To protect life during a plague, build yourself a fence


Since the advent of coronavirus social distancing, there have been many disturbing reports of Orthodox groups engaging in ritual activity resulting in violations of social distancing (funerals, minyanim, yeshiva learning, etc.).

Recently and infamously, this phenomenon resulted in a rebuke from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mayor de Blasio’s comments were disturbing and worthy of rebuke in their own right (my organization, the Union for Traditional Judaism, issued a statement in that regard here). But no matter how isolated these cases may be, and regardless of whether they are more or less prevalent than violations of social distancing occurring in the secular world, these violations require a strong and clear response. As our sages taught, כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה — all Israel is responsible for one another (Sifra Behukotai 7:5). Therefore, for the sake of the Jewish people, we must not be silent (CF Isaiah 62:1).

After the funeral that sparked the mayor’s outrage, the synagogue that organized the funeral, Bais Medrosh Tolaas Yakov, issued a statement explaining that the funeral was intended to afford people the opportunity to honor the deceased rabbi “while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks,” but “[u]nfortunately, this didn’t pan out.” However, this was certainly not the first instance of things “getting out of hand,” and as the UTJ statement pointed out, “[t]he time has long since passed for everyone to realize that consistent vigilance is impossible and that even gatherings planned with the best of intentions have the potential to spread Covid-19, thus endangering attendees and the public at large.”

Although the desire to engage in “appropriately socially distanced” ritual is understandable, we believe that halacha calls for a different approach. Halacha is famous for applying a great deal of stricture “lest one thing lead to another.” The very first mishnah of Pirkei Avot teaches עשו סייג לתורה – make a fence around the Torah — and rabbinic literature is replete with praise for those who act לפנים משורת הדין – beyond the letter of the law. Admittedly, this predilection for extreme caution within Judaism is not without its own dangers. The midrash teaches that the very first “fence around the Torah” was Eve’s understanding that one may not touch the fruit of the forbidden tree, which the snake ultimately used to convince Eve that eating the fruit was not really dangerous (Bereshith Rabbah 19:3). Nonetheless, we believe that the right approach to social distancing is to do our best to avoid all nonessential public interactions lest those interactions lead to dangerous failures of social distancing. We should all be erring on the side of caution in this regard.

Maimonides rules at Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 12:6 that it is forbidden to stand in any dangerous place. Rabbi Moshe Isserles explains in his gloss to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 116:5:

וכן יזהר מכל דברים המביאים לידי סכנה, כי סכנתא חמירא מאיסורא ויש לחוש יותר לספק סכנה מלספק איסור, … עוד כתבו שיש לברוח מן העיר כשדבר בעיר, ויש לצאת מן העיר בתחלת הדבר, ולא בסופו (תשובת מהרי”ל סי’ ל”ה /מ”א/). … ואסור לסמוך אנס או לסכן נפשו בכל כיוצא בזה

So too, one must take care [to avoid] everything that brings one to danger, because danger is graver than sin and therefore one must worry more about possible danger than possible sin … moreover they (i.e. rabbis e.g. Maharil) wrote that one must flee a city when there is a plague in the city and there is reason to leave at the beginning of the plague and not at its end. … And it is forbidden to rely on miracles or to endanger one’s life in any such manner.

Halacha calls on us to be more careful with protecting our lives than with fulfilling ritual obligations. As the UTJ stated in its earlier statement, at this time our singular religious task is to apply the words of Leviticus 18:5, “and you shall live by them.” This means that declining to arrange or attend public funerals, davening in our homes, and learning Torah either on our own or by phone or video chat is the ultimate fulfillment of our sacred responsibilities at this time. We hope that every individual and group within the people of Israel will take this message to heart and that in the merit of our vigilance in this regard, we will save many lives and eventually emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

Rabbi Noah Gradofsky is a Vice President of the Union for Traditional Judaism.