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Halachah During a Pandemic

Over the past few months, since Covid-19 first emerged, Jewish communities around the world have turned to Rabbi Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, a leading posek in the Modern Orthodox community who serves as rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva University and senior posek of OU Kosher, for guidance in observing Jewish law during a worldwide pandemic. From answering she’eilot about semachot (how many men are needed at a wedding?) to she’eilot about death and burial (if a family is unable to use their burial plots in Eretz Yisrael due to Covid, can they perform a temporary burial and have the body reinterred?), from questions on how to observe Pesach during a lockdown (can one sell chametz virtually?) to how to properly daven on the Yamim Noraim (with so many more minyanim due to social distancing, can one serve as a chazzan twice on Rosh Hashanah?), Rabbi Schachter provided much-needed direction to medical professionals, rabbanim, members of the chevra kadisha, and community members on how to live as an observant Jew during these halachically challenging times. 

The following is a sampling of Covid she’eilot that were presented to Rabbi Schachter, as well as general teshuvot that he issued, over the past few months. Unless indicated otherwise, the teshuvot are from

Ed. Note: As every individual’s circumstances will differ, please consult with your own rabbi for a specific pesak.

Q: Can Hataras Nedarim (annulment of vows) be done over Zoom on erev Rosh Hashanah?
A: Hataras Nedarim may be done via Zoom, as long as the three members of the beis din who are matir neder are in the same location. The beis din members should be able to see the person or people requesting hatarah (annulment), or at least be aware of how many people are on Zoom requesting hatarah before they begin the process.

Q: Can an outdoor minyan daven Maariv before nightfall on Shabbos afternoon?
A: In a pressing situation (such as due to Covid-19), one can convene a minyan on Shabbos afternoon that will daven Minchah immediately before pelag haMinchah (one and a quarter halachic hours before the end of the day) and Maariv immediately after pelag, although melachah (forbidden work on Shabbos) is still forbidden until the actual conclusion of Shabbos. This is permitted if it will be difficult to convene a minyan for Maariv once it is dark. The local rabbi must determine if this is an appropriate practice for his community, as it may mislead some to conclude that Shabbos is over and melachah is permitted, when it is, in fact, still Shabbos.

Q: Can a rabbi refuse to officiate at a wedding that does not conform to the guidelines and standards that were set forth in terms of the number of people attending? (This question was asked at a time when New York State permitted gatherings of only ten people.)
A: The rabbi should refuse to officiate at such a wedding. By not conforming to the guidelines, those hosting the wedding are putting people’s lives in danger. The rabbi should therefore declare that he will not officiate at a wedding if the gathering exceeds a minyan metzumtzam (a very small number of people). The pasukShomer pesayim Hashem” (God protects the simple people) does not apply in this situation, as people are fully aware of the risks and dangers.

Q: In a community where many people need to use the shul sukkah, can meals begin before nightfall in order to accommodate everyone?
A: Due to the important consideration of social distancing, there are many communal sukkos that will be arranging multiple shifts for their membership to have a chance to eat in the sukkah. On the first two nights of Sukkos, we generally do not make Kiddush or eat the meal before tzais hakochavim. However, this year there is room to be lenient to allow the first shift to accept yom tov early and make Kiddush following davening. Ideally, the first shift should be sure to eat a k’zayis of bread in the sukkah after tzais hakochavim. However, if it is necessary to begin the second shift before tzais hakochavim, one may be lenient and the first shift may complete the meal entirely before tzais hakochavim.

If there are many who need to use a communal sukkah and the shifts must be very short, each shift may make Kiddush, eat bread and bentch, leaving the rest of the meal (fish, meat, vegetables, et cetera) to be eaten inside at home (without bread).

Q: Should one bentch Gomel after recovering from the coronavirus?
A: One should recite Birchas Ha’gomel when recovering from corona. Birchas Ha’gomel is meant to be recited in the presence of a minyan. It is best to recite this berachah within three days of recovering from a potentially life-threatening situation, and it is improper to delay reciting the berachah beyond thirty days. If it becomes clear that due to the danger it will be impossible to be in the presence of a minyan within thirty days, then one should recite the berachah over Zoom or via phone conference with ten men watching or listening. This is possible because the requirement for a minyan is not the same as for tefillah b’tzibbur or kerias haTorah, which are devarim shebikedushah and require a minyan gathered in one place. In the case of Birchas Ha’gomel, the purpose of the minyan is to publicize the miracle, and this can be accomplished even if the ten individuals are listening without being present in one room.

On Tuition Payments:
Some parents have demanded refunds of tuition money paid to their children’s yeshivos and schools. This is certainly an improper approach. As it is, yeshivos and schools struggle to pay the salaries of the rebbeim and teachers. If we ask for reimbursements and remove our support, the schools will shut down due to the current and impending financial challenges. Rather, we must do our part to support Torah institutions to the best of our abilities in order to ensure that they will be available to serve our communities when the pandemic comes to an end. Doing so would be considered tzedakah for all purposes, and would certainly represent the attitude that our tradition demands [of being merciful and compassionate] at all times but especially in times of crisis and danger.

On Honoring One’s Parents:
If the government and medical professionals have stated that it is not safe for parents and children to be together, then children may not visit for yom tov, even at the insistence of the parents. Disobeying parents’ wishes in this situation is not a violation of kibbud av va’eim.

On Cremation
Due to the highly contagious nature of coronavirus, there are certain governments that have mandated either immediate burial or cremation (this is not the case currently in the United States). Under those circumstances, every effort should be made to avoid cremation. Therefore, if a Jew passes away on Shabbos, the burial should be done immediately (on Shabbos) by non-Jews.

More in this Section:

Speaking with Rav Hershel Schachter, interview by Rabbi Shaul Robinson

A New Post-Coronavirus Era of Halachah? by Gil Student

This article was featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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