Evaluating Emergencies: Thoughts on Halakhic Decisions in Response to Corona

As the world copes with the coronavirus pandemic, soceities continue to grapple with the disruptions of social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” and curtail the spread of the fatal virus. Many feel the economic impact, either through loss of income or restrictions on what supplies we can provide for ourselves or families. Some even experience psychological and physical effects from being socially isolated.

Those who belong to social religions such as Judaism face additional pressures when their sacred rituals depend on (or are enhanced by) communal participation. Many if not most minyanim worldwide have been canceled, and others have gone to great lengths in order to say kaddish for a loved one.

These challenges may be reserved for a relatively small segment of the global poulation but they can also weigh more heavily on the members of religious communties due to their importance. And just as secular governments must wrestle with the appropriate amount of emergency encroachments on norms, religious communities are no less mindful of the long-term consequences of emergency decisions. 

States of Exception

Jewish law already incorporates a “state of exception” called “Hora’at Sha’ah” in which Jewish law may be suspended or overridden for extenuating circumstances. These extenuating circumstances may even refer to a permanent situation. For example, the oral tradition may not be written down. However, due to the risk of people forgetting this sacred tradition, “better to uproot the Torah so that the Torah will not be forgotten from Israel” (Temurah 14b, also see Gittin 60a), a dispensation which continues to this day.

Given the power of hora’at sha’ah to override established law, it should not be surprising to find that the rabbinic sages were wary of its misuse and misapplication stating, “one does not bring a proof from an emergency situation” (Sukkah 31b, Niddah 9a). Meaning, a decision made for one emergency situation by definition is not applicable to another situation. Each case requires its own analysis of the relevant halakhot and all the personal and communal ramifications.

With this in mind, I’d like to compare two such recent decisions made in light of the conornavirus.

Virtual Megillah Readings

The first major corona related halakhic decisions were those involving hearing the megillah on Purim over the internet. R. Hershel Shachter, not known for being a meikil was quoted as saying, “In a situation in which it is impossible to have an in-person mikra megillah due to pikuach nefesh considerations caused by the coronavirus, it is permissible to hear mikra megillah via a live phone call or video.” The Orthodox Union stated:

The clear majority of Halachic authorities do not consider Halachically adequate a Megillah reading heard over the phone or online.  There is however a minority opinion that does allow for this, provided that the reading is live, and not pre-recorded.  Following the Halachic principle that we may rely upon minority opinions under extenuating circumstances – שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי וכדאי הוא ר״ש לסמוך עליו בשעת הדחק – this minority opinion can be relied upon for those who are in mandated isolation.

Here we find prominent Orthodox voices invoking the emergency exception to contravene established practice. In this case, the “emergency” was to discourage public gatherings, thereby minimizing potential exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus.

I have no idea if those who relied on this dispensation to hear megillah over the internet indeed fulfilled their obligation on their spiritual scorecard. It is entirely possible that people were in fact exempt entirely under the principle of אונס רחמנא פטריה – that under duress the Torah provides an exemption. 

In any case, ruling that people may hear the megillah over the internet provided peace of mind to observant Jews who might otherwise feel guilty enough for missing out on fulfilling a commandment that they might have risked hearing the megillah in person, even among a smaller group.

Regardless of the merits of the halakhic reasoning behind the dispensation, the ruling itself as phrased helped accomplish the goal of discouraging people from social interaction.

Contrast this dispensation with our next example.

Passover Seders Over Zoom

In March 2020, several Orthodox rabbis permitted the use of using Zoom conferencing for the Passover Seder, provided the technology was set up beforehand. As the Jerusalem Post reported, this is “a remarkable ruling” due to the longstanding practice in Orthodox Judaism forbidding the use of electricity on Shabbat and holidays”

Orthodox rabbis forbade the use of electricity on Shabbat when it began to become commonplace at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and this prohibition has become standard practice throughout the Orthodox world.

Electricity in Jewish law is too complicated a subject to relitigate here.1 For now, I assume the “standard” position among Orthodox Jews prohibiting electricity on Shabbat and holidays because that is the context in which the dispensation was issued and in which context the invocation of an “emergency situation.”

According to the text of the ruling,2 the motivation for this dispensation is twofold. First, for many young Jews whose only connection to Judaism is through their grandparents, then were it not for this connection they would not have a Passover seder at all. Second, for the elderly, there is a reason to alleviate their depression and “give them a motivation to fight for their lives.”

Why this Ruling is Different from all other Rulings

On a conceptual level, this dispensation breaks no new ground. We can easily find precedent for dispensations enacted לצורך מצוה / for the sake of fulfilling a commandment as well as examples for where exceptions are made out of consideration for mental health.

Rather, the innovation here is a matter of application in defining being alone for Passover without one’s family as such an emergency matter that the normal rules of Shabbat can be overridden. What counts as an “emergency situation” is always a judgment call, but that means the judgment is open to question.

In their introduction to R. Daniel Sperber’s The Importance of the Community Rabbi, R. Dov Linzer and Dr. Chaim Trachtman explain:

Not every case of illness is a choleh kol ha’guf, a full-body illness which overrides certain Rabbinic restrictions on Shabbat; some are meichus be’alma, a slight discomfort. Not every issue can be raised to the level of compromise of human dignity or of emotional distress, and not every difficult situation is a she’at had’dechak. While one may certainly argue that we should, as a rule, adopt more expansive definitions of these criteria, there are limits (13).

Torah accommodates for people in dire situations but we can wrestle with defining what counts as “dire.”

Discomfort and Resilience

I believe a key point of disagreement in these sorts of discussions is the extent to which we’re inclined to alleviate discomfort and when we promote or valorize resilience. This is not only a religious metric but a cultural one.

For example, Jonathan Haidt has written extensively against creeping “safetyism.” In trying to protect children from discomfort, we wind up making them less resilient in the long run and thus more vulnerable to suffering later on in life. For some, “the obstacle is the way” towards building greater strength and commitment. According to this view, excessively encouraging accommodations may lead to diminished religious resilience to the point where individuals may come to expect religious standards to conform to their comfort.

On the other hand, research has also demonstrated an “empathy gap” where “people who endured challenges in the past (like divorce or being skipped over for a promotion) were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation.”

The “empathy gap” can explain why I’ve seen several people respond to the Zoom dispensation with analogies to observance in the Holocaust. If our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents managed to halakhically observe Shabbat and holidays under objectively harder circumstances, why should accommodations be made now? But this attitude is simply the flip side of the same coin of not being able to quantify emotional distress or suffering.

I am not going to offer an opinion of whether or not the Zoom psak is “right” or “wrong” because ultimately it’s a judgment call whether or not this situation rises to the level of hora’at sha’ah (at least as a general principle as opposed to a case by case basis). However, I believe how we define these emergency situations reflect more of our personal and cultural biases than many are willing to admit.

Even though we are not supposed to extrapolate from emergency situations, I believe this trend will not only persist, but will gradually have an even greater impact on Jewish practice in the future.


  1. For a general overview, please see my class series on Electricity in Jewish Law which features an introductory lecture on electricity from an actual physicist. Furthermore, electricity is not the only issue but also השמעת קול / eliciting noise on Shabbat. See for example, Mishpetei Uzziel 1 O.C. 13 regarding records/gramophones, telephones, and radios and his follow-up in 3 O.C. 51.
  2. Helpfully attached to this Vos iz Neias post.
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