Israel's Prominent Rabbi Orders Praying Alone to Stem Coronavirus Spread in Haredi Community

As COVID-19 confirmed cases spike among the ultra-Orthodox public, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky says that anyone flouting the Health Ministry orders not to congregate should be handed over to the police

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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File photo: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (R) and his followers, Jerusalem, 2013.
File photo: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (R) and his followers, Jerusalem, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered Sunday the rabbis of Bnei Brak to stop the minyans (prayer quorums of at least 10 men) throughout the city entirely and pray individually to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

This marks a turnaround, since at the start of the outbreak Kanievsky ordered the continuation of studies in yeshivas and Talmud Torah schools, defying Health Ministry directives. The rabbis have accepted his opinion and called on their followers to observe Health Ministry orders.

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Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

The change in the position of the leadership is a result of the spread of the coronavirus in the ultra-Orthodox community in general and in Bnei Brak specifically. The rabbis’ orders are stricter than the Health Ministry directives, which permit a minyan in the street, as long as a distance of two meters between people is maintained. “It’s pikuah nefesh” (saving lives), Kanievsky told his following.

In the wake of his ruling, the rabbis of Bnei Brak have signed a letter reiterating the request: “There must be greater caution, with no minyans at all, even in open spaces,” they wrote. “Study in synagogues and study halls is forbidden. Everyone will study at home.” Vehicles patrolled the city streets announcing the instructions over a loudspeaker.

Aside from the instructions to the rabbis, Kanievsky answered halakhic questions (of religious law) Sunday regarding the virus, saying that anyone flouting the orders should be handed over to the police, that phones should be answered on Shabbat if test results arrive, and that anyone who doesn’t observe the doctors’ orders meticulously will be considered a Jew responsible for the murder of innocent Jews, who can be forced to change his ways.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, another senior Lithuanian-stream leader, has been stricter than Kanievsky in recent weeks and worked behind the scenes to halt study in the yeshivas. Last Shabbat Kanievsky prayed in a small minyan in his home, while Edelstein prayed alone.

Two weeks ago, Kanievsky ordered to continue studies and ultra-Orthodox representatives negotiated with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov over directives for yeshivas. At first the authorities agreed, contingent on adopting certain steps, but later when they saw that the directives were being violated the ministry ordered a stop to the studies. 

Despite the order Kanievsky instructed a continuaiton of studies, but Edelstein ordered the yeshivas to close, and within a day most of them closed their doors.

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