the rules. We are trying to dialogue with the leaders to get the public to avoid irresponsible gatherings.”

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.

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