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Coronavirus: More challenges, more Jewish responses

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Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Last time, I looked at how at how Judaism is grappling with the huge challenges posed by the coronavirus. Today, more challenges and more to share.

I would like to start with the words of inspiration from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Thornhill, Ont.’s BAYT congregation (which, full disclosure, I am a member of). He begins by mentioning how it felt to close his synagogue. “Never did I imagine that I would have to be encouraging a congregation to close its doors. I guess that’s a lesson for me and it’s a lesson for all of us that when you least expect it, life throws you some very strange curves.”

Message from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

  • The rabbi then suggests that just as the Israelites were dedicated to building the sanctuary while in the wilderness, nowadays Jews are diligent to the success of their synagogues. But perhaps, he adds, the enforced isolation is an opportunity to refocus our attention on the sanctity of our own homes.
  • Our situation is also a reminder to not take our synagogues for granted. “I can tell you that when we do finally open up the doors that very first Shabbos, I can guarantee there’s going to be a kiddush gadol, a huge kiddush. And I’ll be the first on the list of sponsors for that kiddush to really, really celebrate being able to come back in and just be able to hold a siddur and a chumash and really embrace the chairs and the walls and the building (even with all of its flaws).”
  • He also talks about what we can learn from having to physically distance ourselves from each other. “Sometimes we do take each other for granted. We don’t appreciate the tremendous friendships and the love that exists in our community … that’s hopefully a lesson of distance makes the heart grow fonder.”

(And isn’t it cool that Rabbi Korobkin is sitting in front of a framed copy of Action Comics and Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Toronto legend Joe Shuster!)

I have been fascinated by the many questions I have come across about how Judaism can deal with the unprecedented demands of isolation and distancing we are living under. (If you are faced with a similar dilemma, please consult a trusted halachic – and if relevant, medical – authority.)

There is a well-known principle in Judaism that Shabbat can be violated when life is at stake. This usually refers to saving someone from imminent danger. I was fascinated by this topical take: “Can one do research on developing a vaccine for coronavirus on Shabbos?“ The answer hedges a bit and says the researcher must consult, in this case, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for a ruling which takes into consideration the exact nature of his or her work. And adds, “Shabbat is a divine gift, and we must observe it in a scrupulous fashion. But we also have a clear obligation to continue medical research on coronavirus on Shabbat. This disease is spreading throughout the world and is a great danger to everyone.”

This question from Nishmat’s Women’s Health and Halacha website: “I have always been careful never to delay mikveh, no matter what. But now I’m in quarantine because I returned to Israel from Italy last week. The mikveh attendant of my community told me that I can’t schedule a mikveh appointment. What should I do? Is there any place where they’ll let me immerse? Can I go in the sea?” The answer can be found here.

And not surprisingly, Judaism has something to say about hoarding. The prohibition is quoted in the Talmud in Baba Batra (90b). “One may not hoard foods which are essential to life, such as wines, oils, and flours.” Dr. Itamar Warhaftig puts it in a modern context. “The consumer is permitted to stock up for home use …. During a time of shortages, such as a drought even hoarding for household use is forbidden, because of the resulting difficulty to the needy.”

Dealing with an epidemic is, of course, a contemporary Jewish issue but I would like to share with you a fascinating communal response from a century ago, one which even has a Canadian connection.

Known in Yiddish as the Shvartze Chassaneh, “the Black Wedding, took place in response to the terrible waves of cholera, typhus, and influenza that ravaged the Jews of Eastern Europe, Israel, and North America.” As described by Jeremy Brown in a fascinating article at thelehrhaus.com, “a man and women, each unmarried and either impoverished, orphaned, or disabled (sometimes all three) were married together as husband and wife under a huppah – in a cemetery.” Why? So that “the attention of God would be called to the affliction of their fellows.”

This (literally) morbid ceremony has been documented to having been performed in both Safed and Jerusalem in 1865 following a massive plague of locusts that destroyed the crops and resulted in many deaths. On this side of the Atlantic, ‘black weddings’ took place in Philadelphia during the great flu pandemic in October 1918 and two weeks later in Winnipeg.

Under the headline “Hebrews Hold ‘Wedding of Death’ to Halt ‘Flu,’” the Winnipeg Evening Tribune reported that an elaborate wedding had been planned for Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman in a local Jewish cemetery. “At one end of the cemetery, a quorum of ten Jews conducted a funeral. At the other, 1,000 gentiles and Jews witnessed the wedding.” (You can read the entire archived story here.)

Jeremy Brown ends on a positive note. “As we wait to see how far the current coronavirus outbreak spreads, we should pause and reflect on our good fortune. We now understand the etiology and can often conquer those diseases that were mysterious and life-threatening to our great-grandparents. … And, in the face of an epidemic, we no longer need to gather at the local cemetery and marry off a destitute couple in order to invoke God’s mercy.”

As for invoking God’s mercy, the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues has just composed a “Prayer for the well-being of Israel and the peoples of the world.” It calls for its recital throughout the world on upcoming Shabbats. You can read the original Hebrew prayer here. This is an unofficial translation:

“He who blesses the fathers of the world and the fathers of Israel, who makes peace and creates everything, may He bless all His creations who are suffering from the Corona epidemic, which is raging throughout the corners of the world. My G-d hear and answer the prayers for well-being. As King Solomon prayed: ‘O hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people, Israel.’ (I Kings 8:43) … May You renew the order of the world as before, protect us, and heal all those who are ill because You will eternally rule your kingdom in glory. … And let say, amen.”

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