The beautiful flow of Jewish life was tragically diverted by Coronavirus. The pandemic altered our experiences of communal worship, celebrations, mourning and the plethora of daily rituals that constitute a major part of Jewish life. Many people were traumatized to varying degrees by the disruptions caused by the pandemic, without even discussing the great suffering and loss of life. These changes impacted halachah in ways that are both obvious and less evident—changes that are not revolutionary but perhaps express a sign of significant evolution.
Halachah represents the lived faith of the Jewish people, the practical application of our beliefs that strengthens our faith by incorporating sanctity into our daily lives. Even when we are under stress and duress, we need halachah in order to function spiritually. Halachah contains built-in mechanisms to address unusual circumstances when health concerns require alternative religious behavior. We observed that process working robustly, as, for example, people prayed at home rather than with a minyan, sold new kitchen utensils rather than immersing them in a mikveh when the kelim mikva’ot were closed, and arranged with their rabbi for the sale of their chametz over the phone rather than in person.1
However, major shocks to a system often cause change and realignments, as Torah leaders are forced to adjust common practice for the unusual times, and these adjustments leave an imprint going forward. Based on what we have experienced so far in this pandemic, what will—or should—halachah look like going forward after the crisis? I would like to divide this discussion into four sections: specific halachot, attitudes within halachah, the overall halachic process and the question of whether we have entered a new era of halachic history.
Certainly, we already see many small changes which really amount to greater awareness. People now know that they can use liquid hand sanitizer on Shabbat, wear a mask properly in public on Shabbat even where there is no eruv and wash their hands on Tishah B’Av for strictly sanitary purposes.
These are not new halachot, rather there is now greater public awareness of existing halachot.
One lasting contribution to halachic literature is the discussion of how, and under what conditions, men can form a minyan at a distance. For example, under what, if any, circumstances can men pray from different porches and combine into a “porch minyan,” since technically they are in different domains? The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the she’at ha’dechak, generated important analyses of what is allowed in different situations. While history contains debates over this subject, the recent experience yielded substantive contributions that will become permanent parts of the halachic conversation.
More than the halachot themselves, we find halachic attitudes expanding in one specific way that I think will have a permanent impact. We live in a time of widespread unease, with a prevalence of, if not mental illness, then mental stress. I am not sure how much of this is due to greater openness to and acknowledgment of mental health issues that people within our community have always experienced and how much is new due to the stresses of contemporary times. Regardless, anxiety, fear and emotional pain are just some of the many mental ailments that have become a part of normal life. Halachah has always recognized the existence of these emotional states but I sense a greater awareness and, more importantly, a widespread acknowledgement that mental stress can be a serious health concern with attendant halachic implications.
In advance of the “three-day yom tov” at the beginning of Pesach, YU Rosh Yeshivah and OU Senior Posek Rabbi Hershel Schachter permitted people with medically recognized mental conditions that could become life threatening to communicate with family electronically over the holiday.2 I don’t want to overstate the permission because we are dealing, on the one hand, with rabbinic prohibitions that allow for more leniency than Biblical prohibitions and, on the other hand, possible suicide as determined by a doctor which creates great urgency as formally determined by a medical expert. However, despite the limitations on his permissive ruling, Rabbi Schachter used very strong language when discussing the concern for preserving life due to mental stress that I expect will be the start of an important ongoing conversation about preserving mental health without detracting from the sanctity of Shabbat, holidays and Jewish life in general. The rabbis with whom I have discussed this agree that they now incorporate more concern for loneliness and depression in their halachic considerations than they did before the pandemic.
The conversation is only beginning. This can easily be taken too far to override nearly all of Judaism’s rituals due to common feelings of stress, which would be disastrous. The boundaries of these considerations require further study and debate, which I expect will take place over the coming years. Coronavirus seems to be an important step in this ongoing conversation among halachic decisors.
The process of halachic inquiry has undergone some change in terms of technology. When leading halachic authorities were isolated due to the virus, they utilized means of interacting with questioners beyond the usual face-to-face conversation, letter or phone call. The newly adopted means of communication include conference calls, WhatsApp groups and Zoom. These technologies existed before the pandemic, but rabbis in general, and particularly leading halachic decisors, tend to be late adopters of new technologies. The pandemic forced rabbis to experiment with new ways to reach the public.
On the one hand, this shift gave laypeople greater visibility into the halachic decision-making process. However, for some people this caused information overload. I help maintain a web site, KolCorona.com, that collects resources related to the crisis, particularly halachic decisions. Due to the productivity of Torah scholars currently living in isolation with access to vast technological resources, the library is enormous—containing over 150 halachic documents including multiple full-length books by a wide variety of scholars including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Asher Weiss, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon and many more. In just these past few months, many volumes of responsa and recordings of interactive question-and-answer sessions were disseminated. Laypeople with the desire and requisite knowledge to explore intricate halachic discussions now have more direct access to leading halachic authorities, their reasoning and their conclusions.
. . . Rabbis in general, and particularly leading halachic decisors tend to be late adopters of new technologies. The pandemic forced rabbis to experiment with new ways to reach the public.
However, most people are not that motivated. Instead, they continue to interact with their local rabbi. In my assessment, in general local rabbis have responded over this time period with the nobility, foresight and care that their communities desperately needed. Setting aside the all-important issues of chesed and communal organizing, which are beyond the scope of this essay, rabbis have exceeded expectations in filling a crucial role in this unprecedented time by communicating halachic issues, answering specific questions and guiding private and communal prayers. I don’t see this changing any time soon.
Most people do not want direct access to posekim. However, those who want that access can now achieve it by joining the right WhatsApp group or e-mail list. What in the past was available primarily to those whose lives intersected with leading rabbinic decisors—perhaps by attending the same synagogue or living nearby—is now available to anyone with the right Zoom information.
A New Era
Halachic history can be divided roughly into periods based on tragedy. After the destruction of the Second Temple and subjugation of the remaining community, the Tannaitic period ended. After further persecution, the Amoraic period ended. The era of the Rishonim began with the First Crusade and the era of the Acharonim began with the expulsion from Spain.3 In an intriguing essay in his work The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia, Rabbi Mattis Kantor argues that the period of the early Acharonim—what he calls the Kovim and which includes the Shulchan Aruch and basic commentaries—ended with the Chmielnicki pogroms in Poland.4 This theory explains why later authorities generally defer to the Shulchan Aruch and standard commentaries, such as Shach and Taz, rather than treat them like relative contemporaries from the same era.5 If we accept this thesis, perhaps the global disruption caused by coronavirus signals the beginning of a new era.
This theory faces a few problems. First, each of the tragedies mentioned above included the deaths of leading rabbis and the long-term disruption of communities, effectively the movement of centers of Torah learning from one country to another. Coronavirus does not seem to have caused anything like that. I don’t mean to imply that no great Torah scholars died from coronavirus. Quite the opposite, some great Torah scholars whom I knew personally died from the virus. However, the majority of leading rabbis across the Jewish globe thankfully continue functioning as in the past. Additionally, integral to the change in eras, almost part of the definition of such a shift, is the attitude of scholars afterward to those before. Is greater deference given to pre-coronavirus authorities over post-coronavirus authorities? There does not seem to be evidence of such a trend.
That leads us to the most important point—what about the Holocaust? Did the Holocaust start a new era of halachah? Do we defer to pre-Holocaust authorities like Acharonim defer to Rishonim? For the past few years, Rabbi Mordechai Tzion who teaches in Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim and translates, edits and publishes the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, has been regularly sending unusual questions to great Torah authorities in Israel and Europe. His local post office overflows with letters to and from halachic scholars. He has published these correspondences in a number of volumes with varying titles. In Responsa HaSho’el, Rabbi Tzion asked whether the Holocaust marks a new era in halachic history.6 The answers he received show that there is not yet a definitive answer. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky replied, “Perhaps.” Rabbi Avgidor Nebenzahl answered, “It does not seem like that in my view.” Rabbi Shammai Gross wrote, “Today we are called Acharonei Acharonim.” Some of the other answers challenged the question: Many of the greatest Torah scholars of the past century lived for decades after the Holocaust. Perhaps this very point answers the question and offers a new perspective on our current times.
Coronavirus has not started a new halachic era, but it might mark the beginning of the post-Holocaust era. It is the first crisis requiring halachic boldness and creativity since the 2012 passing of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (b. 1910), who was the last of the top-tier Torah scholars who achieved scholarly greatness before the Holocaust. Rabbi Elyashiv’s passing marked the end of the pre-War generation. While thankfully we are blessed with nonagenarian Torah scholars, they were young children during the Holocaust and received most of their training after the Holocaust.7 As we show deference to the great authorities who were trained before the Holocaust, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (b. 1895) and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (b. 1910), we exhibit—perhaps—the behavior of a new era in halachah. More than once, I have heard the question, driven by more than just nostalgia, “Why don’t we have gedolim like we did a few decades ago?” Perhaps the answer lies in the shift to a new post-Holocaust era of halachah.
Whether this admittedly speculative theory withstands critique, and what implications and consequences emerge, will be seen over time as the full impact of the generational shift becomes clear. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this unprecedented global disruption of coronavirus coupled with radically new communication technologies usher in a new generation. In this new era, one of great stress and anxiety, we need faith as much as ever. Faith in the Lord above; faith in our religious leaders below; and faith in our ability to enjoy vibrant Jewish lives in this new world.
1. I thank the many respondents over Twitter who offered these and many more examples.
2. A collection of Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s coronavirus responsa can be found at KolCorona.com/rav-schachter-official-pesakim.
3. The exact times of the shifts have been debated, particularly regarding the shift from Rishonim to Acharonim in Ashkenazic lands.
4. (Northvale, New Jersey, 1992), Appendix D.
5. Although Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, author of the Magen Avraham, would be an outlier because his commentary is authoritative, yet he was roughly thirteen years old at the time of the Chmielnicki pogroms.
6. Responsa HaSho’el, vol. 3 (Bet El, Israel, 2019), no. 70.
7. Similarly, Rabbi David Ibn Zimra and Rabbi Yosef Karo were children during the expulsion from Spain.
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Speaking with Rav Hershel Schachter, interview by Rabbi Shaul Robinson