As synagogues close their doors, congregants go high tech

In non-Orthodox communities, many synagogues have chosen to move their Sabbath services online.

By Josh Plank, World Israel News

With health officials warning against gatherings due to the spread of coronavirus, many are wondering how to maintain religious activities in the Jewish community in Israel and abroad.

In non-Orthodox communities, many synagogues have chosen to move their Sabbath services online instead of canceling them entirely.

The number of religious institutions offering some type of livestreaming has increased in recent years with several Reform and Conservative synagogues in the U.S. already offering online services.

The Union for Reform Judaism recently posted instructions for livestreaming on their website.

“Now is a time to show the power of community, not the lack of it,” the URJ wrote. “Connecting online via livestreaming can create community in lieu of in-person gatherings, bringing solace and comfort to those in isolation.”

In Orthodox communities, where the use of electronics is strictly prohibited on Sabbath, growing numbers of synagogues are canceling services. Others are choosing to meet together in small groups.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Ten is the minimum number of adult males required to constitute a minyan, or quorum, for communal prayer.

Despite the lack of online Sabbath services, the Orthodox community has seen a great increase in recent years in the streaming of weekday Torah learning.

Many smaller congregations are now offering online classes in addition to larger sites like TorahAnytime and YUTorah Online.

Last week some synagogues, including the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, chose to livestream the reading of the Book of Esther for those who might be unable to fulfill the religious injunction to hear the text on the Purim holiday.

In response to the many coronavirus-related questions he is receiving, Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau emphasized that “one cannot fulfill their obligation by listening to the Megillah [Book of Esther] broadcast live through a cell phone, radio, or television since the Halachic obligation is to listen to the actual voice of the person reading the Megillah.”

Others permitted livestreaming the Megillah as a last resort, provided that the reading is live, and not pre-recorded.

“Following the Halachic principle that we may rely upon minority opinions under extenuating circumstances [Hebrew text omitted] this minority opinion can be relied upon for those who are in mandated isolation,” the Orthodox Union said.

Despite today’s high-tech advances, the discussion of “recorded” sounds in Jewish law is surprisingly old, being first written down nearly 2,000 years ago.

Concerning someone who hears the echo of a ram’s horn being blown on Rosh Hashanah, the Talmud states, “One who blows into a pit or a cistern or a jug, if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation, but if he hears the echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.”