Coronavirus upends Jewish Sabbath, people pray from balconies

Although up to 10 men can pray together they must keep two meters apart.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The strictures imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic led to a very unusual Sabbath for most religious and traditional Jews in Israel as synagogues closed down and people could not pray together as they normally do on the day of rest.

The authorities still allow up to 10 people to be in a room together if they keep two meters’ distance from each other, which would allow a quorum of 10 men to pray if their synagogue was large enough. (In Orthodox Judaism, men have the religious duty to pray in groups of 10 in what is known in Hebrew as a “minyan.”)

However, because a gathering of any size is being strongly discouraged in order to reduce the chance of infection as much as possible, most rabbis have closed their houses of worship. Their reasoning is simple: the enjoinment to preserve life is more important than every other commandment in the Torah.

To pray alone on a regular weekday is one thing; the holy day of the Sabbath is another. So people throughout the country tried various ways to pray together while being physically apart.

For example, Israel Hayom reported on a virtual service that took place before the official start of the Sabbath on Friday evening for the members of the Yachad community in Tel Aviv. An online meeting room allowed both men and women to sing and pray together.

On one part of a street in the religious neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh, the call went out on Friday for people to go out to their balconies when the Sabbath came in to have a “Carlebach minyan,” which is an especially joyful rendering of the prayers that is full of singing from beginning to end.

The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon took part in a Saturday morning “balcony minyan” as his street in Jerusalem is full of observant families.

A man he could not see in a balcony of a building across the street “belted out” the prayers, he wrote, with people answering “amen” from other buildings along with several in the street below who were standing the required distance apart.

He says he was even lucky enough to hear the traditional reading of the weekly portion of the Torah, as a proficient reader had a loud enough voice for the “congregants” to hear.

Rabbis across the country sent encouraging emails and text messages to their congregations before the Sabbath. One suggested that to foster a sense of community even while alone, people should dress as if they were going to synagogue and pray at the regular time for minyan.

People waiting for an answer if they have been diagnosed with the virus, or who suspected that they might have been in contact with someone who was infected, were instructed to leave their cellphones on over the Sabbath so that they could be informed immediately if they have to go into isolation.