Editor’s note: Rabbi Ambalu, a member of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors (UK), wrote this document to support and explain that organization’s decision in late March 2020 to forbid mourners from being present at funerals. As of June 1, revised guidelines allow up to five mourners to be physically present. 

Our current ruling is that we do not allow mourners to be present at funerals in cemeteries under our auspices. Is this justified? How can colleagues support each other in both upholding this ruling and also recognising that circumstances may differ in cemeteries that are not under our auspice?

At this time

I am writing this at a time of urgency, a sha’at dochek.  This is therefore written without time for in- depth reflection and study. Everything written here is open to review as we understand more about Covid 19, and as the situation regarding lockdown changes; as fewer people, please God, contract the virus, and eventually as we move towards opening up our schools, workplaces, and adjusting to the longer term reality.

Chumrah: A necessary stringency?

Is our current ruling justified? It is certainly a chumrah, a stringency.  It is a stricter position than any other Jewish body in the UK, than the churches, but not more so than some local authorities in England.

An Ethical Jewish Basis for our Ruling

  1. Pikuach Nefesh

Our key principle is pikuach nefesh, the saving of life. Rambam reminds us that the purpose of Torah is not to inflict punishment, but rather, it is  a source of compassion, loving kindness and peace.[1] Rabbis and cantors will rightly raise questions about the true meaning of compassion and loving kindness.  I am certain, however, that the duty to act to save life holds even in we are uncertain (safek n’fashot). I am also  clear that where there is a risk to life, we do  not even need to follow the majority (d’lo halchu v’pikuach nefesh achar ha-rov). [2]

  1. Understanding and naming risk, Rov

As Reform and Liberal clergy, we are confident in being led by our ethical engagement with our traditions. We are flexible and compassionate, active interpreters, willing to make decisions with and occasionally for our communities. We look to the world and to science, as well as to our beautiful and life defining laws, traditions and ways of life.

We understand that an individual may be capable of infecting others 2 days before the onset of the symptoms of Covid 19[3]. Our experience of carrying out funerals for people who have died as a result of Covid 19, both in and out of hospital, leads us to suspect that many mourners will either possibly be carrying the virus, or be themselves at risk of contracting infection. We are aware of a duty towards the ground staff and funeral directors who do vital work, alongside us, in honouring the deceased with Jewish burial. In managing these risks, I believe we have a duty to be implement the concept of rov or likelihood/probability. [4] In other words, at this time we assume that since it is so prevalent, Covid 19 is a likely factor in every death. Furthermore, we assume that each and every mourner has been, or is, at risk of contracting the virus. We acknowledge the unexplained excessive number of deaths in the Jewish community.[5] Our compassionate experience also teaches us that all mourners are vulnerable, all the more so the elderly bereaved, who we wish to protect, as every journey entails an element of risk.

Likelihood is not certainty, however, and it is this uncertainty that enables us to acknowledge that clergy who are working with cemeteries that are under the control of other organisations may make other assumptions about risk and how to manage it.

  1. Understanding Emotions

Our prime concern will always be for the living, both now and in the future. We are deeply concerned about the long term emotional impact on people who have not had a chance to grieve together.

Perhaps it is helpful to know that the sages also understood our anxieties. [6] Moses Isserles even writes that in his day he has heard of those who do not mourn their dead because they fear the plague.[7]


Concluding comments

Every rabbi and cantor, every communal leader, and every family member understands that in this time of crisis each of us strives to behave with decency, compassion, derech eretz, kavod ha-met and an understanding of our identity as part of the entire world.  At a time when so many are suffering so many losses, we also mourn a sense of certainty. So we must learn to live without it. We must continue with courage to act, with compassion, and with the willingness to learn and to review our decisions.  In time, we pray for our mourning to come to an end,

to comfort all who mourn

to make a crown for all the mourners of Zion, in place of ashes

and the oil of joy instead of mourning. Isaiah 61:2-3


Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu

27th April 2020, 4th Iyyar 5780



[1] Hilchot Shabbat 2:3, the source of Rambam’s key concepts on pikuach nefesh, based around Lev. 18:5, ‘“he shall live by them”, but not die by them’

[2] Both concepts are developed in Yoma 84b

[3] “Half of infection events happen before the person passing on the infection develops symptoms – and people are infectious for two days prior to that.”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/virologist-christian-drosten-germany-coronavirus-expert-interview

[4] Hullin 11a-11b, the locus classicus for the concept of rov. Meat found on the road in a street of 10 butcher shops, where nine shops are kosher, is assumed to be kosher, because the majority, rov, are kosher shops. Hence, rov means not only the majority, it is the means by which we make an assumption about what we hold as likely and probable. Rov also holds in very many specific cased where the evidence is not before us, such as the assumption that young people who enter levirate marriages will be fertile, because most people are. Or that a child’s father is indeed their biological father, or that a murder victim died at the hands of their murderer and not because of a pre-existing condition. Or that experts on kosher slaughter are indeed experts. These assumptions can be seen as the foundations of shared knowledge.

[5] Including a current Jewish death rate, at 1.8% of all Covid related deaths, at a time when our community constitutes only 0.5% of the population. The reasons for this disproportionately high rate are not well understood https://www.thejc.com/comment/analysis/anglo-jewish-death-rate-1.499240

[6] See Bava Batra 60b for a nuanced discussion of the concept that a person should never put themselves in danger (al ya’amod adam bi-m’kom sachanah) and the tension between isolating oneself at home or fleeing in the face of a plague. See also Berachot 55a for a discussion of living with risk; the metaphor of an ‘inclined wall’ that might fall at any time

[7] Rema, Yoreh Deah 374:11. In his recent teshuvah,  Rabbi David Golinkin (http://web.colby.edu/coronaguidance/category/gatherings/shiva/) dismisses this reading as a misquotation of the Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin’s (Maharil, 1365-1427) Responsum 41 on this subject, which he believes is based on an incomplete reading of a responsum also known to Shlomo Luria (1510-1574) in his commentary, Yam Shel Shlomo, to Bava Kama 60b (n.26). I disagree, as I think both Maharil and Yam Shel Shlomo are reporting their historical reality. Heartbreakingly, Yam Shel Shlomo quotes a fuller version of a responsum, stating that do not observe mourning in times of plague because of their fear, in Lombardy. His words are so very resonant in these times.