Chief Rabbis Order Synagogues Closed Following Israel's New Coronavirus Regulations

Rabbis Lau and Yosef call on worshipers to pray outside while keeping distance, or from their homes at set times, as new regulations go into effect

Aaron Rabinowitz
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Workers in protective gear disinfect the Great Synagogue, Tel Aviv, March 17, 2020
Workers in protective gear disinfect the Great Synagogue, Tel Aviv, March 17, 2020Credit: Moti Mildrod
Aaron Rabinowitz

Israel’s chief rabbis, Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, ordered all synagogues closed on Wednesday, following confirmation of the latest Health Ministry guidelines forbidding gathering in houses of worship, even if there are 10 people or less.

“Given the latest instructions from those responsible for the battle against the coronavirus, we are announcing that from today and until further notice, there should be no public prayer in synagogues,” the rabbis wrote.

“A group of worshipers, who should number no more than 10, can pray outside in an open area, if possible in proximity to the synagogue, while maintaining a distance of two meters from each other. If there is no such option,” they added, “each person should pray at home, but it is preferable to set a fixed prayer time for all the synagogue’s congregants. The public must observe the instructions given by the Health Ministry officials, not just with regard to synagogues, but also in other areas.”

Previous Health Ministry coronavirus regulations exempted synagogues, but ordered that no more than 10 worshipers attend at once. The new guidelines come after contentious debate about whether to close synagogues after epidemiology reports revealed that more than 30 percent of those infected had visited synagogues or yeshivas, or were exposed to the virus there.

On Tuesday, before the new regulations were announced, Lau and Yosef stirred controversy when they called on worshipers to hold special prayers regarding the coronavirus outbreak in synagogues. They requested that no more than 10 people enter the synagogue at once, as per regulations, which also drew criticism.

Ne’emanei Torah V’Avoda, a relious-Zionist movement, called the rabbinate’s announcement to gather for prayer irresponsible, saying that it endangered public health. “It’s hard not to think about how many people may be infected if the rabbis’ calls are heeded,” they said.

The head of the Health Ministry’s infectious disease prevention department, Prof. Mitchell Schwaber, also wrote to the chief rabbis and members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, asking them to withdraw their call to come to synagogue. In the letter, which was broadcast on Channel 12, he noted that there is no way to safely guarantee a prayer quorum, and that these gatherings risk the lives of worshipers and the medical teams that treat them.

“As a Jew who follows the commandments and prays in a minyan [prayer quorum], I am aware of the importance of communal prayer, Schwaber wrote. “But when prayer is bound up in great danger, I feel it is upon us to comply with the commandment of the hour and avoid knowingly putting ourselves and others in danger and disgracing God’s name,” he wrote.

Falling into step with the Health Ministry

The Chief Rabbinate noted that at the time they made the call, the Health Ministry’s restrictions allowed for group prayers in synagogues. A source close to Lau, who says that the rabbi has been stringently following regulations and conducting his prayer outdoors, said that “when the Health Ministry regulations say it’s possible, the rabbi won’t say that it isn’t.”  

A source close to Yosef told Haaretz that “There is an official agency in the State of Israel that decides what’s dangerous and what’s not. The chief rabbis had said all along that they rely on the Health Ministry and don’t make up their own rules.” The source added that Rabbi Yosef said that there is nothing in Jewish law that says anything particular about the coronavirus, the only guidelines come from the ministry.

The Haredi leadership in Israel and abroad had also called to gather Wednesday, the eve of the Jewish month of Nisan, for special prayers, but there was no call to gather in synagogues. On the contrary, the rabbis of the Councils of Torah Sages both in Israel and abroad called on Jews all over the world to recite Psalms and the Shema prayer at specific times in their homes.

Nevertheless, when asked whether for this special prayer it was worth gathering in large groups, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who previously ordered schools to remain open despite Health Ministry directives to close, responded, “There’s something to having a large minyan, but only if they can stand at a distance from one another.” When asked if Health Ministry guidelines must be followed, he replied, “Don’t do what is not required.”

His partner in leadership, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, answered the same question: “We must do everything according to the guidelines with all known precautions.” In a livestream to thousands of followers, Edelstein said that the rules must be followed. “It’s a severe obligation, to follow all rules of precaution, as the doctors say. Don’t disrespect it and don’t be lenient.”

Noa Landau contributed to this report.

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