Israel’s chief rabbis say Passover Seder can’t be held via videoconference

David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef dismiss previous ruling that green-lighted tech option, while two rabbis behind it stick to their guns

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attending a New Year’s ceremony at the national headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attending a New Year’s ceremony at the national headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Chief Rabbinate on Tuesday issued guidelines for Passover in the age of coronavirus, saying it was not permitted to hold the traditional Seder by videoconference and dismissing a previous ruling by several rabbis who said it was allowed.

In what may have been one of the boldest rulings issued on technology in recent years, 14 Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel last week declared that families may conduct their shared Seder over videoconference, despite Orthodox religious law normally banning the use of electronic devices on Shabbat and festivals.

The written ruling (Hebrew) had come as leaders were warning the elderly not to heighten their chance of coronavirus infection by meeting with young relatives — and as Israeli families discussed the pain this separation causes them. It states that the coronavirus crisis has created an extreme situation that merits drawing on special leniencies in Jewish law.

However, the ruling was met with scathing criticism by other rabbis, and many of the signatories have since backtracked.

Illustrative: a traditional Passover Seder plate is seen at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas, on the first night of Passover. (AP/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman, File)

In a statement Tuesday, chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef said holding the Seder via technological means was forbidden, and that the previous ruling had been “unqualified.”

“Loneliness hurts, and an answer for that should be found, perhaps via a call through the computer on the festival’s eve, before it begins,” they said in the statement. “But not by desecrating the festival in a way that has been allowed only in cases of ‘pikuach nefesh’ [where an act is necessary to save lives].”

Two of the rabbis who had issued the previous ruling, Rabbi Yehuda Shlush and Rabbi Rafael de Loya, issued a response doubling down on their conclusion.

“Against the background noises by the chief rabbis and others, we are sticking to our opinion and ruling that Zoom and similar products are permitted during the Seder” if used in accordance with the guidelines they had set out, they said.

In their statement, the chief rabbis said their instructions were based on discussions they have held with professionals in the Health Ministry and in the National Security Council.

They also wrote that prayers should be held alone and at home, without a “minyan” [quorum of 10 worshipers]. However, they said each congregation should announce a specific time for everyone to start the prayer.

The chief rabbis said “mikveh” ritual baths for women would remain open and that they were under strict supervision regarding cleanliness and disinfection. Ritual baths for men are closed.

The process of selling one’s “chametz” [bread and other leavened wheat products prohibited during Passover] to be rid of it during the holiday, can be done online via the Rabbinate’s website, the statement said.

Instead of burning chametz, people should this year throw it into a bin and pour bleach on it so it is no longer fit for even a dog to eat. If not much is left, people can dispose of it by flushing it down the toilet instead.

If burning chametz, people are advised to do so close to home. It was advisable to not leave much chametz to be disposed of on Passover eve, they said.

Hagalah [making utensils kosher by immersing them in boiling water] should be done at home, in a clean oven on maximum heat for 20 minutes, and only if the utensils don’t have plastic, wood or rubber parts.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men burn leavened items during the Biur Chametz ritual on April 19, 2019 in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Another special instruction was for firstborns who normally participate in a “siyum” [completion of a Torah, Mishnah or Talmud unit] to avoid having to fast on Passover eve.

The chief rabbis said it was advisable for each firstborn to complete studying a unit by that day by themselves, but that if that isn’t possible the siyum can be done by phone or other technological means.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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