Reports of rabbinic ‘ruling’ allowing Passover seder video-conference were inaccurate

Reports on a rabbinical ruling allegedly permitting computer use on Jewish holy days were not accurate, according to a subsequent investigation by an Israeli TV channel.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

News reports in the Israeli media that prominent rabbis ruled in favor of using electronic devices during a Jewish holy day appear to have been greatly exaggerated, Channel 20 reported Wednesday.

Israeli and Jewish sources filed reports claiming that 14 respected rabbis in Israel made a landmark decision that elderly people in coronavirus isolation and their family members could use video-conferencing programs such as Zoom to communicate during Passover seders in an effort to alleviate the stress of family separation.

The Jerusalem Post called it a “remarkable ruling,” while the Times of Israel described it as “one of the boldest rulings issued on technology in recent years.”

Jewish law generally forbids the use of electronic devices on the Sabbath and religious holidays, barring critical life-saving instances, and the ruling would have set a new precedent.

It turns out that behind the alleged ‘ruling’ is a serious mistake, and perhaps a deliberate deception,” said a report by Channel 20, an Israeli television station whose audience is predominantly religious.

According to Channel 20, the actual discussion of the issue took place in a closed forum where the rabbis pondered a question submitted on behalf of a man named Erez Eshel. He wanted to supply 10,000 computers and volunteers to assist in their use so that grandparents confined to their homes due to the epidemic could remotely attend Passover seders.

The response to the question allegedly said computers could be used, but only on the eve of Passover and only this year. After the closed forum, a letter was released to the public that appeared to represent an official ruling permitting the use of electronic devices during the Passover seder.

Subsequently, several of the rabbis listed on the letter as endorsing the response rejected the idea and denied that any such ruling was given.

Rabbi Moshe Suissa told Channel 20 the discussion did not pertain to a general ruling, but concerned only an extreme case in which a family member could save an elderly relative who would otherwise die on a festival or the sabbath if the electronic device weren’t used to communicate.

“These [reasons] were taken out of context,” said Suissa. “Let me make it clear that I was referring to the most extreme cases” of a sick person in the context of saving lives in danger.

“It was not intended to be a ruling for the general public,” Suissa said.  “Therefore I remove my hand from this letter.”

Rabbi Yonatan Saror, whose name also appeared on the letter, rejected it as well and told Channel 20 that somebody added his name to the signatures.

“I want to make it clear: I do not allow the use [on the festival] of any computer, tablet, or cellphone under any circumstances,” Saror said.

The seder is traditionally an hours-long affair launching the Passover festival, for which the biblical precept of doing “no manner of servile work” applies – including the use of electronic equipment. Extended families gather to read the Haggadah, which covers the story of the Exodus from Egypt. A sumptuous dinner is shared during which everyone follows the biblical command to eat matza – unleavened bread. Other ritual foods are eaten and traditional songs sung that symbolize the release from slavery to freedom.

Before Channel 20 released its findings, news of the alleged ruling reached the desk of Israel Chief Rabbi David Lau, who declared his opposition to idea.

“[The ruling is] irresponsible and even preposterous,” Lau said in an interview on Israel Army Radio. Such a ruling showed a “minimal lack of understanding of the meaning of a halakhic [Jewish law] ruling. It’s a pity that people decide such things and mislead the public”

This year the Seder night falls on Wednesday, April 8.

With reporting by Batya Jerenberg