Understanding Risk and Pikuach Nefesh

As I write this, we are experiencing a Corona virus pandemic, and in my humble opinion all shuls must be closed down until this plague is behind us. In the present situation, davening at home ‘bi’ychidut’ is preferable and more rewarding than davening in a minyan. The current permission for 10-person gatherings, which can be enough for a minyan, is not helpful here. In my humble opinion, attempts to divide synagogues into various spaces with no more than a 10 people in each, are missing the point.

The halakhic explanation for my position is that participation in every public event during this epidemic, involves an element of endangering life. It is already clear to everyone that this is a global plague the like of which has not been seen for a very long time. The space where the Coronavirus spreads the most is the public space, and therefore the best proven way to fight it is social distancing.

But to win the fight against the Coronavirus, it is not enough to be compliant with the instructions of the authorities. Since it is so contagious , we need to be proactive and reduce any possible risk. Even in communities with a young population there is a risk, since one virus carrier is enough to pass it on to a few others who, despite being asymptomatic, eventually might pass it on to people from the more vulnerable age group and endanger their lives. Even if there are no more than 10 people in one space, if we accumulate the number of all the minyanim together, we will reach tens of thousands of people attending a social gathering for each tefilla. Statistically, it is certain that within this crowd there are carriers of the virus.

This issue of “Pikuach Nefesh” is discussed in Chapter 8 of my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge – A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, dealing with questions of Halakhah and the State of Israel. There I address the psak of Rabbi Shaul Israeli that allowed police activity on Shabbat, even if most of the activity was not in life-endangering cases. He explained that, since statistically there will certainly be cases of clear Pikuach Nefesh, he therefore defines police activity as “enabling Pikuach Nefesh”. Rabbi Israeli wrote: “For even if there is a chance of one in a thousand, saving one life at some time is enough to permit and to obligate us to do these activities that violate Shabbat, for they enable this act of saving. If we do not do them we will not be able to effect this act of saving”.

I believe that Rabbi Israeli’s rationale also works in the opposite direction. Creating a small risk of danger to life is enough to define going to shul during the Corona epidemic as “endangering life”, since it is statistically almost certain that there will be carriers of the virus in these gatherings. It is our duty, as people who are used to davening three times a day in a minyan, to set a personal example and to be at the forefront of this “war”, and not to just to comply with the letter of the law – in this case the instructions of the authorities – but also with the spirit of the law. For that reason, the Sages said, ‘chamira sakanta me’issura’ – physical danger is more severe than a halakhic prohibition.

There is no prohibition in Judaism against praying alone at home, although  there is certainly a preference for davening in a shul with a minyan. However, when the shul itself becomes a place of risk, it is a mitzvah to pray at home, so as not to risk ourselves and endanger others. That is why anyone who wishes to be careful and stringent should daven at home, with great intent and from the bottom of their heart, for the health and healing of the people of Israel and of the entire world. I am sure that these prayers will not be less in value and quality than the prayers said with a minyan.

With prayers for health and peace for us and everyone,

Rav Ronen