Prepared by Rabbis Steven Kane, Robert Scheinberg, and Deborah Silver and Hazzan Scott Sokol
Please note that this is not an official responsum of the CJLS.
An in-person High Holy Day experience for the year 5781/2020 is likely to need to be as short as possible. Current medical understanding tells us that — even under conditions of physical distancing — the longer the in-person gathering, the greater the likelihood of infection. Additionally, many synagogues contemplating in-person services are considering having multiple seatings in synagogue spaces with cleaning and disinfecting in between, as an additional motivation for having shorter prayer experiences. Communities that have already decided to have their High Holy Day services take place primarily or exclusively on-line may also have motivations to make those experiences shorter than a standard synagogue service would be, because of the limitations of the on-line format.
We hope these recommendations provide tools for the decision-makers in each community to make decisions appropriate for that community to shorten the experience, in line with our tradition’s guidelines about what are the indispensable elements of the experience. Below are some principles for consideration when planning the length and content of High Holy Day services this year, followed by some sample outlines that some communities may choose to use, understanding that each community’s decisions are likely to be different.
Principles to consider when making liturgical decisions for these High Holy Days:
1. NO ACTIVITY SHOULD TAKE PLACE UNLESS IT MEETS THE HIGHEST STANDARDS FOR HEALTH AND SAFETY.
As indicated in other parts of these CJLS guidelines, health and safety should be regarded as overarching values in all synagogue decision-making. This would be true at any time of the Jewish year; the High Holy Days, of course, is the period when repeatedly we say זכרנו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים וכתבנו בספר החיים למענך א-לקים חיים. “Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for Your sake, God of life.” Every decision must be consonant with the value we place on every human life. Those who are contemplating any kind of in-person experience must carefully evaluate current information about distancing, masks, and virus transmission through means like speaking, singing, and Shofar blowing, and develop detailed plans validated by community medical teams that are not only safe, but realistic to implement. See the CJLS letters of guidance on Clergy and Shelihei Tzibbur, Choirs, and Shofar.
Since medical science and guidelines are developing and changing, rabbis and lay leaders are advised to consult with their national and local medical authorities for guidance as it is updated and revised.
The following information from the Secure Community Network (SCN) will help in thinking through reopening buildings and resuming in-person activities:
- “Overview of considerations for resumption of operations and organizational re-opening” was created by the SCN national working group, which includes USCJ.
- SCN’s “Guide to Low/No Cost Facility Security Guidance For Use in Re-opening” can be accessed here. A related SCN webinar will be announced shortly.
- An Emergency Operations Plan Template can be accessed here.
Along with the items above, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal explains why Jewish institutions should factor into their decisions the values that have continued to guide us throughout the pandemic in Reopening Our Institutions and Jewish Values.
2. DIFFERENT SCENARIOS MAY INVOLVE DIFFERENT DECISIONS ABOUT ABBREVIATION
As of this writing, there appear to be four primary scenarios that synagogues are considering for this Fall (though clearly this may change over time). A congregation’s medical advisors should be consulted about appropriate options, depending on the demographics of the congregation and the layout of the prayer space.
- No communal gatherings of any kind – in person or online – take place on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
A community might take this approach because of the desire to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov technology/screen free and to avoid any potential danger. Such a community could provide guidance for communities to pray and study independently on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and could provide electronic opportunities for study and spiritual enhancement during the month of Elul and the seven days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to emphasize the season of repentance.
- Even small in-person gatherings do not take place; any services that are offered are virtual only.
In this scenario, the only kind of gathering that would be permitted would be electronic. Whether or not any devarim she-bikdushah are included will depend on the community’s perspective on the ‘Zoom minyan’ question and on the particular software being used (one-way vs. multi-way). In this scenario, it may be valuable to move some key pieces to days that are not yom tov and to create a shorter experience.
- Very small gatherings are permitted; “on-site minyan with virtual access.”
In this scenario, permission is granted to have just a minyan present on-site in a socially- distanced manner, with most people accessing the service electronically. Considering the potential danger of singing and shofar blowing even in a large room, there may also be a health and safety motivation to keep this experience as brief as possible. For some communities, multiple small minyanim may be a possibility, though it may be more difficult under such decentralized circumstances to maintain appropriate social distancing.
- Larger gatherings permitted, including outdoors, with physical distancing guidelines.
In communities that will permit larger gatherings, there will probably be the greatest health and safety motivation to keep the experience brief. Such gatherings are also the most potentially hazardous and, like every plan, should be undertaken only in accordance with medical guidance. Multiple smaller minyanim are also a possibility where gatherings larger than ten are permitted (see above).
Some communities that offer in-person gatherings may also offer online experiences with the understanding that large numbers of synagogue members may be members of at-risk categories and would not attend an in-person service in any event. Congregants of congregations that hold in-person or live stream davening may also prefer to daven on their own. Under all the scenarios above, it behooves communities to help congregants to acquire mahzorim for use at home, as well as guidelines for independent prayer for those who will not participate in communal in-person or electronic prayer gatherings.
Our communities should also be inclusive of those with risk factors and disability in making decisions on how to conduct communal worship.(Leviticus 19:14) This is so in general and even more in this time of crisis. See the CJLS teshuvot on disability issues on the CJLS website.
3. CONSIDER MOVING SOME NORMALLY SYNAGOGUE-BASED EXPERIENCES FOR ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR TO ELSEWHERE IN THE MONTH OF ELUL AND THE ASERET YEMEI TESHUVAH.
Regardless of what decisions are made about the physical space in which services are to be held, the circumstances this year offer us the opportunity to think more creatively about the whole period of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. It will be helpful to think of our liturgy as comprising separate modules that, if wished and halakhically permissible, may be broken out from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and explored on another of the 10 days that is not Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, or Yom Kippur, making the fullest use of available technologies to enhance the experience. Communities that do not use any electronics on Shabbat and Yom Tov could still make use of some of these online experiences on non-Yom Tov days. Communities that do offer live streamed or other electronic access to services within the guidelines of the CJLS may also prefer the much greater flexibility to use electronics, recordings, etc. on days that are not Shabbat or Yom Tov. Some examples of parts of the High Holy Day liturgy that could be moved to other days and times include these:
- Online Selihot services, during the week before Rosh Hashanah (per Ashkenazic practice) and/or during the entire month of Elul (per Sefardic practice)
- A musical presentation of favorite high holiday piyyutim;
- A Rosh Hashanah Seder, involving themes of the holiday and liturgical passages to be considered at home;
- Combining the Shofar service with Tashlikh on the afternoon of RH Day 2 (safety considerations permitting);
- A panel discussion on Unetaneh Tokef by (e.g.) a doctor, a judge, an EMT worker;
- A Yizkor service to which people bring and share their own photographs and memories (a ‘memory circle’), perhaps on Erev Yom Kippur shortly before Kol Nidrei;
- A slideshow for the Avodah service, perhaps using Yishai Ribo’s modern musical version;
- An exploration of the book of Jonah through poetry/art/music;
- Derashot may be pre-recorded and made available for the whole period of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, if not before.
- Special study groups on spirituality and repentance during the month of Elul and the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
- One-on-one spiritual “check-ups” with a rabbi or hazzan.
(See Amy Levin, “Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov” — a Dissent and a Challenge,” for additional discussion of non-Yom Tov online options.)
4. WHEN PLANNING SERVICES, BE JUDICIOUS ABOUT WHAT TO INCLUDE/EXCLUDE, BASED ON HALAKHAH AND ON EMOTIONAL/THEOLOGICAL CRITERIA
Clearly we are guided by the halakhic status of different liturgical passages in making decisions about what to include and what to exclude. However, making decisions about liturgical abbreviation is challenging in part because so many of the most beloved parts of our liturgy, and the liturgy for the High Holy Days, do not have the status of halakhic requirements (Unetaneh Tokef, Kol Nidrei, Eleh Ezkerah, Yizkor, and the final Shofar blast of Ne’ilah come to mind). For many in our communities, these are crucial to the High Holy Day experience and to its theology and core message. Reciting only passages that have traditionally been considered halakhically required would strip the High Holy Day experience of much of its power. However, there is no way to reduce the length of the service without removing passages and experiences with which some people have deep attachments.
The following are some guidelines for liturgical abbreviation; all page numbers are from Mahzor Lev Shalem, Rabbinical Assembly, 2010:
CORE ELEMENTS: Some segments of the liturgy, such as the Shema U-virkhoteha and the Amidah, are halakhically mandated from the earliest rabbinic sources and have always been considered the core of the Jewish worship experience.
BIRKHOT HA-SHAHAR / PESUKEI DEZIMRA: In some cases, a community may choose to omit a section of the liturgy that is traditionally regarded as halakhically required, encouraging individuals to do it on their own. For example, the Birkhot ha-Shahar are considered halakhically incumbent upon the individual but are not recited aloud in some synagogues; one suggestion for shortening the service is to encourage their recitation before the service begins. Pesukei Dezimra are described in the Talmud as a meritorious practice but not an obligation (BT Shabbat 118b), though medieval codifications describe them as obligatory (e.g. O.H. 51); in any event, they are considered the responsibilities of the individual, and a community could encourage congregants to recite these sections before the service begins (if, for example, the service will begin at Nishmat Kol Hai (p. 146), or at Hamelekh (p. 150) ). Communities would want to weigh the desire to shorten the service, with the function played by these earlier parts of the service to provide a helpful transition into the core liturgical elements.
AMIDAH REPETITION / HOIKHE KEDUSHA: For many of the Amidot (Rosh HaShanah Shaharit, Rosh HaShanah Minhah, Yom Kippur Shaharit, Yom Kippur Minhah), a simple and halakhically appropriate means of shortening the service would be to do these amidot in the ‘Hoikhe Kedushah’ format and omit the repetition of the Amidah. Thereafter, the sheliah tzibbur can recite selected piyyutim or other Amidah excerpts as “optional” pieces. (See Responsum of Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky on Hoikhe Kedushah, and Responsum of Rabbi Kassel Abelson on the repetition of the Amidah.)
MUSAF FOR ROSH HASHANAH / MUSAF FOR YOM KIPPUR: While extreme and unusual, such a Hoikhe Kedushah method could even be adopted for Musaf of Rosh HaShanah (especially if the Shofar will not be blown during the Musaf Amidah because of danger), or Musaf for Yom Kippur. A community might base this choice on the assumption that the members of the congregation will have had their opportunity to fulfill their obligations for the recitation of these Amidot with the silent Amidah, and that even in the best of times it is unlikely that someone would fulfill one’s obligations for the recitation of any High Holy Day Amidah through listening attentively to the entirety of a repetition of that Amidah. (See, for example, Abelson, “Omission of the Silent Amidah,” 1995, for a discussion on changing assumptions about the sheliah tzibbur’s role in facilitating the fulfillment of the community’s obligation.) In such a case, classic liturgical passages like Hineni, Hayom Te’amtzeinu, Seder Avodah, and Eleh Ezkerah could be presented in abbreviated form following the silent Amidah, as (for all their traditional power) none of these are regarded as halakhic obligations. (See further about piyyutim below.) Additionally, for Rosh HaShanah Musaf, doing the Amidah as a Hoikhe Kedushah could remove pressure from the Shaliah Tzibbur to recite the Malkhuyot / Zikhronot / Shofarot sections and their Biblical verses in their entirety; these are considered to be halakhic obligations and would be challenging to abbreviate (See O.H. 592:4).
If a Hoikhe Kedushah is done for Musaf of Rosh HaShanah and/or Yom Kippur, we would recommend that Unetaneh Tokef (p. 143 and 315) still be included immediately before Kedushah. Unetaneh Tokef was written as a Silluk, a piyyut for the specific purpose of transitioning into the Kedushah.
STATUS OF PIYYUTIM: Whereas piyyutim (liturgical poems) are very important to the flavor of the High Holy Days and are a primary vehicle for expressing its themes, they are optional and can be omitted in cases of need. Examples of beloved piyyutim that could be omitted or abbreviated are: Atah Hu (p. 83), Adonai Melekh (p. 84), Le-El Orech Din (p. 85), Hineni (p. 290), Ve-khol ma’aminim (p. 146ff), Va-ye’etayu (p. 150), Melekh Elyon (p. 155), Ein Keloheinu (p. 172), Ya’aleh (p. 223), Ki Hinei Ka-homer (227), among many others, as well as all poems and readings that are presented in Mahzor Lev Shalem and have not typically been present in previous Ashkenazic mahzorim (e.g. p. 242-245; 2nd half of p. 456; 468-470, among many other passages).
The piyyut “Unetaneh Tokef” (p. 143 and 315) is technically also optional, but because of its centrality to the messages of the High Holy Days we anticipate that few congregations would omit it. Regarding placement of Unetaneh Tokef, see above section on Musaf.
The piyyut “Eleh Ezkerah,” which many people refer to as “the martyrology,” technically also has an optional status; historically speaking, it is a piyyut of the slihah genre, rather than a “service” of its own, and there is no minimum portion of it that must be recited.
“Avodah,” or “Seder Kohen Gadol” (The Service of the Kohen Gadol), is a genre of Yom Kippur piyyut. Avodah piyyutim have been present in siddurim as far back as the first Siddur, Seder Rav Amram, and though in other circumstances we would not recommend its omission, a community is on firm halakhic ground in treating this passage flexibly given the health crisis.
SHOFAR: It may be necessary for health reasons to extract the Shofar service from the rest of the service. A minimalist approach to the Shofar blasts would simply include the two Shofar blessings, followed by 30 blasts of the Shofar (see additional guidance about the Shofar). All other elements presented in Mahzor Lev Shalem p. 248-251 are customs that can be dispensed with in this case of extreme need. See the CJLS letter of guidance for Shofar.
AVINU MALKEINU: The roots of Avinu Malkeinu are in Taanit 25b, where it is presented as Rabbi Akiva’s prayer for a public fast because of lack of rain. Reciting this passage on the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah is a practice that goes back at least to the Geonim, but it did not become a universal custom until much later (Sefer HaManhig, Rosh HaShanah 7, notes that it is done in French communities but not in Spanish communities; Beit Yosef indicates it is done in some communities but not all (584); Shulhan Arukh does not mention it but ReMA does). Ultimately it has the status of a minhag, but one of long standing.
KOL NIDREI: Kol Nidrei has the status of a deeply treasured minhag. We presume no congregation would omit it, but its status as a minhag provides some opportunity for flexibility — for example, to recite it earlier on Erev Yom Kippur (as in fact Kol Nidrei is supposed to be recited before Yom Kippur actually begins). Removing the Torah scrolls from the ark for Kol Nidrei is a custom that would be difficult to accomplish while maintaining appropriate physical distance; simply opening the ark is also appropriate. Reciting Kol Nidrei three times is a long-standing custom (see, e.g., Mahzor Vitry 388) but is not a halakhic requirement. For additional information on Kol Nidrei, see the CJLS letter of guidance on Kol Nidrei.
VIDUI / AL HET: The Vidui, or Confessional, should be regarded as a halakhic requirement on Yom Kippur, for its origins trace back to the earliest strata of rabbinic literature (see Yoma 87b). Minimally the Vidui should be recited during each silent Amidah of Yom Kippur (though only the short form of the Vidui is recited at Neilah). When the Amidah is repeated, the Vidui is recited in the middle of the central berakhah of the Amidah. In cases where the community will recite the Amidah in the Hoikhe Kedushah format on Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to recite the Vidui after the Amidah.
Whereas most Ashkenazic prayerbooks include a double acrostic for the Al Het, earlier siddurim have a much shorter version; for example, the version in authoritative manuscripts of Maimonides’ Seder Tefilot Kol HaShanah within the Mishneh Torah reads: ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בשגגה, ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בזדון, ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בסתר, ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בגלוי, ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך באונס, ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך ברצון (See Harlow Mahzor (1972), p. 672, which also uses this version: “For the sin we have committed against you unwillingly…willingly…in secret…openly… by mistake…purposely.”) This shortened version is sufficient in a time of duress.
HAZKARAT NESHAMOT / YIZKOR: This unit, though so important to the Yom Kippur experience, is not a halakhic requirement. Some communities may choose to move it out of Yom Kippur, to be an online experience on Erev Yom Kippur before the holiday begins (See Scheinberg outline of Yom Kippur evening service, below). See CJLS letter of guidance on Yizkor for HHDs.
NEILAH / CONCLUSION OF YOM KIPPUR: Again, the Hoikhe Kedushah approach, though extreme, is the most straightforward way to shorten the Neilah service.
As the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur (unlike the Shofar blasts of Rosh HaShanah) is a later custom and not considered obligatory according to Jewish law, it can be set aside in cases of emergency. Even those who would not otherwise be comfortable with teki’at shofar done over the internet may appreciate hearing this final shofar blast of Yom Kippur over the internet as the widely recognized mark of the completion of Yom Kippur (as it is not for the fulfillment of a mitzvah, and takes place after the end of the holiday).
See the letter of guidance on Torah Reading During COVID-19.
5. TAKE STEPS TO MAKE ANY REMOTE / ONLINE EXPERIENCE FEEL AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE LIKE A HIGH HOLY DAY EXPERIENCE.
The themes and content of the High Holy Day services will be especially resonant this year. In addition, the High Holy Days are a significant calendrical marker for Jews both inside and outside our communities regardless of their levels of practice during the remainder of the year. Even in their changed form, services will need to feel as much like the High Holy Days as possible. In the absence of a place to gather, other aspects of services will take on additional importance. For example:
- Find a way for people to ‘greet’ each other (HHD telegrams?)
- Assist congregants in praying from a Mahzor rather than a printout or computer file. (Some synagogues may number their Mahzorim to distribute to congregants, or order more Mahzorim to be shipped directly to congregants’ homes or assist congregants in purchasing their own mahzorim.)
- Advise congregants to create a space at home to serve as their prayer space (rather than an office space), and to take other steps to remove distractions. Sitting further back from a computer can make the experience feel less like a meeting and can minimize temptation to check email or other websites. One might also opt to preset one’s TV or other large monitor to mirror the computer or phone screen at a distance to distinguish it as a “viewing” rather than interactive device. One who comes to a synagogue experience is ideally “all in” to participate in the experience without multitasking; this is just as true for a Jewish worship experience that takes place at home. See the appendices in Rabbi Joshua Heller’s teshuvah on livestreaming on how to make livestreaming more consistent with the observance of Shabbat and Yom Tov, as well as these instructions by Rabbi Sam Blustin.
- Encourage congregants to dress for the High Holy Days as they would if they were coming to an in-person experience.
- Ensure that services retain familiar High Holyday music and liturgy (see #4 above).
[June 12, 2020]