Lulav/Etrog During COVID-19 -- 5781

Posted on: Thursday September 3, 2020

O.H. 651:7

By Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Joshua Heller[1]

Please note that this is not an official responsum of the CJLS.

During the COVID pandemic, are there changes as to how Lulav and Etrog should be taken? Is it appropriate to “share” a set?

Taking “four species” (Lulav, Etrog, Myrtle and Willow) is one of the distinctive mitzvot of Sukkot. This has not always been an easy mitzvah to fulfill, and often communities have had to pool resources and share sets. The Talmud (Sukkah 41b) describes an incident where Rabban Gamliel had to spend 1000 zuzim to acquire a set- an amount equivalent to over $3,000 in today’s dollars! He then shared it with his travel companions. There are many descriptions of medieval communities struggling to attain even one kosher set. Today, the four species are generally widely available for individual purchase, though there is always the possibility of unexpected shortages.

It is certainly preferable for each household (or perhaps, each individual[2]) to own their own set.

The text of Leviticus 23:40, says “you shall take for yourself”, which is read by the sages to imply that each individual own their own set of four species. However, it is common practice for congregations to purchase sets that will be shared,[3] or for individuals to lend out their set, often using the legal fiction of intentionally making it a “gift that will be returned/matana al manat le-hahzir[4] so that the user can have the benefit of owning the Lulav.   In a time where we are concerned about the spread of a dangerous virus, is it appropriate to share a lulav when this means that one will be touching a lulav that has been touched by others?

First of all, we would note that the Mitzvah De-oraita (Biblical obligation) of lulav is only on the first day.[5]  This year, since the first two days of Sukkot fall on Shabbat and Sunday, the general obligation is fulfilled beginning on the 2nd day of Yom Tov, or the first day of Hol Ha-moed in Israel. Also, while it is considered meritorious to hold the Four Species during Hallel and Hoshanot, one fulfills the obligation by holding them at any time during daylight hours.

The consensus among health experts is that the primary mode of spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 is between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks[6]. Therefore, the greatest risk involved in using a lulav and etrog set that has been used by another person is coming near them to transfer it, or in people lining up in close proximity to use it. If using a lulav or etrog involves entering a crowded indoor environment, one should not risk one’s health to do so.

If one is going to share one of these sets, it is important that best medical advice regarding physical distance, and mask wearing be observed.  The first user should place it down, move out of the vicinity (at least 6 feet away or farther) and then allow it to be taken  up by the next user.    This should be done in a well-ventilated area (preferably outdoors) and all should be wearing appropriate face coverings. It is important that distancing of at least 6 feet be kept between persons, even with wearing a face covering since it is still possible that droplets could exit the mask and remain in the area when the next person approaches. So as many layers of care and caution should be used when employing this method.

It is important to note that the risk of transmission through touching shared objects or surfaces is lower than once thought, but not zero. One cannot get COVID merely by touching a contaminated surface- one must  touch that contaminated surface and then touch one’s nose, eyes or mouth. 

Some have suggested sanitizing the lulav and etrog themselves with an alcohol wipe or UV radiation, and while these methods may reduce risk, they should not be considered to be sufficient on their own, in particular for the lulav, myrtle and willow which have crevices and absorbent surfaces.

One option that has been suggested would be to use gloves or a disposable clear plastic holder (a “bouquet sleeve” used for flowers[7] ) around the lulav while handling the Lulav and Etrog. In usual times, we make an effort to avoid any hatzizah--barrier between the hand of the holder and the lulav and etrog itself (the only exception being the holder, which must be made of lulav material). In fact,  the Mishnah Berurah O.H. 651:33 forbids wearing gloves while taking the lulav, but there are other views in the tradition worth considering in the current situation.  In fact, there is a debate in the sources as to whether one may have a barrier between one’s hands and the lulav. The Talmud (Sukkah 37a and 42a) describes two disputes between Rabba and Rava.  Rabba argues that any barrier invalidates one’s observance of the Mitzvah.  Rava argues that anything that beautifies the lulav is not considered a barrier.  This dispute on the status of barriers is continued amongst the Rishonim.  Though Tosafot (Sukkah 37a s.v. “Ki”) argues that any barrier is unacceptable, the Ran feels that the only concern is that whatever is used to hold the lulav is dignified.  Similarly, Rabbi Joel Sirkes (Bah, O.H. 651:12), connects the case to the case of a Cohen who uses gloves while making a sacrifice, to suggest that a barrier is prohibited specifically when it reflects  disdain for the lulav, or a concern about getting dirty.  Certainly in the current situation, gloves or a “bouquet sleeve” which provide safety to the user, and are being used out of love for the Mitzvah in the face of potential danger, would be considered dignified.   We would therefore argue that under the current circumstances, one could use either of these as an additional measure of protection while handling a borrowed lulav. The bouquet sleeve would be less practical for the etrog, but the etrog is easier to sanitize if need be.

When we consulted infectious disease experts, a few of them recommended using gloves but noted that there is a danger with gloves, in that they can convey a false sense of security.  Those without training  might literally wipe one’s nose on the glove, or touch a contaminated part of the glove while removing it, which defeats the whole purpose, so hand washing would still be required.  Bare hands would not be greater risk so long as appropriate handwashing or use of hand sanitizer is performed immediately before and after using the lulav. In fact hand hygiene should be performed before and after using the lulav, whether or not gloves or a sanitary holder are used.

Conclusions:

  1. It is preferable to own one’s own lulav and etrog.  If this is not possible, one should not seek out a lulav and etrog if it will mean being in a crowded space or potential exposure.
     
  2. However, if one does have the opportunity to use a shared lulav and etrog, one should sanitize their hands before and after handling the lulav, and gloves or a bouquet sleeve may be used as an extra precaution.
     
  3. One possibility would be to set timed appointments (beginning on Sunday, the 2nd day of the holiday), for individuals to come use the lulav and etrog in the sukkah one at a time, with sufficient time for the air to clear between visits  A human guide present at a distance, or clear posted instructions which do not have to be handled by the users, should make it clear that sanitizing before and after use is a must, whether or not gloves or a plastic sleeve are used, and a dispenser of hand sanitizer and/or washing facilities and soap must be immediately available.
 

[1] With thanks to Dr. Lisa Koonin, DrPH, MN, MPH, a Public Health professional with over 30+ years of experience at the CDC in health emergency response, for reviewing and offering guidance on these recommendations.

[2] Rema on Shulhan Arukh, O. H. 658:7

[3] Shulhan Arukh, O. H. 658:9

[4] Shulhan Arukh, O. H., 658:3-5

[5] Shulhan Arukh, O. H., 658:1

[7] Thank you to Rabbi Beverly Magidson for suggesting this solution