In a startling ruling, a group of prominent Sephardic rabbis in Israel has permitted the use of Zoom videoconferencing at the upcoming Passover seder so that families can convene virtually without violating restrictions on gatherings mandated by the coronavirus pandemic. The rabbis who issued the ruling, among them the spiritual leaders of several towns and communities in Israel, are all Orthodox.
The ruling has not been endorsed by Israel’s chief rabbis or the Orthodox religious establishment. Indeed, Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council (perhaps best known for his vicious remarks about Israel’s Arab minority) called the ruling “a grave error” that would “destroy the spirit of the seder night.”
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According to the ruling, videoconferencing during the seder will be permissible on a one-time basis this year so long as computers are turned on and everything is set up before the holiday sets in. Jewish religious law, or halakha, does not permit the use of electricity on Shabbat – a restriction that includes operating computers and other forms of technology. This ban on electricity use applies to the Jewish holidays as well, including Passover, though Sephardic rabbis tend to be more lenient than their Ashkenazi counterparts when it comes to this restriction, as they are on many others.
The ruling was issued in response to a query about whether the video technology could be used to allow elderly people to partake in the annual Passover ritual – the most important family event on the annual Jewish calendar. Individuals over age 70 in Israel have been urged to refrain from contact with their children and grandchildren because they are more susceptible to the coronavirus.
“Passover is a special holiday, especially the night of the reading of the Hagaddah, which is seen by all as a special event, a treaty between God and Israel,” the rabbis wrote in their ruling. “It would also seem that the young children of Israel, were it not for their connection to their grandfather and grandmother, would not gather around the seder table, and only the connection to the grandparent causes them to take part in the mitzvah of the Hagaddah reading and eating matzah. And in this generation, it is very important that children pay attention to their elders.”
Another justification for making this year an exception to the rule, the rabbis wrote, was “to remove sadness from adults and the elderly, to give them motivation to continue fighting for their lives, and to prevent them from succumbing to depression, which might cause them to despair of life.”
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The ruling was signed by 14 rabbis, all members of the Moroccan Jewish community in Israel. The most prominent signatory was Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, the former chief judge of the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. They are all members of a group called Igud Chachmei Hamaarav (“Association of the Wise of the West”).
Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox Judaism (but unlike Reform Judaism) also embraces halakha, and has also been struggling with the question of whether to permit videoconferencing during the seder this year. Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, who serves as president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, says that some rabbis are opposed to allowing if out of fear that if computers are on in the house, people might be tempted to use them for other activities that are not permitted.
“But I personally believe that we should have this option of videoconferencing available because we are in a special situation this year which we’ve never been in before,” he told Haaretz. “If halakhically it is allowed, then people should know that, and that seems to be what these Sephardic rabbis were thinking as well.”
Sometime later today, the Conservative movement is expected to issue official rabbinical opinions on the matter.