Thursday, March 26, 2020

Passover in an Age of COVID-19

Passover in an age of COVID-19
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

Observing Passover (Pesach) always presents challenges but this year is more challenging than usual. In this article I want to address two different issues:
Observing the Seder when health guidelines tell us not to gather with people outside our immediate household.
Keeping kosher for Passover when going shopping presents a health hazard and supply chains are interrupted.

I do not intend to address the overall question of keeping kosher for Passover as I have covered that in previous years. That guidance can be found here but should be used bearing in mind the particular leniencies which are applicable this year.

It should be absolutely clear that under no circumstances is it permitted to gather for Seder with people other than your immediate household. There is a principle in halacha (Jewish law) known as dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law) and it is a Jewish religious obligation to obey civil laws. Since the State of Maryland has issued rulings restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people, and has further advised people to remain at home except for truly essential activities, and public health guidelines call for us to maintain a distance of at least six feet from people who are not part of our household, we consider it a sin to violate these guidelines. If you are still planning to gather for Seder with a group of less than 10, maintaining the six foot separation, you may only do so if your physician tells you that this is permitted.
Kehilat Shalom has already been streaming daily and Shabbat services via Zoom since March 19. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued guidelines that permit the use of video streaming for services (and by analogy the Pesach Seder) and allow for the recitation of Kaddish provided that there are at least ten participants and they can all see and hear each other. (This provision is why we use Zoom rather than Facebook Live or Youtube which are one way rather than interactive connections.)
The original CJLS guidance specified that streaming needed to be done in such a way that the equipment was not operated on Shabbat, neither by the person moderating or hosting the streaming session, nor by the other participants. Unfortunately, following this guidance requires all kinds of IT infrastructure that costs many thousands of dollars which we do not possess. Therefore I reluctantly concluded that we would violate the CJLS guidelines and offer Zoom services on Shabbat regardless. My reasoning is that the prohibitions which are violated by operating Zoom on Shabbat are d’rabbanan (rabbinic) rather than d’oraita (biblical) and that the rabbis have the authority to suspend d’rabbanan prohibitions when it is in the public interest to do so.

On March 25 the CJLS issued guidance which says that “ideally” the above practices should be followed but if they cannot be, it is permissible in current circumstances to connect to or initiate a stream from a computer which is already operating if it can be done by instructing a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa to do so or by clicking on a link rather than typing in a web address. The stream itself should also be set up so that it does not record. In my opinion this guidance is much more realistic and we should strive to follow it, but I still maintain that typing into a computer on Shabbat or causing video recording is at worst a rabbinic rather than biblical prohibition and can be overridden if necessary under current circumstances. Therefore it is permitted to conduct a Seder over Zoom or similar technology and include friends and family who cannot safely join you in person. Ideally there should be a seder plate at each location but at a minimum each location should have three matzahs, wine or grape juice, carpas (any green vegetable), maror (any bitter vegetable), and salt water.

Keeping Kosher for Pesach:

The main concern as we shop for Pesach this year is disruption of the supply chain combined with the risk of going shopping, and all the more so the possibility of having to go from store to store since availability of products is so inconsistent. One way to minimize this problem locally is to do your Pesach shopping online through Most of the products in their system are Kosher for Passover, and those which are not are clearly marked. They will deliver your order to our area but like everyone else they are limited by availability of product and have limited delivery time slots available.
Bear in mind that while it is prohibited to eat chametz (“leavened products” which combine liquid and any of the five grains wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) it is required to eat matzah only for the Seder. If you are having difficulty obtaining matzah this is helpful to remember. Those who have a sufficient supply of matzah should be willing to help make sure that their fellow Jews have at least three matzahs for the Seder and find a way to get them to each other in a contactless manner.
Karpas can be any vegetable (in Israel it is commonly a boiled potato). Maror can be any vegetable which brings a tear to the eye if consumed raw. In Israel it is usually romaine lettuce but it could be hot peppers, fresh ginger, mustard greens or raw lemon if horseradish is unavailable.
As I referenced in my general Passover guide, the CJLS in 2015 permitted all Jews, not just Sephardim, to consume kitniyot (“legumes”, things such as beans, rice, and corn) on Passover. For this year the CJLS is urging everyone to permit the consumption of kitniyot and general guidance can be found in my above article.
I have previously written and discussed the halachic concept of bitul b’shishim which means that an amount of non-kosher food or drink which is less than 1/60th of the total volume is nullified and the product remains kosher. While this doesn’t apply to chametz during Pesach, it does apply before Pesach and we formally nullify any chametz in our possession the night before and the morning of the first Seder. In practical terms it

means that if one didn’t sort through the beans or rice they bought before Pesach and they happen to find a grain of chametz in it before cooking, they can simply discard the chametz and the food remains permissible.
The concept of bitul b’shishim also means that while we normally strive to buy products which are certified for Passover, in a crisis situation such as this year we can rely on bitul to purchase products which we know do not contain any chametz but might have been produced on a production line which is also used for chametz. The CJLS has published a more in depth guide to Pesach shopping for this year which can be accessed here.

On Monday March 30 at 10 am I will be offering a seminar on these issues as well as a Q&A at the following link:

While I am happy to answer any questions and provide guidance, unless you are doing your Pesach shopping prior to this coming Monday I would ask you to hold your questions until the seminar since your question may be of broader interest.

My fervent prayer for all of us is that we merit to observe this coming Pesach as safely as we can and that in future years we once again join together in person to proclaim “next year in Jerusalem.”