Israel's Chief Rabbinate Says That Despite Coronavirus, Jews Cannot Hold Seder Over Zoom on Passover

Despite the international quarantines and travel restrictions caused by coronavirus, Israel's top rabbinical authority for Judaism, The Chief Rabbinate, has forbidden Jews from using Zoom or other video conferencing apps so that distant family members can meet for Passover seders, the ritual service and ceremonial dinner held during the most important Jewish holiday, according to Haaretz.

The Rabbinate's disapproval follows the release of a letter last week from a group of Orthodox Sephardic rabbis in Israel which approved of video conferencing specifically for this year's Passover as a way for families to virtually convene despite pandemic-related social distancing measures.

The Orthodox Sephardic rabbis' letter stressed the importance of children bonding with grandparents as a way to keep close ties to Judaic tradition. The letter also said that video conferencing during Passover could help "remove sadness from adults and the elderly, to give them motivation to continue fighting for their lives, and to prevent them from succumbing to depression, which might cause them to despair of life."

Nevertheless, The Chief Rabbinate issued its own prohibition on video conferencing just yesterday.

Passover dinner
A family sits at a table set for the Passover Seder. Tali Blankfeld/Getty

The Chief Rabbinate's prohibition stems from Jewish religious law (halakha) which forbids the use of electricity, including computers and other technological devices, during Jewish holidays like Passover. The use of electricity is also forbidden during Shabbat, the weekly day of rest that occurs from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

"The loneliness is painful," The Chief Rabbinate wrote, "and we must respond to it, perhaps even with a video conference on the eve of the holiday before it begins, but not by desecrating the holiday which is only permitted in cases of pikuach nefesh (to save a life)."

The prohibition also aligns with Israeli social distancing policies which forbid citizens from visiting extended family homes for holiday rites. Israelis are also forbidden from going more than 100 meters from their homes during the epidemic.

The Chief Rabbinate consists of two Chief Rabbis—an Ashkenazi rabbi and a Sephardi rabbi—both who serve a 10-year term. Currently, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is David Lau and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi is Yitzhak Yosef. Both began serving in 2013.

The Chief Rabbinate interprets Jewish law as it applies to issues of marriage and divorce, kosher food laws, conversion to Judaism, burials, as well as the supervision of holy sites, Orthodox Jewish seminaries and the country's rabbinical courts.

Newsweek reached out to Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, to ask his thoughts about the Chief Rabbinate's ruling.

He pointed out that the Chief Rabbinate's decision will mostly influence American Orthodox Jews and not necessarily believers in Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism, each of which has their own rabbinical guidances for interpreting Jewish law.

While Schneier believes Israel's Chief Rabbinate is trying to avoid a "slippery slope" that might lead to future violations of Jewish law in observance of the Seder, he also believes there's "a balancing act" that the Orthodox rabbis must strike between preserving the Passover tradition and "acknowledging the serious reality."

"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," Schneier said. "The question is where does one draw the line?"

"When it comes to deciding Jewish law," he continued, "there is an enormous human element that is part of Jewish law: that's sensitivity, concern for human needs and compassion.

He said there's been a range of responses in the Orthodox community when it comes to Zoom Seders. He believes 50% of the Seder—including the Passover narrative and other melodies and prayers—can be recited over video before the holiday actually begins at sundown.

He also mentioned that other Jewish temples are televising or live-streaming their Seders, and that smart TVs can be set to turn on and off at certain times, helping ensure that people can observe the holiday with others.

Schneier's own synagogue has pre-recorded its Passover seder and will air it on television during Passover on Wednesday and Thursday evening.