The Jewish High Holidays in the Time of Coronavirus

A man blowing the Shofar - Jewish High Holidays 2020

The Jewish High Holidays, which begin on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, today, and end with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah on the weekend of 10-11 October, will be significantly different this year.

Traditionally, the autumn holidays are a time for extended family gatherings, festive meals, and visits to relatives’ and friends’ houses, with excursions to nature reserves and recreational facilities in the intermediate days. Special synagogue services take place on the two days of Rosh Hashanah (19-20/9) and on Yom Kippur (27-28/9), and meals in the sukkah, a temporary shelter that symbolizes the impermanent and provisional nature of all of our accommodations, are a fixed ritual on the week-long Sukkot holiday. Simchat Torah, i.e. Rejoicing in the Torah, marks the conclusion of the annual synagogal Torah-reading cycle. Occurring at the end of the holiday period (10-11 October), it concludes this month of reflection, introspection, and renewal with an exuberant and joyful public event. Its highlight is the ritual of dancing with and around the Torah scroll.

For thousands of Hassidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, a pilgrimage to the Ukrainian town of Uman, to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, has become a fixed Rosh Hashanah ritual. This year, the worldwide increase in Coronavirus infections, resulting in strict governmental regulations imposed in the UK, Israel, and elsewhere, threatens to make the observance of some of these traditional practices difficult if not impossible. Coronavirus will certainly change the atmosphere of the entire holiday period and make Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even quieter and more solemn than it usually is.

In both the UK and Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews in predominantly Haredi neighbourhoods are disproportionately affected by Coronavirus. Whereas Jews constitute only 0.3 percent of the UK’s population, they account for 2.5 percent of Coronavirus deaths. These statistics, compiled by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, make Jews eight times more likely to die of Coronavirus than the rest of the population.

Although there are no distinct records for Jews of different denominations, Coronavirus rates are on a rapid rise in ultra-Orthodox communities such as Stamford Hill in London, which may face a local lockdown. About a third of all infections reported in Hackney have occurred in Stamford Hill West (N16), were less than 5 per cent of the entire population of the borough lives. This phenomenon concurs with the detection of higher than average Coronavirus infection rates amongst other ethnic minority communities in the UK.

Similarly, in Israel, infection rates are highest in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities and towns which are marked “red” in the government’s traffic light system. This means special restrictions apply in these locations and a nightly curfew has already been imposed. As a result, the Haredi community feels stigmatized. Now the Israeli government has imposed a nationwide lockdown for the entire High Holiday period that restricts individuals’ movement to 500 meters from home, preventing any kind of socialising even in other areas of one’s hometown, and causing many synagogues to close.

For the disproportionate impact of Coronavirus on the ultra-Orthodox population several explanations can be brought forth. Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to have large families and live in relatively crowded accommodations. Frequent family and social gatherings are part of their common religious practice, for example, Sabbath meals, marriage feasts, children’s coming-of-age ceremonies, male yeshiva study and daily prayer services. They do not use the internet and mobile phones or use them for limited religious purposes only and may therefore lack crucial information about the virus.

Belief in divine providence and the requirement to fulfill religious obligations may override scientific advice and governmental recommendations. It is therefore of utmost importance for ultra-Orthodox rabbis to advise their community members and help them adjust to this unprecedented situation.

Synagogue services require the presence of a minimum number of ten males (or ten participants of any gender in Reform and Liberal communities). On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all synagogues are usually filled up to capacity with worshippers, some of whom attend on these holidays only. On Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur, the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in synagogues and must be heard in person to fulfil one’s religious obligation. The shofar serves as a reminder of Abraham’s obedience to God (Genesis 22) and of the Sinai revelation (Exodus 19). It is one of the major Jewish symbols already represented in ancient synagogue mosaics. This year, shofar-blowing may have to be conducted in open spaces only, if this is permitted in the UK.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the long Aramaic Kol Nidrei prayer is recited in synagogues, introducing a 25-hour period of fasting. If the restrictions limiting gatherings to six people are applied to synagogue services, such indoor prayer could not take place. UK synagogue leaders are currently in talks with government officials to determine whether open air services are permissible and how social distancing could be observed. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox housing minister has already resigned in protest of the looming closure of some of the largest synagogues during the High Holidays.

Private family gatherings will be affected by the limitations as well. Festive meals on Rosh Hashanah traditionally include honey and apples in whatever form. According to the fourteenth-century Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, “in Ashkenaz (i.e. western and central European Jewish communities), they are accustomed to eat at the beginning of the meal a sweet apple with honey and to say ‘May we have a sweet year’”. This year one can only hope that the next year will be “sweeter” than the current one, with a decrease in the infection rate and the development of vaccines.

The current measures taken by governments in these unprecedented times are meant to accelerate this goal, even if they require changes in traditional holiday practices.

In the past, Judaism has been flexible and able to accommodate to changed circumstances. This will also be the case this year.

Professor Catherine Hezser is a Professor of Jewish Studies at SOAS University of London.

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