We the Rabbis and Rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel wish to address those who pray in communities or as part of the greater public:
In this very difficult year, as we struggle with the effects of the Corona pandemic and our society has adopted increasingly stringent restrictions of lockdown and social distancing, we call upon every individual and all communities to conduct Yom Kippur prayers in ways that do not endanger the public. While strict adherence to the instructions of the Health Ministry and to governmental regulations is essential, and provides a large measure of protection from infection, we call upon all individuals and communities to assume personal responsibility for reducing the burgeoning rates of Corona infection, taking into account the following considerations.
It is clear to us that under current conditions, there are many cases in which it is highly preferable to pray in an outdoor/open area or even at home alone. In deciding where to pray on Yom Kippur, one is halakhically obligated to think carefully about the potential risk in becoming infected or infecting others, remembering that even when all regulations are followed, the potential for infection is far greater indoors than outdoors.
Additional we need to consider the risk that the need to wear a mask and/or to pray outside in the late summer heat may engender weakness or illness, and may necessitate breaking the fast. All authorities agree that communal prayers on Yom Kippur are less important than maintaining one’s physical health, and are of secondary importance to the main mitzva of the day, which is to fast*.
The consideration which must direct every individual and community is the clear and steadfast declaration of our sages “that a person must do and live by them.” This obligation falls on every person individually and communally.
The painful significance of guarding one’s life regarding the holidays that are approaching – Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah – is that we will not be able to pray in our accustomed fashion, each one in his or her synagogue, with a large and familiar community, with the liturgy and tunes that he or she finds inspiring. Prayer that potentially may endanger the one who prays is considered to be a mitzva brought about by a transgression and is prohibited.
Those in a high risk group must seriously consider praying at home, which is certainly preferable to praying in a closed building. Even for those not at risk, it is preferable to pray outside of the synagogue. In addition, on Yom Kippur one must avoid being outside during the heat of the day which can cause dehydration during the fast. The preference of fasting over prayer in synagogue is absolute and this preference must be seriously considered when making decisions of where to pray this year.
Therefore, one who elects to pray with his or her family, or alone at home, is deciding wisely and correctly, inasmuch as caution in preserving life is praiseworthy.
For those praying in a minyan (quorum), we stongly recommend praying outside, during hours when outside temperatures are reasonable, and abbreviating the prayers to minimize the time spent outside and together with others. The following suggestions will enable balancing the demands of health with the requirements of the Yom Kippur liturgy
- Saying many of the daytime piyyutim at night after Maariv.
- Limiting morning prayers (shaharit and Musaf) to the very early morning (Vatikin) or early morning.
- A shortened Mincha (recited by the individuals together with the prayer leader), at a time shortly before the time of Neilah.
- Yizkor prayer before Neilah, rather than before Musaf.
- Members of a synagogue should encourage those at high risk not to pray inside.
We must not despair. Our Sages have said “desecrate one Shabbat so that you can keep many Shabbats”. In this spirit, we are avoiding praying in large gatherings in syngagogues or outside so that we can return “all of us alive today”.
May it be God’s will that the merit of the mitzva of “you shall live by them”, the merit of yearning for synagogue, the merit of the gates of repentance and tears which are never locked will result in fulfilling the words of the paytan: “May their tears suspend the evil decree, gather the straying flock, raise up a shepherd, and remember Your sheep for good.”
*Thus for example Responsa Hatam Sofer 6:23 rules: “If by remaining eclosed in their homes, they ensure that the fast does not harm then, they should stay home and pray alone and not read the Torah, for it is not permissible to override a Torah prohibition involving Karet.” Similarly, in Shmirat Shabbat K’Hilchata, Rabbi Neuwirth wrote in the name of Rabbi Auerbach that it is preferable to stay home and pray alone if this means avoiding drinking even small amounts that don’t consitute a Karet violation.
The obligation of wearing a mask will certainly make fasting and protracted prayer more difficult, potentially increasing the need for hydration. Due to the very hot weather anticipated on Yom Kippur praying with a mask outside or at a distance from home may cause one to experience weakness or a need to drink. In such cases, there is no obligation or value in praying in synagogue or even in an outdoor minyan.