ZOOMING Seders – Rabbinic Letter

Dear Or Zarua,

QUESTON: Given the mandate to physically distance ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic should Jews be able to use their computers, phones, tablets and other devices to share the seder experience with loved ones and friends in 5780?

ANSWER: By this letter, I am providing a way to use electronics and software like ZOOM or other group chat apps or platforms on computers and other devices for connecting family and friends at the seder table. The restrictions on those devices shall be set aside, for the sake of experiencing a meaningful Pesah for those in need. This permission extends to 5780 alone and is not applicable in the future.

BACKGROUND: We recognize that this year many people will be spending Passover physically cut off from family and friends. This is the result of mitigation strategies for keeping the spread of coronavirus to a minimum. To fulfill the principles of​ pikuah nefesh​, preserving life, and ​dina d’malkhuta dina​, “the law of the land is the law” we as Jews are required to follow governmental and medical professionals’ mandates for staying physically apart and suspending group gatherings. This creates an unprecedented situation for celebrating Passover.  Many experts, both Jewish and from the general population, have commented on the psychological and spiritual challenges associated with isolating during the Pandemic. The challenge of being alone for the Passover holiday is an added hardship for many during this already acute time of suffering. Pesah is supposed to be a holiday of deliverance from such straits – narrow spaces of suffering. Experiencing redemption and deliverance from suffering are the fundamental experiences of Passover, at the seder. Many Jews’ spirits are crushed already thinking about what Passover will be like in 5780. They have reported feeling ​holeh nefesh​, sick in their souls, knowing that they will not have a connection to their loved ones or friends for a Pesah seder or on yom tov. This is a matzav ruah – a health and spiritual status – that must be taken as seriously as a physical illness, when it comes to making decisions as to what we will allow or which laws we will maintain, when it comes to yom tov and the use of connectivity software. The Torah declares:

Exodus 12:4 And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating shall you make your count for the lamb.

The Torah recognized the need for deep connectivity among family and friends at Pesah as an inherent part of the very first Pesah experience, while we were still in Egypt. The Torah explained that we needed to gather family and neighbors to share in the bounty of the holiday. The experience of togetherness went much deeper than leaving no meat on the bone; we came together to fend off feelings of insecurity, fear and to face the threats on our lives. This was surely as important, if not more, as having enough people to share the korban Pesah, the physical Passover offering. Our Pesah is occurring during a plague, and we are hunkering down in our protective domiciles, to ward off a physical pursuer (albeit microscopic). We are challenged with fear, insecurity and life being in the balance. Our response then this year must be to meet all these challenges in the best way we know how, as the Torah instructs. We should be gathered with those who can share and partake of the festive meals – especially to meet the spiritual challenges of our current moment. A healthy outlook regarding halakha, Jewish law, and our traditions includes deepening our understandings about how they come to respond to our physical as well as mental and spiritual needs. Nonetheless, extraordinary circumstances sometimes call forbreaking with past traditions and halakhic restrictions, on an emergency basis, to meet the greater demands and burdens on one’s spirit. Not every situation demands permissions and designs for allowances. We may take the approach that we have with synaogue-based programs, gatherings and services. Some laws must be suspended or even transgressed, in order to preserve life and to affirm life.

Thusly, this year one may break with refraining from using electronic devices, and turning them off and on, on yom tov, at our seders, in order to use software or apps that allow us to share the seder experience together. This approach recognizes that it is impractical and nearly impossible to use computers, phones and tablets without launching machines and software, manipulating controls and adjusting volumes. As opposed to other approaches that try to explain how to legitimately use electronics in an alternative or non-routine way that would comport with our keeping yom tov, my approach is to permit the transgression of using electronics just this year, at Pesah, in order to meet the greater spiritual demands of Passover during this Pandemic, for those who wish. Though in general one of the most basic of Talmudic rules is that a ​mitzvah haba b’aveirah​, a mitzvah enabled through the commission of sin, is rendered invalid, there is another Talmudic principle that may be invoked: Rav Nachman ben Yitzchak taught, “Greater is a sin done ​lishma​, for the sake of heaven, than a mitzvah done ​shelo lishma​, not for the sake of heaven” (​Horayot 10b​). Application of this principle must be done very carefully and in limited ways. The Gemara explains that this principle has Biblical roots derived from the verse, “Most blessed of the women is Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite, more blessed than the woman in tents” (​Shoftim 5:24​). Yael had relations with Sisera – a most grievous sin. However, her sole intent was to save the Jewish people by first weakening and then killing Sisera. This act made her more deserving of blessings than the women who dwell in tents, i.e., Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. While we are not fighting battles against physical enemies of Israel like Sisera or Pharoah of Egypt, we are waging war against the novel coronavirus and its sinister attack on life as we know it. If we have to transgress using computers and phones and can not follow exact rules about starting them before yom tov, refraining from moving or touching keys or dealing with volume, mute buttons or adjusting the brightness, then so be it for this year at Passover. Yael used her body in a way that the Rabbis sensed was outside the normal bounds yet blessed her beyond what we could ever have expected. This Pandemic that threatens our way of life and our very lives creates an enemy who must be met on unusual terms for us. An ​aveira b’shem shamayim​ – a transgression for the sake of heaven must ensue.

Are there any recommendations about how best to use the ZOOM or other software and devices that must be used? One suggestion is to determine who should be at the seder through technology before the seder begins. Have in mind that one should work to reduce the number of times he or she has to fidget with buttons or reset screens or adjust settings. It is unreasonable, however, given the number and types of devices and software programs to create a “how-to-halakhically-without-violating-yom-tov” method for each of the computers, phones, tablets and software packages that we will use. I applaud my colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly and other rabbinic agencies for encouraging people to set up the computer beforehand and to find a way to limit engagement with the electronics, but I find these approaches difficult given the realities of our myriad devices and the software programs that demand our attention. For those who wish to the see the reasoning and details of the halakhic approach of the Rabbinical Assembly Commitee on Jewish Law & Standards (note it is not an official tshuvah) you may see it here: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/streaming-seder​.

For those who wish to see R. Chaim Ovadiah’s letter that appeared in Israel to his Sefardic community you may see it here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/277764?fbclid=IwAR1WmELvRR iqhXY_2cWEVhKW8AQNdBaRfroo7XO02TcfkHsHx6iQDkt6Rtk

Both of these halakhic approaches have left many unsatisfied regarding what it is permitted, why and how to fulfill obligations. My approach, I believe, leaves us with a clearer sense of how and why to use our electronic devices this year: it is still a transgression, but it is done for the sake of Heaven, the Jewish People’s soul and towards good health during an unprecedented Passover during a plague. The use of computers and phones and connection-making software will be entirely overlooked this Pesah during this unique time -​ b’sha’at ha’dhak​, at this emergency hour, for the sake of making Pesah more of the experience that it should be. Doing a transgression for the sake of heaven this year, for those who wish, will keep Am Yisrael’s spirits up and our enemies at bay. Hopefully, then, we will receive abundant blessings and the strength to leave our narrow straits – experience a taste of the redemption of being redeemed from Egypt. “​Chayav Adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza m’Mitzrayim​.” Each one of us is obligated to feel as though we have personally been redeemed from Egypt, and one using electronics this year would transgress for that greater purpose if he or she uses ZOOM to feel more of that redemption.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York City, NY 5780