This page was updated on March 25, 2020.
The following are short answers by CJLS members in response to halakhic questions raised by COVID-19. Please note that these are not official responsa of the CJLS.
If you have a question to submit for consideration, please send it to Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg.
Should hevra kadisha members perform tohorah on those who have died of COVID-19, or should that be discouraged/prohibited due to health concerns?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) Whether or not the deceased died from COVID-19, standard infectious disease precautions should be in place to protect the team from infection from the deceased. The issue is whether the members of the hevra kadisha are at risk by doing their work in close proximity. If the members of the hevra kadisha feel that one member or a small team can wipe the body (in place of the usual washing), then tohorah may be performed. Otherwise i it should not be. The handling of the body and its dressing intakhrikhin may be done by the hevra kadisha or the funeral staff. Whether or not tohorah is performed,, a member of the hevra kadisha may recite the suggested liturgy from an appropriate distance with the members of the hevrah kadisha, if present, standing at an appropriate distance from each other.
How should funerals/memorials be conducted?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) Funeral should be graveside only. The minyan for kaddish can be constituted by ten adult Jews who are in sight of one another but are otherwise standing at a distance or by an internet minyan. See the CJLS guidance on remote minyan.
How should shivas be conducted?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) Those in mourning are advised to announce to their potential visitors that they are having virtual visiting hours, that their visitors email them when they want to zoom in, then they can send a zoom link. This way it's not an open link in which anyone can peek into their home. They may also take telephone visits. Clergy should not enter congregant homes until public health officials lift the ban on group meetings.
A young person becomes bar/bat mitzvah on the date that they come of age on the Jewish calendar. Nevertheless, the observance of B’nai Mitzvah celebrations are a significant milestones for young people, their family and their community, and disruptions and possible rescheduling of B’nai Mitzvah are a significant source of anxiety. How are such situations to be handled?
(Answer by Rabbi Joshua Heller) B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies should ideally be conducted in the presence of a minyan, with understanding that additional guests may be watching on live stream. Even that may not be safe or feasible in the current circumstances. In any case, celebrations and parties should be delayed until public health guidance allows for gatherings.
In the current circumstances, many B’nai Mitzvah observances and celebrations are being postponed. Many communities are asking for guidance how to handle rescheduled observances where young people have invested significant effort learning a Torah reading and/or Haftarah that the congregation has skipped.
We suggest the following options:
The bar mitzvah could be delayed until the next time the Torah portion is read as part of the annual cycle.
If the celebration is rescheduled to another shabbat morning, a portion that the child has already learned may be read as a “maftir” portion from a second scroll, and their Haftarah would replace the regular Haftarah. This would not be recommended on a shabbat that already has a specially mandated reading (Rosh Hodesh, Mahar Hodesh, the 7 Haftarot of consolation, Shabbat Shuvah, Hanukkah, the 4 parshiot).
If the celebration is rescheduled to a shabbat afternoon or weekday morning, the reading the young person has studied could be substituted or added to the regular weekly reading, even though it will be the incorrect parshah. At least 10 verses of Torah must be read when a minyan gathers, and since there are moments in history in which people were on different cycles, these 10 verses will still fulfill that communal obligation. If the child knows at least 10 verses that may be subdivided into 3 aliyot, this would be one option. It would also be possible to take out two scrolls, combine the three weekday aliyot into two and have the child read their original maftir as the third. A Haftarah reading might be added to Shabbat Minhah, though there is disagreement as to whether it could be done with the brakhot.
Can a wedding be conducted virtually?
(Answer by Rabbi Aaron Alexander) When it is determined that a wedding cannot be postponed, the following procedure may be used:
- The couple must be in the same physical space. This may present challenges in certain cases, in which case medical and public health experts must be consulted before proceeding.
- The officiating rabbis and two valid witnesses (same rules apply) may be present via-sight based technology, and in real-time, but in three different physical locations. One witness should have copy of the ketubbah.
- Have each partner (hatan/kallah, hatan/hatan, kallah/kallah) present with two pens in front of them.
- Rabbi reads the ketubbah and asks each for their acceptance of conditions. Each, so that witnesses can see live, picks up pen in front of them to validly enact.
- First witness signs the ketubbah. Snaps picture or converts to PDF and sends to second witness, then same procedure to rabbi (if signing), and then sends to the couple, who either print or bring up on device and hold together.
- Officiant (or couple) chants first blessings (with amen), couple drinks from their glasses. (Officiant should have glass if chanting, all should have wine/grape juice)
- Witnesses attest to rings/ownership/value of rings.
- Ring exchange, led by the officiant.
- At this point, the couple can move straight to declaration/birkat kohanim/glass breaking and save 7 berakhot for another time. Or, for those communities who consider 10 adults in a zoom room a minyan, 7 berakhot can be chanted by anyone present (Who could otherwise chant them in a normal situation).
A physical is huppah is preferred, but the inability to acquire one doesn’t invalidate the wedding, as in antiquity huppah often meant the home in which the couple began their marriage.
What happens to the original ketubah if a wedding is rescheduled?
(Answer by Rabbi Elliot Dorff) If a wedding is postponed and the couple has a calligraphed ketubah recording the date originally planned for the wedding, the calligraphed ketubah may be displayed at the wedding, even under the huppah, and it may be signed on the postponed date of the wedding, but another, printed ketubah with the actual date that the wedding is taking place should also be signed on the postponed date of the wedding and used for the ceremony.
Should the timing of the brit milah be changed?
(Answer by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in consultation with a urologist who is also a mohel and a pediatrician who is also a mohelet). Brit milah for baby boys born during the pandemic should be done as follows:
1) First choice: the surgical circumcision is done in the hospital during the first few days of the infant’s life. When it again becomes safe for groups to meet, the family should arrange for family and friends to join them for hatafat dam brit, the blessings of the liturgy of brit milah, and the naming of the child, followed by a se’udat mitzvah.
2) Second best option: the brit milah occurs on the eighth day of the child’s life but with only the parents, baby, and mohel present, with the mohel using appropriate covering on his/her face and hands to protect against spreading the virus. On weekdays the ceremony may be shared by zoom or other sharing programs with however many people the family wants.
3) Third best option: If the surgical circumcision is delayed until after the pandemic has passed, families should consult with their pediatrician or urologist as to what medical procedures are appropriate at the time that the brit milah will take place, taking into account the age of the baby and his medical condition.
Guidance for other life cycle rituals is forthcoming.
How does one balance the need to keep emergency supplies with the tradition to finish or get rid of hametz considering the possibility of food shortages?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) Because of anticipated shortages or disruptions in the supply chain, we encourage people to sell their hametz rather than use it up.
Are there safe alternatives for burning chametz for people without access to outdoor/communal space?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) It is customary to burn a small amount of hametz, symbolically, on the eve of the holiday. This may still be done if it can be done safely. Usually it is done outside, but a small amount of hametz can be safely burned in a sink. Hametz may also be discarded in the trash if rendered inedible by sprinkling with household cleaner, and then put in household trash, even though the trash may not be collected from one's property until after the holiday begins. Because of anticipated shortages or disruptions in the supply chain, we encourage people to sell any hametz rather than burn all of it. Hametz should not be flushed down the toilet because of possible damage to plumbing or the municipal sewer systems.
May we observe Pesah Sheini rather than Pesach if we believe we will be more fully able to observe it at that later date?
(Answer by Rabbi Pamela Barmash) While our coming celebration of Pesah is disrupted due to COVID-19, it is still to be observed in its usual time, starting the 14th of Nisan, with a seder to fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story, the recitation of other Passover liturgy, and restriction on hametz. We cannot predict the course of the pandemic in the future; nonetheless, those who wish to observe a secondary celebration during Pesah sheini are welcome to do so.
May a person be released from Omer restrictions (e.g. haircuts) before Shavuot if the opportunity arises without guarantee of its availability later?
(Answer by Rabbi Gail Labovitz) The custom of not holding weddings during the Omer period is already attested in Geonic literature (Otzar haGeonim to Yevamot 62b, p. 141). It is very clearly described there as a custom – מנהג – and explicitly distinguished from an outright prohibition – איסור. The given reason is that it is customary to practice mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague (“because they did not show respect for each other”), which is further said to have happened “between Passover and Shavuot” and to have been caused by “askara,” which Marcus Jastrow (p. 94) translates as “choking, croup” (the episode is briefly related in b. Yev. 62b). At a much later time, other mourning practices/customs are also attested, including a custom not to have one’s hair cut during Omer (or at least not until Lag b’Omer; see below). Maimonides makes no mention of this or any other mourning practices during Omer in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Temidin u’Musafin, 7:22-25), but they do appear in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh, O.H. 493. The practice of foregoing shaving and haircuts, again described by use of the root n.h.g., a custom rather than a prohibition, appears in both (as seif 2 in S.A.). Many of these restrictions, however, are lifted on or just after Lag b’Omer, which is said to be the day on which the plague came to an end.
As far back as the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the rabbis expected that halakhically observant Jews would prepare for a holiday, such as Passover, by (among other things) getting their hair groomed so that “they do not enter the festival while disheveled” (b. Mo’ed Katan 14a). In fact, they forbid haircutting during hol ha’mo’ed in part to motivate people to observe this practice. This year, however, as we attempt to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus by practicing “social distancing,” and as many businesses including hair salons and barbershops have been closed – and indeed, when it would be dangerous and irresponsible for a hairdresser/barber and a client to have such close physical contact – and as it appears that restrictions will last at least several more weeks, it is likely that many of us will have no choice but to enter the Passover holiday without having been able to get our hair cut as we would normally like.
In fact, the authorities of the rabbinic period were aware of circumstances that might make it impossible for someone to get a haircut prior to the festival, and therefore in m. M.K. 3:1 allowed certain persons the leniency of cutting their hair during hol ha’mo’ed (indeed, it is precisely from these anomalous cases that the gemara, b. M.K. 14a) infers the existence of a prohibition on everyone else):
ואלו מגלחין במועד הבא ממדינת הים ומבית השביה והיוצא מבית האסורין והמנודה שהתירו לו חכמים וכן מי שנשאל לחכם והותר והנזיר והמצורע העולה מטומאתו לטהרתו:
And these [persons] may cut [their] hair during the mid-festival: one who comes from overseas, and from captivity, and one who leaves prison, and the excommunicated person whom the sages have released; and similarly one who inquired of a sage and was released; and the nazirite and the metzorah who goes forth from his impurity to his purity.
Without needing to get into the specifics of each case, what unifies them is that the persons in question were unable, by virtue of a physical (being at sea or imprisoned/held captive) or ritual (excommunication, a vow, etc.) impediment, to cut their hair prior to the festival. When the impediment is lifted, they are given an exemption from the general prohibition, and may attend to their personal grooming even during the midfestival.
Similarly, we need not get into the specifics of which of these cases is most analogous to our current situation of social distancing and sheltering in our homes to recognize that we are currently under an impediment that will almost certainly prevent us from having professional assistance in cutting our hair prior to the festival, and that it is moreover likely that we will remain in this state when the festival is fully over and we are in the counting of the Omer. I was thus delighted to find that my intuition to associate these cases was anticipated over a century ago by Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen in a short comment in the Bi’ur Halakhah portion of the Mishnah Berurah, to S.A. O.H. 493:2:
ומ"מ אותן המותרין להסתפר בחוה"מ כבסימן תקל"א י"ל דגם בספירה שרי דלא עדיף מחוה"מ.
And in any case, those who are permitted to cut their hair during hol ha’mo’ed, as in siman 531, one may say that also during the counting (of the Omer) it is permitted, for this is not more significant than hol ha’mo’ed.
Rather, as noted above, while the restriction during hol ha’mo’ed is a (rabbinic) prohibition, the restriction during the Omer has always been recognized as a minhag at most. Thus, when (God willing, soon), it becomes safe for us to leave our homes again, and businesses such as salons and barbershops are permitted by local authorities to reopen, even those who would normally observe the restrictions on haircutting during the Omer may get their hair cut and styled as soon as they are able and need not wait until (Rosh Hodesh or) Lag b’Omer. Moreover, I cannot help but note the resonance between the affliction that is said to have taken the lives of so many of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the effects of Covid 19, which often causes acute respiratory distress in its most severe and deadly cases. If the lifting of such a plague in tannaitic times was marked in Jewish practice even long after, then it seems only fitting that the lifting of a pandemic in our own time is worthy of recognition when it occurs, and that celebrating by getting one’s hair cut may (or even should) be fully embraced immediately.