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Citing virus, chief rabbis urge Israelis not to pray indoors on Simchat Torah

Lau, Yosef say worshipers should keep distance from others, warn ‘these are days of great danger’; report says police won’t enter synagogues to enforce lockdown

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attend a New Year's ceremony of the Israel Police Command at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attend a New Year's ceremony of the Israel Police Command at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s chief rabbis implored Israelis Friday to refrain from praying indoors and kissing Torah scrolls during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which will begin Friday evening amid a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The holiday, at the end of Sukkot, marks the end of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. It is traditionally celebrated with hakafot, when worshipers gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse while holding Torah scrolls and dancing.

As part of the ongoing lockdown over the holiday period, prayers in indoor spaces have been capped at 10 people and those outdoors can have no more than 20 worshipers.

Citing a senior police official, Haaretz reported that while police would deploy in force for the holiday throughout the country, they would not enter synagogues to disperse worshipers or scuffle with those holding Torah scrolls.

Referring to verses from the Torah and the Jewish legal principle of pikuah nefesh, or saving a life, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged Israelis to follow the lockdown restrictions

“These days are days of great danger, of a historic plague, days in which the Angel of Death is moving around and harming everyone,” they wrote in a letter published Friday morning in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

They said worshipers should therefore pray outdoors, maintain social distancing, wear masks and avoid gatherings.

Israelis dance with Torah scrolls during the festival of Simchat Torah, September 2010. (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israelis dance with Torah scrolls during the festival of Simchat Torah, September 2010. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“With all the pain of not being able to celebrate Simchat Torah as we do every year, Torah scrolls must not be passed between worshipers and must not be kissed… so as not to infect each other,” Lau and Yosef said.

The chief rabbis advised shortening the hakafot “to the minimum possible” and said there should not be contact with others during the festive dancing.

“We are the descendants of one nation, one virus is threatening all of us. Separatism and violence are not our way. Only with our combined strength can we, with the help of God, get through this difficult period,” they said, apparently referring to recent repeated clashes between ultra-Orthodox Jews and police enforcing the virus rules.

Lau and Yosef also implored worshipers to recite a prayer for ending the pandemic.

Their letter comes a day after Yedioth’s Ynet news site reported that top rabbis in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv that has the second most infections of any city in Israel, told residents they could pray and dance in synagogues during Simchat Torah, in contravention of coronavirus guidelines.

The rabbis published a letter saying prayers in open spaces are preferable but that gathering inside synagogue yards, as well as in the buildings themselves, is allowed.

“Observe the mitzvot of the day along with the necessary caution at this time so not to be harmed, or God forbid to not harm others,” Rabbis Tzvi Rosenblatt, Chaim Yitzchak Isaac Landau and Masoud Ben Shimon wrote.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews keep social distancing and wear face masks during a morning prayer next to their houses in Bnei Brak, September 24, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Also Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the ultra-Orthodox public to stick to the rules this weekend while marking the festival of Simchat Torah.

“I ask of everyone who is listening, protect yourselves — no dancing on Simchat Torah,” Netanyahu told Kol Barama radio. “There is no greater blasphemy than for us to lose lives due to Simchat Torah. Pray outside, keep to the rules, and sanctify both the Torah and the value of life.”

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days. Though many in the community are keeping to guidelines, a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average. Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of the Sukkot holiday, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.

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