The new street minyanim have led to a dilemma for davening

Outdoor prayer groups in Israel have raised several halachic questions


A group of Orthodox Jewish men wearing protective face masks and keeping a safe distance from each other, hold a noon prayer in a street in the coastal city of Tel Aviv, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, on October 22, 2020. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

An old joke suggests that when God is disappointed by humanity, he decides to flood the world again. He assembles the world’s religious leaders to warn them of the coming cataclysm and to offer them a final wish. Tearfully, they file in, pray for forgiveness and make their final requests. Only the Chief Rabbi smiles. When, his turn comes, he says to the officiating angel, “My request is a submarine for every Jew”.

Jews have an extraordinary determination to survive and maintain our faith. Covid has made it hard for us to pray in synagogues as we once did, but our resolve is strong and British rabbis have made extraordinary efforts keep their communities alive.

In Jerusalem, many people pray in shtiblech, tiny synagogues too small to be made Covid-compliant. When the government ordered their closure, pop-up street minyanim appeared across the neighbourhood. Three times a day, people perch on their balconies, stand in their front gardens and hover at the sides of the roads to pray.

As these minyanim became more permanent, large tarpaulins were strung up between buildings to shield worshippers from the weather, and amateur carpenters built portable arks to house the Sifrei Torah.

The minyan on my street includes a diverse group of men and women, including an Israeli war hero, a former government minister and a retired English rabbi. These regulars are sometimes supplemented by the dustmen who interrupt their rounds to recite Kaddish with us. The strange setting for our prayers raises lots of halachic questions.

One of the first debates focused on what time we should pray. Ideally, the morning service should be said as close as possible to sunrise. The Shema needs to be said by a certain time, and on fast days and festivals it’s dangerous to spend long in the sun. An early start made sense, but when praying in the streets, other moral and halachic factors kick in.

Social distancing leads people to spread out along the road, and prayers must be chanted loud enough for all to hear. Heartfelt singing is fantastic for our sense of spirituality, but if it wakes up the neighbours, then it’s what the rabbis called gezel sheyna, “stealing peoples’ sleep”. Since no one likes being woken up, that breaches the requirement to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”, so compromises had to be found.

Having settled the hour of prayer, there are other obstacles to overcome before we can pray. Halachah prohibits us from praying near human or animal filth and it demands that we check for cleanliness before we pray (Talmud Berachot 25a).

Our shuls are presumed to be clean, so there’s no need to check them. Outdoors is different. Dogs may have fouled the footpaths, so every service starts with a quick inspection and occasionally brooms and mops must be mobilised before prayers can start.

Street minyanim have thrown together Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Chasidim. Although all are Orthodox; each group has their own slight variations in the language, pronunciation and order of prayer. Ordinarily, each group prays in their own shul with the community that shares their tunes and traditions, but when you’re on the streets, whose customs should prevail?

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed suggests that in previous generations, every synagogue stuck to its own rigid set of customs and everyone had to respect those, but Israel has been a gamechanger. It has reunited Jews from across the world, creating a multicultural Jewish state.

By now, most religious Israelis are familiar with a range of different customs and they are competent to participate in a variety of service styles. Our services can be led by Jews of different backgrounds and we should follow the customs of the chazan for all the prayers that are said aloud, though individuals are entitled to follow their own customs when saying the silent prayers (Peninei Halachah, Laws of Prayer, chapter 6).

“We have never”, writes Maimonides, “seen nor heard of a Jewish community that does not have a charity fund” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 9:3). Charity is a defining feature of a Jewish community, so as street minyanim became more permanent, we were compelled to continue this generous tradition. Every day, a collection box is passed around the minyan and the donations are distributed to the needy.

The charity collection may be a sign of permanence, but with vaccination rates rising, and the number of infected falling, there are hopes that synagogues will soon be able to function at full capacity. The daveners are debating whether they wish to return to shul or stick with their informal services on the streets. Whatever happens, we are united in praying for an end to the pandemic and healing and comfort for those who have suffered.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel rabbi



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