Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should I report neighbours who are breaking social distancing rules over praying?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION; Some people in my street are continuing to organise a garden minyan despite the recent ban. Even if they are maintaining social distancing, do I have a duty to report them to the authorities?

Rabbi Brawer:I find it astounding that people would put themselves and others at risk in this way, when Jewish law unequivocally places health and safety above communal prayer.

The Talmud, emphasising the importance of looking after one’s health and safety, prohibits one to indulge in activity that might lead to harm (Shabbat 32).

While the Talmud does permit certain unavoidable risks based on the passage in Psalms, “The Lord protects the simple” (116:6), the Talmud has in mind risks embedded in everyday activities we are often unconscious of, which were one to avoid them, one could not live a productive or pleasurable life (Avodah Zarah 30a, Yebamot 100b). This is not a blanket licence to incur otherwise avoidable risk to life and limb.

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1315), an influential Jewish legal authority, rules that one should never expose themselves to a health risk hoping for miracles, rather, one should take every sensible precaution.

Taking unnecessary health risks in a time of Covid-19 not only violates the principle of looking after one’s own health, it also puts other lives at risk. This is akin to digging and leaving exposed a pit in a public thoroughfare where one bears responsibility for those injured as a result (Mishnah, Bava Kama 1:1).

Should you report such behaviour to the authorities? Embedded in that question is a long and painful history of Jewish persecution by the very civic authorities charged with their protection. Under the Tsars of Russia, for example, Jews could not expect equal justice before the law, and so “denouncing” a fellow Jew to the authorities (“mesirah” in Hebrew) represented an act of the deepest betrayal. However, in the situation you describe, there are two mitigating factors that not only permit you to inform the authorities but oblige you to do so.

Firstly, we do not live in Tsarist Russia. We are fortunate to live in a society that treats all equal before the law. The laws of this country are clear, fair and transparent. We are all protected by these laws, we must all respect them, and bear the penalty for violating them.Secondly, and crucially, violating these laws put others at risk, and when other lives are at risk one must never hesitate to act.

Those who violate health and safety guidelines to make up a minyan are either ignorant or irresponsible. Whatever their motives, such behaviour cannot be allowed to go unchecked. If not for their own safety, then for the safety of everyone else.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University


Rabbi Romain: This is astonishing. Have they got no common sense, or compassion for others?
Of course, we all want to carry on the way we behaved before Covid19 hit us — whether it be our minyanim, family visits, football matches and all the things that gave our life structure and meaning. That is natural and the child within us says “I want”. But the adult within us should recognise that the safety of ourselves and of others means we have to put much on hold.

Not just the adult, but the mensch and the Jew. The need to preserve health has always overridden other considerations. That is why a circumcision is postponed if a baby is underweight, why an unwell person must not fast on Yom Kippur and why Jewish soldiers in the trenches were given permission to eat non-kosher food when nothing else was available.

Jewish law has always been clear about life and death matters, and this certainly applies to us today. We read about the countless number who died during the Black Death, but future generations will read about us in their history books and how the world was ravaged by Covid-19. The only difference is that, back in the Middle Ages, they did not grasp the causes behind the plague. We, however, do know and so for people to break the safeguards is remarkably irresponsible.

It is even more disturbing that they are doing it for religious reasons when Jewish tradition gives clear guidance, while rabbinic authorities have warned them not to do so.

As for reporting those breaking the law, I would argue that it is both our civic duty and our Jewish duty. The reluctance that some may feel in getting fellow Jews into trouble is misguided. They are the ones that have got themselves into trouble. 

How many times have we been told in sermons that standing by when we see others do wrong makes us almost as guilty as the perpetrators? This is not just exhortation, but is rooted in halachah, based on the command in Leviticus not to “stand by” when sins are committed (Leviticus 19.16), while the next verse urges us to rebuke others and not be complicit in their faults.

If you saw people pouring petrol on to someone’s front door, would you call the authorities? Likewise here, do report them, not because you are unpleasant, but because they are endangering others.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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