Last September, in the JC’s New Year issue, I had the privilege of writing an article about how Britain’s Jewish community adapted to the outbreak of the Second World War, which started ten days before Rosh Hashanah.
Notices were published by the United Synagogue and the Chief Rabbi in the JC’s 1939 New Year edition, informing the Jewish public that there would be no Kol Nidrei, or indeed any night-time synagogue services, due to the blackout. High Holiday services in the daytime would be limited to two hours. It was advised that old men, women and children should stay at home. Advice was given regarding procedure if an air raid took place in the middle of a service.
Many Jewish women and children were among the 600,000 people who had been evacuated from London due to the fear of imminent bombing. The JC published a statement from the Chief Rabbi of the time, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, which had also been broadcast by the BBC’s Home Service the day after the war was declared.
“The Chief Rabbi”, it read, “has been informed that some difficulties have arisen as a result of the strong desire of Jewish children brought up in religious homes to carry out their observances in regard to food in their new surroundings.
“He wishes to draw the attention of all Jewish parents and children… to the fact that, in a national emergency such as the present, all that is required of them is to refrain from eating forbidden meats and shellfish.”
Today, we are not, thank God, at war. But we are facing a different kind of danger and, along with the entire UK population, our Jewish community is adapting to a new reality. No synagogue services, no weddings or other celebrations involving a gathering, funeral attendance limited to the closest of family members — and far more besides.
Thankfully, it is far easier nowadays to buy food which is clearly kosher. But unprecedented steps have still been taken. In the acknowledgement that a significant number of people, whether due to self-isolation, quarantine, or inability to travel easily, will not be able to shop properly for Pesach this year, a number of the UK’s Beth Dins have issued guidance regarding items available in local supermarkets, without a Kosher for Passover label, which are in these specific circumstances permitted for Pesach use.
The message from KLBD, the London Beth Din’s kashrut division, was starkest. It began by informing people that this guidance was “intended specifically for this time of crisis” and reminding people that “it is a longstanding minhag [custom] going back to the beginning of commercial food manufacture in the 15th Century that products for Pesach should be manufactured under special Passover supervision.”
In other words, this is a custom which dates back almost to the time of the Black Death.
This year, when we ask “why is this night different from all other nights” at the Seder table, I sense this question will have new meaning for many of us.
And then, on the second night of Pesach, we will start counting the Omer, the 49- day period leading up to the festival of Shavuot.
Pesach commemorates our liberation from Egypt, while Shavuot celebrates the most momentous event in Jewish history, the Torah being given to the Jewish people by God, sealing an unbreakable bond. The period between the two festivals should be one of unbridled happiness.
But it is not. It is a period during which some of the strictures associated with mourning are observed, including not listening to music, having haircuts or holding weddings. And the compendium of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch indicates why — “because during this period the students of Rabbi Akiva died.”
The Talmud elaborates, in tractate Yevamot. Rabbi Akiva, it says, had 12,000 pairs of students — 24,000 in all. And all of them perished at the same time, of a plague, between Pesach and Shavuot. The reason given for their death is “because they did not treat each other with respect”.
We need to treat each other with respect. There are guidelines in place that we need to keep to. We need to consider not just our own safety, but that of others, including society’s most vulnerable.
As has often been observed, times of extreme difficulty bring out both the best and worst of humanity.
For every story of people who purchased an obscene amount of food and household items, there are ten about people who have set up groups to help those in need.
For every case of despicable individuals who stole supplies from hospitals, there are thousands of examples of medical professionals who are expending all of their strength and taking personal risks in order to treat the sick.
For each person who selfishly flouts the medical guidance, far more are following it to the letter.
We will get through this, God willing. But each and every one of us has a part to play. And let us make sure that when we look back on our behaviour at this time, we look back with pride, rather than shame.