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Seder in Time of Plague

American Jewry's most popular holy day, Passover, begins at sundown, Wednesday, April 8th this year, with the seder. Approximately 90% of us host or attend a seder annually, by far the most inclusive Jewish event in any year.

Food, family and friends underlie the popularity of the seder celebration of our exodus from Egypt 3,000 plus years ago. It spectacularly renews and recites the “root event” of the Jewish people, mentioned in our prayers multiple times daily. But, for most Jews the Passover story and songs are rungs four and five from the top of the Passover ladder. Family, friends and food – that’s the pinnacle of Passover for the majority of us.

Failing a healing miracle, American Jews will be isolated, quarantined and home bound come April 8th. Yet, I suspect that invitations have long since gone out, inviting people to celebrate together around the seder table, as we have for millennia. Many families and friends renew and relive heartfelt Passover traditions established over decades. COVID-19 raises the question: How to celebrate during a plague?

The mitzvah of the seder requires reciting the story, even alone, not any particular number of guests. But for many, if not most of us, the guests are as central as the Haggadah.

We Jews are no strangers to plagues. Our long history is replete with cholera epidemics, antisemitic attacks, the bubonic plague. So, this year, the Jewish year 5780, what shall we do? Haggadahs – check. Food – check. Tell the story of the Exodus – check. But what about the most essential: friends and family? When socializing could implant the unsuspected Coronavirus, erupting days or weeks later and threatening our lives, what shall we do? How do we celebrate?

In a certain sense the decision is easy: The Talmud (B. Yoma 85b) lays it out clearly: we must live by the commandments, not die by them. If observing a commandment leads to death, (other than: not to murder, commit idolatry or a sex crime) we bypass the commandment. Jews live by the commandments, not die by them. (Read the Talmud text at the conclusion of this article)

But then, it’s not entirely clear what to do, is it? Suppose your seder guests live with you and you see them daily? Suppose they are family, and you’ve been visiting with them during the entire period of quarantine? Or suppose you haven’t seen them? You’ve all been self-isolating, expectantly awaiting this happy reunion? This is Passover, not just any old day! Mustn’t I celebrate with my children, parents, grandchildren? How can we skip Passover together?

Because we are Jews, we find historical precedent. In 1848, the renowned, moralist Orthodox rabbi, Israel Lipkin, known as Salanter, in the face of a devastating cholera epidemic mounted the pulpit on Yom Kippur Eve after the Kol Nidrei prayer, recited ha-motzi over bread, ate, and ordered everyone to follow suit. There would be no fasting for the holiest day of the Jewish year in Vilnius, Lithuania. Life takes precedence over ritual, even fasting on Yom Kippur. Ira Taub describes it this way:

As a devastating cholera epidemic reached its peak just as the solemn fast of Yom Kippur was approaching, Salanter publicly advocated eating on Yom Kippur, so that his community would not be made more vulnerable by a day of fasting.


Notice that Salanter ate to avoid illness, not because he was ill. The plague was devastating the community. Salanter sought to avoid advancing disease by taking a precaution against future illness. It was a controversial and necessary step. Even with uncertainty, Jews prefer attempting to preserve life over even the most important rituals.

Personally, I’ve been preparing for this year’s seder for many months. I asked our children in November to reserve the date. We invited guests. I’ve been studying the details of the Haggadah, my hobby, as almost never before. Special ritual objects will, for the first time, grace our table. And we’ll do it on Zoom. I will not place those I love at risk, or place myself and wife at risk, for the sake of this beloved, much anticipated, friend and family celebration of freedom. The Talmud teaches to desecrate one shabbat in order to observe many shabbatot. The same applies to Passover.

I have not yet worked out the details of how this will work. Likely we’ll use a Zoom account along with Facebook live. Perhaps one computer will on the table, and with the interactive Zoom account we’ll all recite the Haggadah together. I’m not yet certain.

But this I know, having consulted with doctors and read many articles: we can’t be certain who is carrying the virus, unless they are sick. Then we know for sure. For now, we must flatten the curve, reduce the risk, stop the spread of the virus to anyone, beloved friend and family or anonymous stranger.

Maybe we’ll see a miracle. Maybe the plague will abate. Maybe. God works in mysterious ways. But we pray for miracles, we don’t rely upon them.

Stay safe. Be healthy. There’ll be Passover again in 5781. Celebrate small, the members of your household, or share online. We Jews live by the commandments. We must make sure we don’t die by them.

Next year in Jerusalem!

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b

ר' שמעון בן מנסיא אומר (שמות לא, טז) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת אמרה תורה חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל אי הואי התם הוה אמינא דידי עדיפא מדידהו (ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said: It is stated: “And the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16).The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbat on his behalf so he will observe many Shabbatot. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated this question, I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), and not that he should die by them. In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot.

JEWISH LAW AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE Cholera illness itself posed a threat to life that easily passed the Talmudic threshold of a dangerous illness; however, the threat of cholera posed a more thorny question. On one hand, the individual in question is completely healthy, and, if not infected, can tolerate the fast easily. On the other hand, he stands in the path of a dangerous epidemic that could reduce a patient from perfect health to death in hours. For a violation as severe as eating on Yom Kippur, does the mere threat of a serious infection trump the sanctity of the day? In earlier rabbinic sources, the threat of a dangerous infectious illness was sufficient ground to suspend a number of important observances … More serious violations of Jewish law must reflect a clear and present danger to an existing patient, a concept referred to a choleh lafaneinu. Otherwise, one could construct a number of absurd scenarios under which serious violations would be condoned, such as continuous violation of the Sabbath “just in case” a patient were to appear at one’s door. Salanter consulted with doctors prior to his ruling, and in fact instructed his followers that the physicians’ advice carried the force … of a Biblical obligation. …

The Rabbi Who Ate on Yom Kippur: Israel Salanter and the Cholera Epidemic of 1848, Ira Taub, pp. 309-310, In: And Your Shall Surely Heal, Copyright © 2009 Yeshiva University

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