COVID-19 Update for the Yomim Noraim

As we approach the Yom Hadin, I am being asked many questions regarding the Yomim Noraim and Succos so I have drafted some general guidelines for Rabbanim and lay leaders to utilize as they see fit.

General Guidelines for the Yomim Noraim
There are continued increases in cases in the Far Rockaway and 5 Towns area (and elsewhere), almost all related to semachot and subsequent screening and testing of exposed persons. Some weddings have become mini super-spreader events with over 10-15 secondary cases, and that is only the tip of the iceberg as many are not getting tested. While the increase Boruch Hashem has not led to hospitalizations, this is again a perilous reminder that COVID-19 could still radically alter our upcoming Yeshiva and Yomim Noraim expectations.

Universal agreement was expressed by 140 of our community 5 Towns physicians in a strong published letter this week. (Many more were upset that they did not know about the letter and would have signed). Plus despite the fact that there is rare unanimity from all public health authorities bar none – regarding the importance of proper masking, distancing and hand hygiene – there is an inexplicable reluctance to do this by some in our community.

Not to be prejudicial, but from the volume of calls and emails I am getting, the “older” population is generally very concerned and adherent with the public health recommendations, while there is a laxity in observance of the rules by some in the “younger” age groups. Many exceptions to this and I apologize if I offended anyone. Certainly not my intention. But bear with me for a second.

Let’s assume for a moment that all of the public health professionals, epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts are totally wrong.

Nonetheless, the perception of many is that they are not wrong. Therefore, a significant percentage of our community is very concerned about a potential resurgence of cases; that their children may be sent home from a newly closed school; and / or that they cannot hug their grandchildren at this time without a mask. I never had the zechus to meet any of my grandparents, Hy”d, but I would like to think I would gladly have worn a mask if they had asked me to do so.
The community’s grandparents and many others are collectively asking you to please wear a mask and follow the public health guidelines. Please listen to them. If indeed you were right that a mask was not necessary – big deal, you wore a mask for no reason. But if they are right and you are wrong and you did not wear a mask, you may have harmed someone irreversibly.
In the rest of this note, I will comment on various Yomim Noraim topics, some of which I discussed previously, but am consolidating here for easy reference. I am NOT paskening for anyone – I am simply providing my best medical advice that you and your Rav can choose to listen to (or not) and hopefully utilize to provide the safest environment for all.

Who cannot come to shul?
I reiterate that both indoor and outdoor minyanim at our shul and elsewhere can be made very safe for all people of all ages during the Yomim Noraim if the following rules are followed. This applies to all members, guests and relatives wishing to join in the davening.

Who can come to shul?
If the above are followed, then I believe every person in Klal Yisroel, even those with significant COVID-19 risk factors, can feel assured that the shul will be a safe makom kedusha for their tefillot to be heard among their brethren. Again, the poskim have clearly said that if you still remain personally alarmed, you are patur – exempt – from tefillah betzibbur and you should continue to daven at home.

For those nervous and “wavering” about going to shul, attending a safe outdoor minyan that requires masks and social distancing is essentially not a risk. Nevertheless, if you are still unsure what to do or uncomfortable staying for a long time, attend only for selected parts of the davening that require a minyan.

Yizkor is one of the most emotional parts of our davening, but actually, a minyan is not required to recite it. No one should feel they are demonstrating a lack of kavod for their departed parents if they feel insecure and are afraid for their health to attend shul. Say yizkor at home if you are afraid.

If you are “going out of shul” because BH both your parents are alive (for many years to come!), please do not congregate in the lobby. In fact, there is nothing halachically wrong with even staying inside and saying tehillim or learning, although I know that many will feel uncomfortable being inside for Yizkor.

For those who “need a break” during davening for whatever the reason, take a walk outside and please do not congregate in the shul.

A delicate problem to discuss publicly is lavatory necessities. Bathrooms in shul still pose an unknown potential problem, even with proper handwashing (of course) upon exit. Not so much for contagion from urination or touching surfaces, but there is an unclear potential concern from virus in stool and aerosolization. Obviously, the longer davening makes this more of a substantial concern. Best practice is to please use the facilities immediately before going to shul and as possible, not again till you return home. Alternatively, if you live near the shul, use the facilities in your house.

What about Youth Programs?
This is a major question for which clearly there is NOT a one size fits all answer. Depending greatly on numerous factors, including but not limited to space constraints, age and number of children together, are they from the same class / school, are there children joining from out of the area, etc., youth groups and chol hamoed events pose difficulties, but they can be constructed safely. It requires planning and attention to detail, and will look quite different from other years in terms of the schedule and events.

What about visitors traveling from other places?
Assuming all of the above rules are followed, visitors from other areas present an unknown risk. Obviously, they cannot come from a quarantined location, and obviously, they must follow all the above shul rules.
The trip / travel itself is a risk that it is not able to be quantified. Evidence published just this week in prestigious journals documented both air and bus travel COVID-19 exposures and illness. I tell people that if they were always masked, and distanced as possible during the entire travel when they were with other individuals, it is a low albeit unknown risk. I would allow such a person to daven in a minyan masked and distanced.

A negative COVID-19 test is unfortunately not reliable enough to obviate the risk, but such testing might have a role under a physician’s guidance. Same is true for testing chazzanim, ba’alei tekiah, and lainers. Again, a person recovered from COVID-19 is at a much lower risk of transmitting it when he performs any of these activities.

Davening and Selichot
An overriding principle this year is that davening should not be stretched out longer than halachically necessary, as determined by that shul’s Rav. Drawn out “chazzan singing alone” parts in the opinion of some poskim should be curtailed. Appropriate knowledgeable staff at each shul should make sure the ventilation system is up to date with appropriate filters and utilizing as much outside air as possible.

Some minyanim will shorten the tefillot by skipping certain piyutim or starting at Nishmas, as deemed appropriate by poskim, based upon limitations in ability to maintain a safe space for a longer period of time (e.g. small area, large number of mispallelim, poor ventilation, need to make minyanim one after the other; etc.) or other reasons.

There should be no kvetching. Mispallelim can sing along with the chazzan softly, and people should not pace around the shul but should stay in their assigned distanced place.

No loud davening or screaming. Hashem hears us no matter how softly we whisper.

I do not think that selichot pose a significant risk if all of the above shul rules are maintained. Some shuls may have to make special accommodations for the longer erev Rosh Hashanah selichot because of space constraints.

In accordance with your Rav, wash hands using alcohol based solutions upon entry and exit from shul as appropriate. If your shul is allowing kibudim to be given, wash hands before and after opening Aron Kodesh or touching sefer Torah. I strongly suggest that no prolonged mi sheberachs should be said.

Shofar Blowing
I previously outlined my thoughts on this subject. Needless to say, each Rav determines what is halachically acceptable for his shul.

HaRav Willig shlita paskened you do not blow from the normal place, the bima where we lain, if that space is not considered safe to blow. And no should blow who does not meet the shul entry criteria above.

To reiterate briefly, any / all of the following are useful to decrease any potential risk of spread:

Men’s mikva’os erev Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur
Discussed previously as well. ONLY applies to men’s, NOT women’s, mikva’os.

Discussed previously as well. Should not be a large social gathering.

This beautiful minhag can be fulfilled 100% correctly by yourself near any body of water (or even without water) utilizing tefillah and introspection as a way to symbolically release our sins through expressions of teshuva, repentance and atonement. Can be done anytime between Rosh Hashana and Hoshanah Rabbah, does not require a minyan or others present. As an aside, it can be a very great and enjoyable chinuch opportunity for a family to do this together.


General Guidelines for Succos
Succos 5781 will be different than any other Succos celebrated in recent years. I will try and outline some of the changes and give my medical recommendations, noting again that each shul’s Rav must make all the final policy decisions for his kehilla. Last week I discussed attending shul, indoor and outdoor minyanim and general shul issues, so I will not repeat that discussion.

What about building the Sukkah?
I do not see any issues with a family living together putting up their sukkah together. Alternatively, if you are hiring someone to build your sukkah, as long as there is no mixing between “unbubbled” builders, the builders will not “contaminate” your sukkah walls. Enjoy the holy rarified atmosphere of the sukkah.

Can we have company in the Sukkah?
The general rules for mixing at meals apply just as well to a sukkah. While technically outdoors, sukkahs are enclosed much more than a typical outdoor setting, and I would be concerned with mixing unless there was adequate separation (at least 6 feet if not more) between family units.

People without a private sukkah who need to eat at a neighbor or in the shul sukkah should try and stagger meal times so as not to coincide as possible.

Is it safe to purchase arba minim (Lulav and Esrog)?
I am concerned that having multiple people congregating in and around an arba minim store (especially having multiple unmasked people touching the species), presents a very risky enterprise. Each shul needs to work out methodologies whereby full kosher four species sets can be purchased that are pre-checked by the Rav or a mumcheh (expert) and sold as is without individual examination by multiple people in close proximity. There can be several standards for different prices, but a system needs to be set up to minimize group exposures.

What about sharing arba minim?
People living together within the same family unit can share their arba minim with no concern for transmission. If someone from a different family unit needs to shake your lulav and esrog, they should wash their hands first, fulfill the mitzvah, return the set, and wash again afterwards. I would not recommend doing this with multiple people unless there was absolutely no other option.

How should we do hoshanos?
Walking around in a large space with appropriate distancing between the “hoshana walkers” poses little risk. Outdoors in general again is usually safer, but distancing (with masking of course) is the critical factor. Such spacing may not be available though in many facilities, and it may be necessary to alternate who “walks” the hoshanos while others recite them standing by their seats. This will be especially important for Hoshana Rabbah. I dare say that davening the hoshanos is far more important than walking.

What about hakafos?
The rules for hakafos are essentially identical as for hoshanos. Vigorous unmasked prolonged simchas Torah dancing in close proximity can be a super-spreader event and must be avoided. Again, slow appropriately masked and spaced dancing and singing is doable – depending on each facility’s physical constraints and crowds. Maybe this year we celebrate and demonstrate our love of Torah with a special shiur from the Rav, with the congregation masked and distanced instead of dancing wildly.

Can we do “duchening” (birkas Kohanim)?
Having the Levites wash their hands before handling the cup to wash the Kohanim is easy and practical advice, and allows multiple Levi’im to participate. Efficiency must be stressed to minimize lines and congregating amongst Kohanim and Levi’im.

During duchening, the Kohanim must be distanced; larger areas than usual in the front of the shul may need to be utilized.
What about shul appeals?

Tzedakah appeals can and should be performed as usual. I am such a meikal. I strongly recommend, for those able to do so, to donate more than usual, as many more people this year are in need of these tzedakah funds than in previous years.

Are Chol HaMoed trips safe?
Depending greatly on numerous factors, chol hamoed events pose numerous potential issues that may or may not be surmountable. Indoor events with poor ventilation and no masking or distancing are clearly out, but outdoor parks and hiking, especially with just the family unit and lots of open space are ideal. Everything else falls in between. Shul events with short trips on uncrowded busses to appropriate socially distanced events are certainly doable. It requires planning and attention to detail, and not all events from prior years will be kosher this Chol HaMoed.

What about sukkah hops?
Unfortunately, the prospect of large crowds congregating in small overcrowded sukkahs with unmasked people eating, is scary. However, having some sort of a Torah story-telling time for the children in a large outdoor shul tent without refreshments would be an acceptable social engagement.

Similarly, simchas beis hashoeva parties will need to be greatly curtailed or re-engineered in a suitable distancing and masked fashion this year to keep everyone safe.

Can we all get aliyot this Simchas Torah?
A very tough question. If multiple small groups of 10-12 masked people can gather around a sefer Torah (but not too close) and quickly all get an aliyah without excessive crowding or being in close proximity, maybe…
Same thing applies to kol hane’arim. Very difficult to do in a safe manner. Let each child stand by their father or mother and say the bracha at their places, and not all together under a canopy…

But if unable to do so this year, these beautiful customs will iy”H be observed next year in their full glory in a rebuilt Yerushalayim.

In the merit of our serving Hashem to the best of our ability this difficult COVID-19 year,
may we all merit a Kesiva vachasima tova and good Shabbos.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.