Please find below a letter from Rabbi Joshua Heller, chair of the CJLS rites and ritual subcommittee providing guidance for communities affected by COVID-19. Thanks to Rabbis Aaron Alexander, Pamela Barmash and Ashira Konigsburg for contributions. Please note that this is not an official responsum of the CJLS. 

In many communities, medical professionals advise or public authorities have mandated that different households not join together for seder this year. We urge all Jews to follow this advice.  As a result, many Jews will be separated from family and close friends with whom they usually celebrate Passover, and many congregations that normally invoke the principle of “Kol Dichfin” to host community seders or make matches will be unable to do so. The nature of COVID-19 this Passover means that some will be tempted to risk their lives or the lives of others by travelling or gathering, or will face psychological harm by being isolated for seder and multiple days of Yom Tov. We expect that many families and communities will try to minimize these risks by connecting to seders via videoconferencing.

Our committee has already addressed the issue of virtual presence to constitute a quorum for weekday services, opening the door for participation via video in many weekday rituals, including the pre-passover siyyum. However, this year many observant Jews who would normally not consider using electronic means of communication on Shabbat or Yom Tov are trying to figure out how to respect those important prohibitions in the face of a truly unprecedented and dangerous situation. While this guidance is focused on seder, it will also be useful for those who are wrestling with the question of video access to Yom Tov and Shabbat communal prayer, including Yizkor (while some have suggested offering Yizkor-like service over Hol Hamoed as another option, this does not solve the larger issue of Yom Tov davening).

The questions of electronics on Shabbat and Yom tov are extremely complex, but we offer this guidance, specific to this year, when multi-family in-person seder gatherings are truly unsafe, and may be forbidden by local law, and many individuals will be isolated from family and community. Furthermore, there are specific leniencies in the laws of Shabbat and yom tov related to one who may be at risk of a life-threatening illness, and many in our community fall into that category this year. As such, this guidance only applies to the current situation and may not apply in future years.

Ideally, the video option should be accessed in a way that does not involve direct interaction with an electronic device, either by leaving the conference  active for the duration of use, or using the equivalent of a timer to activate the conference in each location. In a later update we will list different videoconferencing options and their known capabilities to do so.  Doing so is permitted within the bounds of previous decisions of the CJLS, and is certainly viable for first seder.

If this is not possible, ways to minimize, but not eliminate, violations of Shabbat and Yom tov include (in order of decreasing preference)

  1. Arranging in advance for a non-Jewish person to activate the conference (practical in an institutional setting where there are non-Jewish workers or a household with non-Jewish members already present).
  2. Using a virtual assistant, like Siri or Alexa, to activate the stream.
  3. Logging in through a simple press of a button on an app, or clicking a link, on a device which is already activated, rather than by typing, and without having to “wake up” or turn on the device.
  4. Doing so only after dark of 2nd day Yom Tov, when the first day of Yom Tov has ended

There is more leniency to activate the stream in one of these ways for a person who is known to be ill, or has a heightened risk for harm from infection, or suffers from a disability.

Activating a recording device on Yom Tov or Shabbat is a violation of Shabbat or Yom Tov.  Therefore, if a stream is initiated on Yom Tov or Shabbat, it should absolutely be with recording disabled.  Typing on a device is a violation of Shabbat, so participants should be encouraged to interact via speech and video, rather than typed messages/text chat.  In general, on Shabbat or Yom Tov, we prohibit activities where one might be tempted to perform forbidden labor if something goes wrong. We are aware that that strong temptation exists to do so here if technology fails, and we urge people to be mindful of ways to limit any violations that might result if that happens.

We understand that even if a stream or videoconference is set up in a way that is in compliance with, or respectful of, the letter of the law, it may also be accessed by those who choose to do so in a way that is not. This fact does not prohibit offering the connection, but we encourage those who offer a stream to do so in a way that minimizes the types of violations that might be committed by accessing it. This is similar to the real-life situation where one might invite people to seder who will drive or violate other prohibitions in order to attend.

Ideally, there would be a seder plate at each location, but at the very minimum, every participating location should have access to wine or grape juice, three matzahs, carpas (any green vegetable), maror (any bitter vegetable, such as horseradish, endive, other bitter greens), and salt water.  If a Haggadah is not physically available, one can follow the seder without one, or a number of haggadot are available that can be downloaded and printed before the start of the holiday. Communities should do what they can to supply these basic items to everyone, if it can be done safely.

There are two main types of video presence: two/multi-way (zoom, facetime google hangouts) and one-way (facebook live, streamspot).   It is possible to fulfill the requirements of the seder alone, or by hearing the liturgy read live by others, so therefore a one-way (streamed) option would suffice, but it would clearly provide more comfort for all participants to be able to interact.

There are specific times set for the seder to take place.  If participants are in multiple time zones, the seder should ideally begin so that it is late enough for all involved to fulfill their obligation, or else those for whom it is too early should make sure to perform the key rituals after dark.

These guidelines are specific to this year when there is significant risk to human life.  May we celebrate seder next year, in good health and safety, and, G-d willing, in Jerusalem.

[March 25]