Israel’s chief rabbis call on Jews to avoid visiting the Western Wall

As virus spreads, Jewish law requires total adherence to all instructions of health officials, Rabbis Lau and Yosef declare in edicts to the faithful

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past people praying at the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 12, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past people praying at the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 12, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, issued religious edicts on Thursday instructing observant Jews to obey health officials’ instructions to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“No halachic instruction exists that would overrule the instructions of the Health Ministry,” wrote Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi. “The halachic instruction is to obey absolutely all the instructions of the Health Ministry without exception, and every order produced by them is a halachic order for all intents and purposes.”

Citing a “police request,” Yosef instructed observant Jews to “avoid visiting the Western Wall and holding mass prayers there. Every man and woman should pray near their homes, until the crisis passes and mercy comes from Heaven.”

The order came after the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which manages the Jerusalem holy site, said earlier this week it would not close it to the public.

The foundation announced Thursday it would cordon off the Western Wall plaza into small sections that would each hold no more than 100 people at a time, in keeping with new rules announced by the government on Wednesday.

“Large synagogues will also refrain from holding prayers in large gatherings, but will divide the praying public so as to abide by Health Ministry guidelines,” Yosef wrote.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (R) speaks during a ceremony before the Passover holiday, April 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Separately, Rabbi Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, noted the injunction of the medieval sages that the “requirement to take care of yourself in order to avoid hurting a fellow person supersedes even the requirement to take care of yourself for your own sake.”

“The coronavirus can pass from a completely healthy person to someone else and endanger that second person. That means absolute obedience to the instructions [of health officials] is required, even if they are difficult and inconvenient,” he wrote.

“Someone in quarantine or who is at high risk [from the virus] must pray in their home, and try to time their prayer to coincide with the public prayer,” he wrote.

Both rabbis urged engaged couples to go through with their weddings, but on a smaller scale, “since we don’t know when it will be possible again to hold the event in a larger gathering,” Lau noted.

The commandment to visit the sick and elderly was also suspended for the duration of the crisis, Lau wrote, over fears visits could transmit the virus to those most vulnerable to its effects. Lau urged communities “to find other ways to assist those lonely persons who have no one else who sees their distress.”

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, July 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He instructed synagogues to air out their sanctuaries and provide sanitizing agents for congregants.

Lau also addressed concerns over mikvas, or ritual baths, saying women can still immerse themselves as required by Jewish ritual law, unless they are required to remain in self-quarantine, in which case the instructions of health officials to remain isolated supersede any other religious obligation.

The rabbis’ instructions on Thursday came hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was shuttering the country’s education system.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced the 100-person limit on gatherings as part of increasingly strict measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in the country. The ban includes synagogue services and weddings, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said.

The Habima and Cameri theaters in Tel Aviv said they were closing their doors — the first time in Habima’s 103-year history that it has closed, according to Channel 12. The Jerusalem Theater also announced it would be closing.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Rabbi Yechiel Abuchatzeira and rabbis from the Or Hashravi Yeshiva in Meron take part in a special prayer to stop the coronavirus pandemic, at the Rashbi gravesite in Meron, northern Israel, March 9, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

There have so far been 109 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, many of them contracted by travelers who recently returned from abroad. The mounting cases have led ministry officials to estimate that thousands of Israelis have already been infected and haven’t been diagnosed.

Worldwide, there have been over 118,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 4,300 deaths.

Prior to the new restrictions, public gatherings in Israel had been limited to 2,000 people, including for religious events.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals will be allowed into the country until Thursday at 8 p.m., but after that they will be barred from entry unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.

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