Perform a Purim mitzvah

Gathering in shul may be allowed, but the responsible position is to stay home, argues Benedict Roth

February 11, 2021 15:27

Covid poses a unique problem at Purim: last year’s in-person Megilla-readings may have been super-spreader events and the virus still races through London.

Meanwhile the validity of remote Megilla-reading - via Zoom, radio or telephone - is a matter of debate. Until 1948 most authorities accepted it if circumstances required it. Then Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a leading authority in Israel, published a dissenting opinion that ruled out relying on any microphone, even a hearing aid, for the performance of a mitzvah.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Israel’s leading expert on medical ethics and the rabbinic decisor of the Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, disagreed. He ruled in 1963 to permit the Megilla to be broadcast via microphone and loudspeaker in a hospital or in a synagogue. So the matter remains in doubt, with reputable orthodox opinions on both sides.

What has never been in doubt in mainstream halacha is the primacy of life and health over almost every other mitzvah and the duty of rabbinic leadership to lead by example. Indeed the rabbis question Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman, criticising his willingness to put the Jewish community in danger.

More recently Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century Lithuanian leader, is reputed to have recited Kiddush over wine and cake in his synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when the 1848 cholera epidemic made it dangerous for some of them to abstain from eating. To show his community that it was permitted for some to eat, he publicly broke his own fast.

Similarly Reb Chaim of Brisk, the grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, used to defend his leniency towards sick people eating on Yom Kippur by explaining that it stemmed from his strictness on danger to life, not from any leniency in his regard for Yom Kippur.

In fact it’s in the tractate of Yom Kippur where the Mishna, dating from the second century of the common era, teaches about breaking Shabbat to save life, prescribing medicine that is not kosher, and feeding a bulimic or a pregnant woman with forbidden food to satisfy a craving. Its authors seem to meditate, while discussing spiritual life and death, on our transcendent obligation to cherish and protect the physical life and health of our community.

So how should community leaders behave this year? Maimonides, in discussing who should break Shabbat to assist a sick person, forbids hesitation or delay and forbids delegating the task to non-Jews or children. He rules that the ‘leaders of Israel and their sages’ should demonstrate in person the importance of saving life by being the first to set aside Shabbat restrictions to heal the sick. Anticipating Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, he asks them to lead by example. How does this apply in the time of Covid?

Most reasonable public health professionals would think it safe for a small group to read the Megilla face-to-face this year, using a large building and enforcing strict social distancing.

But the mitzvah of hearing the Megilla applies to the entire community: young and old, men and women, adults and children, not to a small group. If a whole community is gathered together after many months of separation, no public health official can guarantee adequate separation. Or, if only a minority is to attend, who should be chosen to be among them? Should leaders lead by coming to shul or by staying at home?

Next year most of us hope to be together. This year we can perform a bigger mitzvah by staying home and hearing the Megilla on Zoom. This is a time for imaginative leadership, like that of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

Benedict Roth is an informal adult educator and a member of Golders Green United Synagogue

February 11, 2021 15:27

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