my view

Separating fact from fiction: What does Jewish law say?

Posted 4/21/20

I do not recall ever penning an article by first citing my credentials. Rather, I leave it to the words on the page to make that determination. But here, I make an exception given the gravity of the …

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my view

Separating fact from fiction: What does Jewish law say?


I do not recall ever penning an article by first citing my credentials. Rather, I leave it to the words on the page to make that determination. But here, I make an exception given the gravity of the situation at hand and my obligation to ensure that my message is not missed.

I am an Orthodox Rabbi with 30 years of religious service to various communities. Included in my congregational work, I have served as a hospital, hospice, disaster services and fire department chaplain. Perhaps most important to this discussion is my Rabbinic Ordination with its related training in classical Jewish legal texts, and a graduate degree in bioethics from a respected medical school.

With these bona fides in mind, allow me to express my great dismay and disapproval of those who disregard COVID-19 safety rules, particularly around the practice of social distancing, including and most regrettably some of my co-religionists.

Jewish law is emphatic in the measures it mandates to prevent one from engaging in dangerous and unhealthy behavior. It is in the Talmud and the Jewish Legal Code. Moreover, one is permitted to violate and trespass the Sabbath laws to save a life: referred to in Hebrew as “pikuach nefesh.” The Talmud teaches, “better to transgress one Sabbath so that you will be able to observe many.” In Deuteronomy, we are commanded to “truly protect and guard our bodies.”

Jewish law is all about living; we are instructed, concerning the commandments, “to live by them, and not to die by them,” save the cardinal three sins of murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual relations.

In the early 20th century, there was a great rabbi known as Rabbi Chaim (Soloveitchik) of (the city) Brisk. He pioneered a unique analytic approach to Talmud study and is the prosgenitor of subsequent generations of great rabbinic scholars to this very day.

Yet, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk was often criticized for what others claimed was his leniency in his rulings on health issues and their resulting dispensation and license to transgress the Sabbath. His retort was this: “It is not that I am lenient on the laws of the Sabbath, but rather I am stringent concerning the laws of life and death, ‘pikuach nefesh.’”

I have participated of late in numerous online and virtual sessions with recognized Halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities concerning the many areas of related Jewish religious life, and the prevailing view is that health and wellness trump all. They emphatically upheld the COVID-19 restrictions—in particular, social distancing.

This means closed synagogues and no forms of assembly for prayer or other religious rituals and meals. Additionally, it may mean a very different summer season. So why the pictures of persisting prayer groups and people clustered in public places?

Is this all or most of my fellow Jews? Surely not, but it is a mortifying minority who should know better. Instead, they wreak havoc, imperiling society and themselves with their egregious behavior, all while falsely framed in the boundaries of religious law.

Under optimal conditions, it is praiseworthy to pray regularly with a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 adult males, according to Jewish law. But this is a pandemic, and like Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, we are obligated to be stringent regarding “pikuach nefesh,” in preventing loss of life or limb.

Communal prayer, for all its merits, seems to have become a new form of idolatry, when it is an excuse for dangerous behavior.

We have regressed back to the “evil assembly,” the 10 errant spies in Numbers 14, which through interesting Rabbinic hermeneutic means, became the numeric minimum (10) to be able to assemble a prayer quorum “so that I (God) might be sanctified among the ‘assembly’ of People Israel.”

One of my teachers, an Orthodox rabbi with challenging ideas and ideals, was once asked why he remained within the fold, to which he responded, “Because it is the group that most embarrasses me.”

Sometimes those you know best and love most also are the ones who embarrass you the most.

I pray that those with whom I share in the joys and duties of Judaism will wholeheartedly, and to the degree possible, practice Jewish law with total regard for the well-being of others.

“For ours is a Torah of life for those who hold steadfast to it.” But the grip is not ignorant loyalty. Rather it is a spiritual and religious map intended to sanctify the ordinary and inspire the sublime.

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is the president and CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder-care practice based in Sullivan County. He has served as a pulpit rabbi, hospital and hospice chaplain, Jewish educator and communal executive.


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jeremy neimand

Let's hear more from Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler

Tuesday, April 28