An outdoor minyan in Crown Heights.

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

“Can we go back to shul now?”

“Do we really need that mask and “Safer Torah Shield?”

“Is it still safek pikuach nefesh?”

These questions and more are being posed throughout the frum community in New York, and the reactions are quite varied. Some point to the dwindling cases of COVID in New York to justify a return to the old normal. Others point to Florida, Texas, and Eretz Yisrael as a reason to remain vigilant and cautious. A major Jewish newspaper chose to print pictures of a regular wedding with no social distancing whatsoever. Many of its readers were horrified. “Do they not give a hoot about those of us who are at risk?”

Some Five Towns residents are maintaining backyard minyanim — even wanting to make them permanent. In the meantime, many shuls are struggling to get minyanim.

One Five Towns resident justified the backyard minyanim. “First and foremost, it is safer. Secondly, the whole family is davening together. Thirdly, I hate masks. There are no mishebeirachs and no speeches. It is much shorter this way and I spend more time with my family. There is no talking and there is more kavanah. Need I say more?”

Although it is hard to argue with many of these points, were it not for COVID-19, this sentiment could destroy Yiddishkeit. There is a huge need to support the shuls which are part of the very fabric of maintaining all we hold dear. Shuls are called a mikdash me’at for a reason.

So where should we go from here? Is caution being thrown to the wind? Will more people in our community die, Rachmana litzlan, if we assume that the pandemic is over and we should return to normal?

Because of the strong sentiments behind this issue, the rest of this column will be viewed as controversial. Let’s begin with five observations, some of them perhaps contradictory of each other at first glance.

  1. Hashem runs the world. Ein od Milvado. We must keep this in mind before we embark upon any decision.
  2. Hashem wants us to do proper hishtadlus — to take proper protective measures.
  3. It is a mistake to allow observation #1 one to color observation #2.
  4. The metzius in our times is vastly different than what it ever was throughout Jewish history. Interstate and international commerce and travel have changed the dynamic entirely.
  5. Decisions, especially those that affect lives and especially those that deal with public policy, must be made with reason, logic, and facts, not emotion. Anyone who doubts this should reread Rav Yisroel Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar.

I would like to suggest that there is very little historic halachic precedence to the concept of “reopening.” In past epidemics, when people stopped dying, that was generally a good indication that the danger had passed. Thus, any special protocols taken on were stopped upon seeing that there were no more deaths or illnesses. The possibility of resurgence was not even considered. This explains the paucity of halachic literature on the issue.

It is different now.

We have seen the resurgence happen in Eretz Yisrael. We have seen it happen in California, Texas, and Florida. It is likely that it can happen here, too, if we let our social distance guard down. Let us bear in mind that there is, as of yet, no vaccine and, as of yet, no strong and effective medicine to treat those who are affected.

Let us also keep in mind that in some places, such as England or for a period of time Westchester County, Orthodox Jews had an infection rate at twice the rate as the general populace. Some of this is likely a byproduct of frum Jews attending minyan, together, in close contact, day after day.

preliminary report from Japanese scientists (which has yet to be peer-reviewed) suggested that the odds an infected person “transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment.” Another pre-print study examined 318 outbreaks in China that involved three or more cases, and found that all but one involved the virus jumping between people indoors. As such, the eight mitzvos involved in preserving the lives of the immunosuppressed among us are still relevant.

  1. Hashavas Aveidah: One mitzvah, believe it or not, is hashavas aveidah. The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning an object, with the words, “V’hasheivoso lo, and you shall return it to him.” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “v’hasheivoso lo.” This verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is to this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325.
  2. Lo Sa’amod Al Dam Rei’acha: There is a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood as well. This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. Collectively, if we avoid indoor gatherings we can ensure that we do not stand idly by our brother’s blood — where we would otherwise catch something and bring it back to an immunosuppressed parent or grandparent.
  3. Lo Suchal L’His’aleim: There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah, and that is the verse in Devarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” This verse comes directly after the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. The Netziv (Ha’amek She’eilah) refers to this mitzvah as well.
  4. V’Chai Achicha Imach: The Sheiltos (Sheilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metziah 62a, understands these words to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv in his Ha’amek She’eilah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that he must exert every effort to save his friend’s life — until it becomes pikuach nefesh for himself.
  5. V’Ahavta l’Rei’acha Kamocha: The Ramban, Toras haAdam Sha’ar HaSakanah (p 42–43), understands the verse of “And love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save him from danger as well. The Ramban specifically discusses the issue of medical danger.
  6. V’Nishmartem: There is also the mitzvah of “V’Nishmartem me’od b’nafshoseichem” (Devarim 4:9) — the mitzvah of protecting our health and well-being.
  7. Rak Hi’shamer Lecha: The verse later on (Devarim 4:15), “Rak hi’shamer lecha” is understood by most poskim to actually comprise a second mitzvah (see Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, Sha’ar HaTeshuvos #25) — to take special care in our safety.
  8. V’Chai Bahem: There is also the mitzvah of “V’Chai Bahem — And you shall live by them” (Vayikra 18:5).

Idna D’Ris’cha

From a theological perspective, we have perhaps entered what Chazal term as an “idna d’ris’cha.” One of my rebbeim, Rav Dovid Kviat, zt’l, once explained that there are two ways Hashem judges the world: Middas ha’din, the attribute of strict judgment, and middas ha’rachamim, the attribute of mercy.

Generally speaking, Hashem judges us with middas ha’rachamim. However, there are times in Jewish history known as an idna d’ris’cha, periods of Divine anger. The Gemara in Menachos (43a) tells us that generally Hashem does not punish people for abnegating a mitzvas asei, a positive mitzvah in the Torah. We are only punished for violating negative prohibitions. However, in a period of Divine anger, we are punished for negating positive mitzvos, too.

Rav Kviat, zt’l, explained that there is an idea found in Sefer Devarim (31:18) of “hester panim,” where Hashem hides His face, so to speak: “I shall surely hide My Face on that day.” At such a time, He judges us with middas ha’din. Middas ha’din is almost unfathomable to the mortal mind in terms of its sheer strictness. No one wishes to be judged with the middas ha’din.

Decisions With Logic, Not Emotion

Rav Yisroel Salanter writes, “HaAdam chofshi b’dimyono v’asur b’muskalo — man is unfettered in his imagination, but bound in his use of seichel.” Proper hishtadlus means that decisions should be made with logic, not emotion. A first step in understanding how we should be making decisions in the knowledge vacuum that we are currently experiencing involves studying and analyzing what experts call “the description-experience gap.” This studies how people make decisions when they do not have certain experiences but only go with their gut feelings.

Some factors affecting improper decision making are:

  • Lack of proper sampling data because people have never experienced the low-probability event themselves
  • “Recency effect” where greater weight is assigned to more recent experiences
  • The desire to give in to short-term temptation
  • Biases toward either better or salient memories.

An example of the description-experience gap is the measurable difference in opinions on vaccination between doctors and patients. According to a Harvard study, “Parents who research the side effects of the DTaP vaccine on the National Immunization Program website will find that up to 1 child out of 1,000 will develop high fever and about 1 child out of 14,000 will experience seizures as a result of immunization. Although doctors have these same statistics at their disposal, they also have access to information not easily available to parents—namely, personal experience, gathered across many patients, that vaccination rarely results in side effects; few doctors have encountered one of the unusual cases in which high fever or seizures follow vaccination. If the importance assigned to rare events differs as a function of how one learns about their likelihood, then doctors and patients might well disagree about whether vaccination is advised.”

This is how to understand Rav Yisroel Salanter’s Iggeres haMussar — where the seichel is the additional information and the dimyon is the limited information of just going with the description and the four factors mentioned above.

The Maharsha

There is also a fascinating Maharsha in Yevamos 62a that asks on the Gemara where Moshe Rabbeinu broke the luchos of his own accord without consulting with Hashem, yet Hashem agreed to his actions. Moshe Rabbeinu made a kal v’chomer argument: “If someone is a ben neichar (Moshe had a kaballah from Hashem that this refers to someone estranged from Hashem), he may not partake of the Korban Pesach. That is just one mitzvah of the 613. Here, however, they made an eigel  — violating all 613 — should I not, therefore, break the luchos?”

The Maharsha asks why he did not make the kal v’chomer argument earlier when he was first informed by Hashem that Klal Yisrael sinned. The Maharsha answers by quoting the Baal HaIkkarim (4:15) that it was nirah l’einayim — his experience of it made a far greater impression. Although Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, in a responsum disagrees with this Maharsha — because how can one doubt Hashem — this concept of the description-experience gap clearly answers Rav Moshe’s animadversions and is the pshat of the Maharsha and the Sefer HaIkkarim.

With such dangers facing Klal Yisrael, we must take steps to ensure the safety of our immunosuppressed brethren in whatever way we can. Outdoor minyanim should be maintained until a vaccine is developed and those who go with the indoor minyanim should continue to practice full social distancing as much as possible. In the winter, the minyanim could be modified to include only Shemoneh Esrei and leining when it is extremely cold — but that is for another discussion.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. 

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