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Ashkenazi chief rabbi: 'Irresponsible, beyond ridiculous'

14 Sephardic Orthodox rabbis say Passover Seder can be held via videoconference

In bold ruling, some Israeli religious authorities say use of technology permissible because it allows families to celebrate together during time of crisis

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

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)
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 what may be one of the boldest rulings issued on technology in recent years, several Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel have declared that families may conduct their shared Seder over videoconference.

While Orthodox religious law normally bans the use of electronic devices on Shabbat and festivals, the ruling, signed by 14 rabbis, permits the use of software to connect the elderly to their families on the first night of Passover.

The written ruling (Hebrew) comes as leaders are warning the elderly not to heighten their chance of coronavirus infection by meeting with young relatives — and as Israeli families are discussing 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.

The rabbis argued that there is a precedent, given that Shabbat laws can be put aside to give medical treatment even when patients are not in a life-threatening situation.

“Just as it is permissible for a non-critical patient to receive treatment on Shabbat in order to cure him of illness, such is the case here,” the rabbis wrote, giving the okay for the retelling of the Exodus story via Zoom or other videoconference software.

They were responding to a question they had received about the use of Zoom on Seder night to connect elderly relatives to their families in “a time of emergency,” and stressed it was a one-off dispensation granted in view of the extreme current circumstances.

Illustrative: An Israeli family seen during the Passover seder on April 3, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The rabbis outlined three potential problems with using the software to observe the festival custom: turning on an electrical device during a holiday; committing a “secular act” during the holiday, which could cheapen its value; and the fear that the practice would continue in the future, when it was no longer necessary.

The rabbis addressed the problems by referring to previous rulings by Sephardic and North African religious authorities that allowed using electrical devices on similar occasions, and by specifying that the devices needed to be turned on before the start of the holiday and left on throughout.

They made clear that during the present crisis, using the software helped fulfill a mitzvah (commandment) for families to celebrate the festival together.

The ruling said that the allowance would address “the need to alleviate sadness from elders and the needy.”

The rabbis emphasized that “it’s clear to everyone that the ruling is for a time of emergency only,” and that young peoples’ connections to their grandparents are an essential part of many Seders.

While lenient religious rulings in Israel are often backed by rabbis from the liberal wing of Orthodoxy, this statement appears to be backed by more mainstream figures, although none are Ashkenazi. They include Eliyahu Abergel, head of Jerusalem’s rabbinical court, local rabbis such as Kiryat Gat’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, and yeshiva rabbis such as Eyal Vered of Jerusalem’s Machon Meir institution.

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

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Wednesday morning criticized the ruling, branding it “irresponsible, beyond ridiculous.”

Speaking with Army Radio, Lau claimed the decision stemmed from a “lack of minimal understanding of the meaning of halachic ruling,” adding that it was a “shame that people issue rulings and misdirect the public.”

Rabbi David Stav, who heads the modern Orthodox Tzohar rabbinic organization, took issue with the ruling, saying that the issue shouldn’t be decided with a blanket decision but rather on a case-by-case basis.

“From the practical perspective, a decision permitting this type of computer use is problematic because the broadcast is likely to be cut off at some point and then people will be very tempted to fix the computer, which would not be permitted, he told The Times of Israel”

However, Seth Farber, a rabbi who heads the modern Orthodox Itim organization, which pressures the rabbinate to be more responsive to public needs, told The Times of Israel: “This shows halachic leadership in extraordinary times and demonstrates that halacha sanctifies life.”

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