This year, the Jewish High Holidays will be observed in an entirely unprecedented manner. Normally, synagogues are full-to-overflowing but on Monday, the Health Ministry issued restrictions on public prayer that will come into effect at 2:00 PM Friday and last for three weeks. This covers the holiday of Rosh Hashanna that begins on Friday evening and continues until the end of Sukkoth.
The decision to lockdown comes after Israel’s Health Ministry announced Thursday night a record 4,015 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in 24 hours marking the first time that figure passed 4,000. For the past week, Israel has led the world in new coronavirus cases per capita. 513 of the cases were classified as very serious cases, out of whom 137 were placed on respirators. This brings the total number of cases to 143,049 since the start of the pandemic in March. To date, 1,108 people have died from Covid-19.
Full lockdown measures include:
- Restrictions on movement to 500 meters from one’s place of residence
- The closure of education institutions except for special education. Grade 5 and up will learn remotely during the holidays.
- Closure of private and public sector activity. Employers are requested to resort to work from home as much as possible.
- This will ban prayers in public spaces pursuant to an outline that will be agreed upon.
- All restaurants will remain closed, except for delivery service. All places of recreation, businesses, commerce, and domestic tourism will be closed.
Schools will be closed starting Friday, and businesses and public sector employers will face strict limitations. Supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential businesses will be allowed to remain open and deliveries will be allowed.
For prayer, the guidelines are as follows:
Prayer in open areas is permitted in capsules of up to 20 people.
Closed areas are classified according to their locations.
For regions designated as Red Areas:
Prayer shall be permitted in closed structures in groups of up to 10 people. The permitted number of groups in a closed area shall be a function of the number of entrances to the structure. The first two entrances multiplied by 3 and each additional entrance multiplied by 2, on condition that the ratio of one person per 4 square meters of space of the place is maintained.
For example, in a house of prayer in a red area, that is 250 square meters in size and has 2 entrances – it will be possible to pray in 6 capsules of 10 people each. 10 people in each capsule, 2 entrances times 3 yields 60 people for the structure while maintaining the ratio of one person per 4 square meters of space. In a structure of 500 square meters with 5 entrances, 12 capsules of 10 people each shall be permitted to pray. In a structure of 70 square meters with 1 entrance, 1 capsule of 10 people shall be permitted to pray due to the limitations of the place.
In regions that are not designated as Red Areas:
Prayer shall be permitted in closed structures in groups of up to 25 people. The permitted number of groups in a closed space shall be double the number of entrances to the structure on condition that the ratio of one person per 4 square meters of space of the place is maintained.
For example, in a house of prayer in a yellow area that is 400 square meters in size and which has two entrance doors, it shall be permitted to have 4 capsules of 25 people each (25 people in each capsule, 2 entrances multiplied by 2, yields 100 people in the structure while maintaining the ratio of one person per 4 square meters of space.
A Biblical perspective
Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman, head of the Center for Kohanim in Jerusalem, noted that the holidays certainly have a communal aspect as expressed in the synagogue service or originally in the Temple. But he also noted that the holidays contained a strong element of personal introspection that was implicit even in the Temple in Jerusalem.
“Due to the restrictions, many Jews today will find themselves in the same condition as the High Priest in the Temple who, right after Rosh Hashannah, was placed in quarantine,” Rabbi Kleiman said. “The High Priest went into quarantine to maintain ritual purity,but being in a solitary condition was always an opportunity for contemplation. This was certainly implicit in the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) before doing the Yom Kippur Temple service.”’
“The entire month of Elul is supposed to be for introspection on how to repair and prepare your soul. The idea is that there are some aspects f tshuva (repentance) that we can only accomplish by ourselves, in solitude. This imposed solitude might be a wake-up call from Hashem (God) to do even more introspection.”
Rabbi Kleiman compared this to Elijah the Prophet being in solitude for forty days, culminating in a revelation of the “still small voice” in Mount Horeb (I Kings 19).
“So many people today can’t handle being alone or in silence. We see that so many people came out of this and went a little crazy, even becoming destructive. For a person who believes in God, being alone is an opportunity since we are never really alone.”
“There is clearly a global awakening going on so there is a greater need for each person to get to know their own unique soul. This lockdown is an opportunity to escape the social noise and to turn the focus inward and upward.”
Rabbi Azariah Ariel, head of the Temple Institute’s Red Heifer Project, also saw the lockdown as an opportunity with Biblical roots.
“The quarantine of the Kohen Gadol seven days before Yom Kippur was a safeguard put in place by the rabbis to prevent ritual impurity,” Rabbi Ariel noted. “On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol came out of this solitude and performed the Temple service in a public manner but the Torah states explicitly that he should, in fact, be entirely alone.”
The rabbi cited a verse in Leviticus.
When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out. When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Yisrael, Leviticus 16:17
“He was necessarily alone but he was, in his essence, connected to all of Israel,” Rabbi Ariel said. “There is a value to being alone, without distractions. For the Kohen Gadol, this was established by Torah mandate. Perhaps the lockdown on the holidays this year is like a mandate from heaven for each man to take upon himself a small measure of being like the Kohen Gadol.”