Virtual Shabbat (Liberal Judaism) (Coronavirus)

virtual shabbat

Not terribly enthusiastic, I’ve been not thinking enough about the phenomenon that will be live streaming Shabbat and other tefilot and the many aesthetic choices that will matter going forward. This one conveys something to do with the aesthetics of empty space and the diminutive human figure. The screenshot captures Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and Cantor Daniel Mutlu leading Shabbat services at New York City’s Central Synagogue March 21, 2020, streaming online.


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Pikuach Nefesh Is (Not) A (Overriding) Halakhic Value


I’ll might take this post down because maybe I’m getting it terribly wrong. But I’m going to give it a shot. The principle of Pikuch Nefesh (saving life) is a well-known and a cardinal principle of Jewish law. The notion is that saving life trumps everything, and that in a case of collision, the law is that life trumps law. The locus classicus for this principle is in tractate Yoma where we learn that Pikuah Nefesh precedes or trumps (doche) Shabbat. Liberal Jews, including most modern orthodox Jews, are justifiably proud of this text. It seems to stand as a banner to the flexible and life affirming character of the halakhic system. But is it the cardinal principle of Jewish law? As a concept, Pikuach Nefesh is the most reified of halakhic objects, a reification that is enough to raise critical doubts, not about Halakah, but the claims that modern Jews make about it.

Questions about the value of Pikuach Nefesh and its place in the system of Halakhah build upon the starting point that that the halakhic system is based on value pluralism, that its system contains competing standards and goods. This meants that there is no such thing as a single, self-standing norm, not even life. The first thing to note is that the principle of Pikuach Nefesh bangs up against the problem of grave sin (this is a very well known caveat). Second, the examples of Pikuach Nefesh are of a particular sort, referring in the main to the transgression of negative mitzvot. Pikuach Nefesh precedes negative commandments like the prohibition of Sabbath labors, or, in one case, the eating of forbidden food (e.g. food on Yom Kippur, pork). 

Note, if you want to skip the texts, scroll down to [5] for my takeaway.


The key line in the text below is that “nothing stands before Pikuach Nefesh.” This maxim is universal, or would be universal, were there not, famously, critical exceptions to the rule. Nothing stands before saving life, except the three cardinal sins of idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. Further complicating the the discussion around these conflicting norms is that, excluding the case of murder, exceptions to exceptions are introduced by the gemara in tractate Sanhedrin. The gemara there will suggest that one could, in certain cases, transgress even these transgression in order to save ones’ own life (see below in section #4).

Yoma 82a, גמ׳ ת”ר עוברה שהריחה בשר קודש או בשר חזיר תוחבין לה כוש ברוטב ומניחין לה על פיה אם נתיישבה דעתה מוטב ואם לאו מאכילין אותה רוטב עצמה ואם נתיישבה דעתה מוטב ואם לאו מאכילין אותה שומן עצמו שאין לך דבר שעומד בפני פקוח נפש חוץ מע”ז וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

GEMARA: The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a pregnant woman who smelled consecrated meat or pig meat and craved those specific foods, one inserts a thin reed into the juice of that item and places it on her mouth. If her mind become settled with that, it is well. And if not, one feeds her the gravy itself of that forbidden food. If her mind becomes settled with that, it is well. And if not, one feeds her the fat of the forbidden food itself, as there is no halakha that stands in the way of saving a life except for the prohibitions against idol worship, and forbidden sexual relationships, and bloodshed.


Related to Pikuach Nefesh is another formula, “Sefek Nefashot” (uncertainty about life) overriding (doche) Shabbat. In these passages, there is no doubt whatsoever about the priority of life over against the performance of a negative mitzvot relating to Shabbat in particular. It is, indeed, praiseworthy to violate the Sabbath in these cases.

Yoma 84b: מפני שספק נפשות הוא וכו’ ל”ל תו למימר וכל ספק נפשות דוחה את השבת אמר רב יהודה אמר רב לא ספק שבת זו בלבד אמרו אלא אפילו ספק שבת אחרת

The mishna states that one with pain in his throat should be given medicine on Shabbat because it is a case of uncertainty concerning a life-threatening situation. The Gemara asks: Why do I need to say furthermore: And any case of uncertainty concerning a life-threatening situation overrides Shabbat? Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: They stated this not only in a case where there is uncertainty with regard to this Shabbat, but even if the uncertainty is with regard to a different future Shabbat.

היכי דמי כגון דאמדוה לתמניא יומי ויומא קמא שבתא מהו דתימא ליעכב עד לאורתא כי היכי דלא ניחול עליה תרי שבתא קמ”ל

What are the circumstances in which uncertainty would arise as to whether or not his life will be in danger in the future? They are a case where doctors assess that an ill person needs a certain treatment for eight days, and the first day of his illness is Shabbat. Lest you say: He should wait until evening and begin his treatment after Shabbat so they will not need to desecrate two Shabbatot for his sake, therefore it teaches us that one must immediately desecrate Shabbat for his sake. This is the halakha, despite the fact that an additional Shabbat will be desecrated as a result, because there is uncertainty about whether his life is in danger.

תניא נמי הכי מחמין חמין לחולה בשבת בין להשקותו בין להברותו ולא שבת זו בלבד אמרו אלא לשבת אחרת ואין אומרים נמתין לו שמא יבריא אלא מחמין לו מיד מפני שספק נפשות דוחה את השבת ולא ספק שבת זו אלא אפי’ ספק שבת אחרת

That was also taught in a baraita: One heats water for an ill person on Shabbat, whether to give him to drink or to wash him, since it might help him recover. And they did not say it is permitted to desecrate only the current Shabbat for him, but even a different, future Shabbat. And one must not say: Let us wait and perform this labor for him after Shabbat, perhaps he will get well in the meantime. Rather, one heats it for him immediately because any case of uncertainty concerning a life-threatening situation overrides Shabbat. And this is so not only with regard to uncertainty whether his life is in danger on the current Shabbat, but even in a case of uncertainty with regard to danger on a different Shabbat.

ואין עושין דברים הללו לא ע”י נכרים ולא ע”י כותיים אלא ע”י גדולי ישראל ואין אומרין יעשו דברים הללו לא ע”פ נשים ולא ע”פ כותיים אבל מצטרפין לדעת אחרת

And these acts should not be performed by gentiles or Samaritans but should be done by the greatest of the Jewish people, i.e., their scholars, who know how to act properly. And one does not say: These actions may be performed based on the advice of women or Samaritans, since they are not considered experts able to declare a person ill enough to override Shabbat. However, the opinions of these people do combine with an additional opinion, meaning that if there is a dispute, their opinions may be considered when coming to a decision.

ת”ר מפקחין פקוח נפש בשבת והזריז ה”ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב”ד הא כיצד ראה תינוק שנפל לים פורש מצודה ומעלהו והזריז ה”ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב”ד ואע”ג דקא צייד כוורי ראה תינוק שנפל לבור עוקר חוליא ומעלהו והזריז ה”ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב”ד אע”ג דמתקן דרגא

The Sages taught in a baraita: One engages in saving a life on Shabbat, and one who is vigilant to do so is praiseworthy. And one need not take permission from a court but hurries to act on his own. How so? If one sees a child who fell into the sea, he spreads a fisherman’s net and raises him from the water. And one who is vigilant and acts quickly is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, although in doing so he catches fish in the net as well. Similarly, if one sees a child fall into a pit and the child cannot get out, he digs part of the ground out around the edge of the pit to create a makeshift step and raises him out. And one who is vigilant and acts quickly is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, although in doing so he fashions a step.

ראה שננעלה דלת בפני תינוק שוברה ומוציאו והזריז ה”ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב”ד ואע”ג דקא מיכוין למיתבר בשיפי מכבין ומפסיקין מפני הדליקה בשבת והזריז ה”ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב”ד ואע”ג דקא ממכיך מכוכי

Similarly, if one sees that a door is locked before a child and the child is scared and crying, he breaks the door and takes the child out. And one who is vigilant and acts quickly is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, although he intends to break it into boards to be used later. Similarly, one may extinguish a fire by placing a barrier of metal or clay vessels filled with water in front of it on Shabbat when life is endangered. And one who is vigilant and acts quickly is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, although he leaves the coals, which can be used for cooking after Shabbat.


In the following passage, the rabbis derive scriptural support for the notion that Pikuach Nefesh precedes Shabbat.

Yoma 85a. וכבר היה ר’ ישמעאל ורבי עקיבא ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה מהלכין בדרך ולוי הסדר ורבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי אלעזר בן עזריה מהלכין אחריהן נשאלה שאלה זו בפניהם מניין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת

The Gemara relates: It once happened that Rabbi Yishmael, and Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya were walking on the road, and Levi HaSadar and Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, were walking respectfully behind them, since they were younger and did not walk alongside their teachers. This question was asked before them: From where is it derived that saving a life overrides Shabbat?

The scriptural derivations for the principle that “Pikuach Nefesh precedes Shabbat” are the subject of a conversation on the road between this group of tanaim. But the gemara requires the intervention of Shmuel, a Babylonian amora to decide the matter with the requisite finality.

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated this question, I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), and not that he should die by them. In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot (Yoma 85b).

Israel is supposed to live by the law, not die by it.


Exceptions to the exceptions, namely when one can violate the rules against idolatry and illicit sexual relations. The discussion is preceded by long discussions that permit the killing of a person to keep them from sin. The sins are sabbath violations, rape, and murder.

But the main text that speaks to our concern starts here:

Sanhedrin 74a-b The Gemara now considers which prohibitions are permitted in times of mortal danger. Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The Sages who discussed this issue counted the votes of those assembled and concluded in the upper story of the house of Nitza in the city of Lod: With regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told: Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed, he may transgress that prohibition and not be killed, because the preserving of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions. This is the halakha concerning all prohibitions except for those of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. Concerning those prohibitions, one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress them.

ועבודת כוכבים לא והא תניא א”ר ישמעאל מנין שאם אמרו לו לאדם עבוד עבודת כוכבים ואל תהרג מנין שיעבוד ואל יהרג ת”ל (ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם

The Gemara asks: And should one not transgress the prohibition of idol worship to save his life? But isn’t it taught in a baraita: Rabbi Yishmael said: From where is it derived that if a person is told: Worship idols and you will not be killed, from where is it derived that he should worship the idol and not be killed? The verse states: “You shall keep My statutes and My judgments, which a person shall do, and he shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), thereby teaching that the mitzvot were given to provide life, but they were not given so that one will die due to their observance.

יכול אפילו בפרהסיא תלמוד לומר (ויקרא כב, לב) ולא תחללו את שם קדשי ונקדשתי

The baraita continues: One might have thought that it is permitted to worship the idol in this circumstance even in public, i.e., in the presence of many people. Therefore, the verse states: “Neither shall you profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the Lord Who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32). Evidently, one is not required to allow himself to be killed so as not to transgress the prohibition of idol worship when in private; but in public he must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress.

אינהו דאמור כר”א דתניא ר”א אומר (דברים ו, ה) ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך אם נאמר בכל נפשך למה נאמר בכל מאדך ואם נאמר בכל מאדך למה נאמר בכל נפשך

The Gemara answers: Those in the upper story of the house of Nitza stated their opinion in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. As it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: It is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). If it is stated: “With all your soul,” why is it also stated: “With all your might,” which indicates with all your material possessions? And if it is stated: “With all your might,” why is it also stated: “With all your soul”? One of these clauses seems to be superfluous.

אם יש לך אדם שגופו חביב עליו מממונו לכך נאמר בכל נפשך ואם יש לך אדם שממונו חביב עליו מגופו לכך נאמר בכל מאדך

Rather, this serves to teach that if you have a person whose body is more precious to him than his property, it is therefore stated: “With all your soul.” That person must be willing to sacrifice even his life to sanctify God’s name. And if you have a person whose property is more precious to him than his body, it is therefore stated: “With all your might.” That person must even be prepared to sacrifice all his property for the love of God. According to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, one must allow himself to be killed rather than worship an idol.

גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים כדרבי דתניא רבי אומר (דברים כב, כו) כי כאשר יקום איש על רעהו ורצחו נפש כן הדבר הזה וכי מה למדנו מרוצח

From where is it derived that one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress the prohibition of forbidden sexual relations and the prohibition of bloodshed? This is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: With regard to the rape of a betrothed young woman it is written: “But you shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has committed no sin worthy of death; for as when a man rises against his neighbor, and slays him, so too with this matter” (Deuteronomy 22:26). But why would the verse mention murder in this context? But what do we learn here from a murderer?

מעתה הרי זה בא ללמד ונמצא למד מקיש רוצח לנערה המאורסה מה נערה המאורסה ניתן להצילו בנפשו אף רוצח ניתן להצילו בנפשו

Now, the mention of murder came in order to teach a halakha about the betrothed young woman, and it turns out that, in addition, it derives a halakha from that case. The Torah juxtaposes the case of a murderer to the case of a betrothed young woman to indicate that just as in the case of a betrothed young woman one may save her at the cost of the rapist’s life, so too, in the case of a murderer, one may save the potential victim at the cost of the murderer’s life.

ומקיש נערה המאורסה לרוצח מה רוצח יהרג ואל יעבור אף נערה המאורסה תהרג ואל תעבור

And conversely, the Torah juxtaposes a betrothed young woman to a murderer to indicate that just as with regard to a potential murderer, the halakha is that if one was ordered to murder another, he must be killed and not transgress the prohibition of bloodshed, so too, with regard to a betrothed young woman, if she is faced with rape, she must be killed and not transgress the prohibition of forbidden sexual relations.

רוצח גופיה מנא לן סברא הוא דההוא דאתא לקמיה דרבה ואמר ליה אמר לי מרי דוראי זיל קטליה לפלניא ואי לא קטלינא לך אמר ליה לקטלוך ולא תיקטול מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי דילמא דמא דהוא גברא סומק טפי

The Gemara asks: From where do we derive this halakha with regard to a murderer himself, that one must allow himself to be killed rather than commit murder? The Gemara answers: It is based on logical reasoning that one life is not preferable to another, and therefore there is no need for a verse to teach this halakha. The Gemara relates an incident to demonstrate this: As when a certain person came before Rabba and said to him: The lord of my place, a local official, said to me: Go kill so-and-so, and if not I will kill you, what shall I do? Rabba said to him: It is preferable that he should kill you and you should not kill. Who is to say that your blood is redder than his, that your life is worth more than the one he wants you to kill? Perhaps that man’s blood is redder. This logical reasoning is the basis for the halakha that one may not save his own life by killing another.

כי אתא רב דימי א”ר יוחנן לא שנו אלא שלא בשעת גזרת המלכות) אבל בשעת גזרת המלכות אפי’ מצוה קלה יהרג ואל יעבור

When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The Sages taught that one is permitted to transgress prohibitions in the face of mortal danger only when it is not a time of religious persecution. But in a time of religious persecution, when the gentile authorities are trying to force Jews to violate their religion, even if they issued a decree about a minor mitzva, one must be killed and not transgress.

כי אתא רבין א”ר יוחנן אפי’ שלא בשעת גזרת מלכות לא אמרו אלא בצינעא אבל בפרהסיא אפי’ מצוה קלה יהרג ואל יעבור

When Ravin came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even when it is not a time of religious persecution, the Sages said that one is permitted to transgress a prohibition in the face of mortal danger only when he was ordered to do so in private. But if he was ordered to commit a transgression in public, even if they threaten him with death if he does not transgress a minor mitzva, he must be killed and not transgress.

מאי מצוה קלה אמר רבא בר רב יצחק אמר רב

The Gemara asks: What is a minor mitzva for this purpose? Rava bar Yitzḥak says that Rav says:

אפילו לשנויי ערקתא דמסאנא

Even to change the strap of a sandal. There was a Jewish custom with regard to sandal straps. If the gentile authorities were to decree that Jews must change their practice and wear sandal straps like those worn by the gentiles, one would be obligated to give up his life rather than veer from the accepted custom.

וכמה פרהסיא אמר ר’ יעקב אמר רבי יוחנן אין פרהסיא פחותה מעשרה בני אדם פשיטא ישראלים בעינן דכתיב (ויקרא כב, לב) ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל בעי רבי ירמיה תשעה ישראל ונכרי אחד מהו

The Gemara asks: And the presence of how many people is required so that it should be deemed a public act? Rabbi Ya’akov says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: An action is not considered a public act if it is performed in the presence of fewer than ten people. The Gemara clarifies this point: It is obvious that we require that these ten people be Jews, as it is written in the verse from which we derive the requirement of ten for the sanctification of God’s name: “And I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32). Rabbi Yirmeya asks: What is the halakha if there were nine Jews and one gentile present?

תא שמע דתני רב ינאי אחוה דרבי חייא בר אבא אתיא תוך תוך כתיב הכא ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל וכתיב התם (במדבר טז, כא) הבדלו מתוך העדה הזאת מה להלן עשרה וכולהו ישראל אף כאן עשרה וכולהו ישראל

The Gemara answers: Come and hear an answer from what Rav Yannai, the brother of Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, teaches in a baraita: This is derived by means of a verbal analogy between the word “among” written with regard to the sanctification of God’s name, and the word “among” written with regard to Korah and his assembly. Here, with regard to the sanctification of God’s name, it is written: “And I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel,” and there, with regard to Korah, it is written: “Separate yourselves from among this congregation” (Numbers 16:21). The meaning of the word “congregation” written with regard to Korah is derived by means of a verbal analogy to the word “congregation” written with regard to the spies sent out by Moses to scout the land: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation” (Numbers 14:27). Just as there, the congregation of spies numbered ten, and all were Jews, so too here, concerning the sanctification of God, there must be ten, all of them being Jews.

והא אסתר פרהסיא הואי אמר אביי אסתר קרקע עולם היתה

The Gemara raises a difficulty: But wasn’t the incident involving Esther, i.e., her cohabitation with Ahasuerus, a public sin? Why then did Esther not surrender her life rather than engage in intercourse? The Gemara answers: Abaye says: Esther was merely like natural ground, i.e., she was a passive participant. The obligation to surrender one’s life rather than engage in forbidden sexual intercourse applies only to a man who transgresses the prohibition in an active manner. A woman who is passive and merely submits is not required to give up her life so that she not sin.

רבא אמר הנאת עצמן שאני

Rava says that there is another justification for Esther’s behavior: When gentiles order the transgression of a prohibition not in order to persecute the Jews or to make them abandon their religion, but for their own personal pleasure, it is different. In such a situation there is no obligation to sacrifice one’s life, even when the sin is committed in public.

דאי לא תימא הכי הני קוואקי ודימוניקי היכי יהבינן לה אלא הנאת עצמן שאני הכא נמי הנאת עצמן שאני

Rava explains: As if you do not say so, then how do we give them coal shovels [kevakei vedimonikei]? The Persian priests would take coal shovels from every house, fill them with coals, and use them to heat their temples on their festival days. Although this involved assisting idol worship in public, Jews would not sacrifice their lives in order not to do so. Rather, the reason they cooperated is certainly that a measure enacted for the gentiles’ personal pleasure is different. Here too, concerning Esther, Ahasuerus engaged in intercourse with her for his personal pleasure, and a measure enacted for a gentile’s personal pleasure is different, and there is no obligation to sacrifice one’s life to avoid it.


So far the conversation is only a little confusing. The principle of saving life stands before all and overrides Shabbat. But only in a limited way, what Pikuach Nefesh overrides are negative commandments only (except for the three, or maybe two cardinal sins, depending on the circumstance, as alluded to above). And most of the discussions about Pikuach Nefesh are limited to Shabbat violations.

Confusing the issue further are more caveats. Well beyond my own ken, I can only suggest that saving life means something specific in the halakhic literature. First is the problem of non-Jewish life, that the mishnaic and amoraic sources do not acknowledge as worth saving. This gets worked out in the halakhic literature to include gentile life under the rubric of Pikuach Nefesh. A second question would concern wither or not the rule of saving life applies only to a case concerning the life of a particular person and whether that person’s life will be definitely be saved. These questions about the scope of the rule are clearly beyond my ken.

Here, however, is a more serious confusion that would unsettle the certainty with which modern Jews appeal to the principle of Pikuach Nefesh. As noted above, so far it would seem, the majority of the literature refers to the life overriding the prohibition of a negative commandment (don’t perform this labor on shabbbat, don’t eat pork, don’t worship idols, don’t engage in illegitimate sexual relations, don’t murder).

But what happens when the principle of saving life conflicts with a positive command. Maybe there is a case that performing this or that positive command overrides the principle of Pikuach Nefesh. I am thinking here of the decision by two major Haredi poskim to not close or to close yeshivot, either in Israel or in the United States. I posted about these here and here. Of note was that the principle of Pikuach Nefesh was not raised in the either statement at this time of mortal crisis. At issue is what the Haredi authorities were going to be allowed to do or not do by the respective governments in Israel and the United States related to the operation of yeshivot.

There was a lot of angry pushback online about both statements, perhaps the angriest coming from modern orthodox circles. I’m sure most liberal Jews were likewise appalled that Haredi poskim would risk human life by not closing down the yeshivot, or would not defer automatically to the principle of Pikuach Nefesh. But let’s not assume that saving life is an unrestricted and unconflicted good in “Judaism.” Perhaps it’s the case that saving life is not “the essence of Judaism.” Perhaps in Judaism there are notions that, at least for some Jews, are more important than human life.

I am in no position to say that the great Haredi poskim of the generation do not understand Halakhah or this particular halakhah in specific. I would doubt the argument that these rabbis are distorting some truth in the tradition that for some reason they failed to consider. After Buber and Scholem or after the halakhic meta-ethics of Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, we can all be alert enough to know enough to reject any claim that there is an “essence of Judaism.” And this is enough to give the lie to the rational, reasonable, conventional cliché that the principle of Pikuach Nefesh stands before everything in “Judaism.”

How, then, to explain the refusal of Haredi rabbis in Israel not to close the yeshivot in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic? Why the neglect to mention the principle of Pikuach Nefesh by the Beth Medrash Ha’Govoha in Lakewood and why the claim that the rabbis there are only following the decree of the government, not their own understanding of what the halakhic system requires at such a time as this? It’s terribly obvious. What other notion, what other good or value is there in “Judaism” that might override life itself if not the confidence (faith) in the world-sustaining and protecting power of talmud Torah? Not some bizarre metaphysical speculation, this confidence is the sociological truth that what sustains the world of Haredi Judaism as a modern movement in Jewish history  is the exclusive intensivity of their talmud Torah, without which their entire world might otherwise collapse in the modern world.  

In the value scheme of  the Babylonian rabbis, is there anything to suggest that talmud Torah precedes Pikuah Nefsh? Maybe. I have not seen the following text cited below in the discussions today about Coronavirus, but the idea the idea expressed by the Babylonian sages in.Megillah 15b is familiar enough. The Gemara tells there the sketch of a story about the Attribute of Justice demanding to know from God what distinguishes Israel from the nations. The obvious answer is that Israel occupies itself with Torah. But the Attribute of Justice retorts that the priests and prophets of Israel also get drunk and stumble just like the nations. The challenge goes unanswered. Then below on 16b is a very unusual saying attributed by Rav Yosef about the relative relation between talmud Torah and saving life (hatzalat nefashot) in the rabbinic value scheme.

The relevant parts of the sugya from Megillah 16b are these:

(אסתר ח, טז) ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר אמר רב יהודה אורה זו תורה וכן הוא אומר (משלי ו, כג) כי נר מצוה ותורה אור שמחה זה יום טוב וכן הוא אומר (דברים טז, יד) ושמחת בחגך ששון זו מילה וכן הוא אומר (תהלים קיט, קסב) שש אנכי על אמרתך

The Gemara returns to its explanation of the Megilla. The verse states: “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). Rav Yehuda said: “Light”; this is referring to the Torah that they once again studied. And similarly it says: “For the mitzva is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). “Gladness” [simḥa]; this is referring to the Festivals that they once again observed. And similarly it says: “And you shall be glad [vesamakhta] on your Festival” (Deuteronomy 16:14). “Joy” [sasson]; this is referring to circumcision, as they once again circumcised their sons. And similarly it says: “I rejoice [sas] at Your word” (Psalms 119:162), which the Sages understood as referring to David’s rejoicing over the mitzva of circumcision.

ויקר אלו תפלין וכן הוא אומר (דברים כח, י) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפלין שבראש

“Honor”; this is referring to phylacteries, which they once again donned. And similarly it says: “And all peoples of the earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord; and they will be afraid of you” (Deuteronomy 28:10). And it was taught in a baraita: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: This is referring to the phylacteries worn on the head. Haman had banned the fulfillment of all the mitzvot mentioned, but upon Haman’s demise the Jews returned to their observance.


כי מרדכי היהודי משנה למלך אחשורוש וגדול ליהודים ורצוי לרוב אחיו לרוב אחיו ולא לכל אחיו מלמד שפירשו ממנו מקצת סנהדרין

The verse states: “For Mordecai the Jew was second to the king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by the majority of his brethren” (Esther 10:3). The Gemara comments: The verse indicates that Mordecai was accepted only “By the majority of his brethren,” but not by all his brethren. This teaches that some members of the Sanhedrin parted from him, because he occupied himself with community needs, and was therefore compelled to neglect his Torah study. They felt that this was a mistake and that he should have remained active on the Sanhedrin.

אמר רב יוסף גדול ת”ת יותר מהצלת נפשות דמעיקרא חשיב ליה למרדכי בתר ד’ ולבסוף בתר חמשה מעיקרא כתיב (עזרא ב, ב) אשר באו עם זרובבל ישוע נחמיה שריה רעליה מרדכי בלשן ולבסוף כתיב (נחמיה ז, ז) הבאים עם זרובבל ישוע נחמיה עזריה רעמיה נחמני מרדכי בלשן

Rav Yosef said: Studying Torah is greater than saving lives, as initially, when listing the Jewish leaders who came to Eretz Yisrael, Mordecai was mentioned after four other people, but at the end he was listed after five. This is taken to indicate that his involvement in governmental affairs instead of in Torah study lowered his stature one notch. The Gemara proves this: At first it is written: “Who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan” (Ezra 2:2); but in the end in a later list it is written: “Who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahmani, Mordecai, Bilshan” (Nehemiah 7:7).

The clear upshot is that, in the Bavli, there are more important things in this world than good government . The statement attributed to Rav Yosef is preceded by an aesthetic panegyric to the light of Torah, the joy of circumcision, and the awesome sight (kavod, glory, or honor) of tefillin. Worth noting is that these three are all positive mitzvot, not the negative mitzvot (prescriptions, not proscriptions) that Pikuach Nefesh may or may not override depending upon the situation. These are primary goods in the rabbinic world-system. Now utterly confusing the easy and by now conventional notion that nothing stands before Pikuah Nefesh, Rav Yosef does not claim that talmud Torah overrides (doche) Pikuach Nefesh. His is only the strong assertion that the study of the Torah (talmud Torah) is superior to the saving of life (hatzalat nefashot) (ת”ת יותר מהצלת נפשות).

Against the view of Lichtenstein and Berkovits that Halakhah has a moral sense or core is the argument that talmud Torah has less to do with “ethics” as we conventionally understand it and more to do with the “ethos” that shapes the Haredi universe as a “moral community.” In this view in line with Soloveitchik, talmud Torah l’shma, the system itself is the unyielding core that permeates the talmudic system, talmudic thinking, not practical Halakah, not social ethics, not virtue ethics.

Make of this what you will. My own intention is not to defend or embrace this world-view as much as to show and explain how systems as complex as Halakhah are never conflict free in relation to values and that this complexity cuts to the core of human life.

Lastly, I’m no gaon. And I’m not proud. The material from Yoma I know, and some other sources as well. For a bird’s eye view of Pikuach Nefesh in the Bavli, I went to this index of sources here.

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(Plague) Black Wedding (Bnei Brak) (Coronavirus)

Black Wedding

What’s modern? What’s archaic? What now? As we begin to enter deeply into this time of epidemic, a lot of “us” are going to be looking at Haredi communities and how they respond to the crisis. The ordinary tendency to distinguish “us” from “them” is only heightened, and for a variety of reasons. These have to do with the utter fascination of the subject matter, the phenomenon of human and Jewish difference, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, our own sense of the public order and public safety that speaks to our own reliance upon and anxieties about good government and modern medical science. And also this. In our contemporary media environment, every action of every individual or collective actor is immediately exposed to spectacle.

About this particular phenomenon, the Plague or Black Wedding, I’m posting this article here by Rokhl Kafrissen and this thread by Nir Hasson from where I grabbed this image of a Black Wedding in Bnei Brak. Both the article and thread include scholarly references and some historical source material.

Kafrissen explains,

“However, when it came to the cholera epidemics which stalked the 19th century, the Jews of Eastern Europe developed a unique communal ritual of defense and protection: the cholera wedding. The cholera wedding generally involved finding two of the most marginal residents of the town (whether orphans, beggars, or the physically handicapped) and forcibly marrying them, usually in the cemetery. The cholera wedding, also known as a shvartse khasene (black wedding) or mageyfe khasene (plague wedding) was presented as an ancient Jewish rite, but Meir argues, it was a newly invented, modern response to what was then a newly arrived disease. Because it was a late-developing belief and not textually based, the mechanism by which it was believed to work is open to interpretation.”

On Plague Weddings now in Israel, see this article here from Kikar Ha’Shabbat



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The Unsearchable Human Heart Of Government (Shabbat 11a)


In line with the Book of Proverbs and the vast scope of responsibility, the rabbis about government and the political heart were Weberian in their practical realism and bleak view of things. Michael Satlow posted on FB this beautiful gemara, appropriate to the moment.

ואמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב אם יהיו כל הימים דיו ואגמים קולמוסים ושמים יריעות וכל בני אדם לבלרין אין מספיקים לכתוב חללה של רשות מאי קראה אמר רב משרשיא שמים לרום וארץ לעומק ולב מלכים אין חקר:

And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: Even if all the seas would be ink, and the reeds that grow near swamps would be quills, and the heavens would be parchment, and all the people scribes; all of these would be insufficient to write the space of governmental authority. Rav Mesharshiya said: What is the verse? “The Heavens on High and the land to the depth and the heart of kings are unsearchable” (Proverbs 25:3).  

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 11a (Sefaria, modified)


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(Not) Closing Haredi Yeshivot (Letters Responding to Coronavirus)


Remarkable little documents, here are the original Hebrew language sources and English language translations of two responses, letters from leading lights from the Haredi world, regarding the not closing or closing of yeshivot in response to the Coronovirus outbreak. The first one co-penned by Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein is from Israel, where, because Haredi communities represent a powerful demographic and political bloc, the yeshivot are not closing. The second is from the leadership of the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., the largest yeshiva in the United States, where the yeshivot have to close because the government is demanding it.

These are not full blown halakhic responses nor should they be looked upon as such. Reflecting a snapshot of the moment, they are letters sent out to encourage and support the yeshiva communities and the larger Haredi public. Both letters express pain and concern about the institution of the yeshiva, relying on the cosmic protective power of talmud Torah and prayer and teshuva, the values of yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven) and confidence in divine justice and in divine salvation. The letter from Israel seeks to accommodate directives from the Ministry of Health, whereas the letter from the United States simply submits to the authority of government. The authors of neither letter mention pikuach nefesh, the putative notion that “saving life” is an overriding halakhic principle that precedes any other consideration, or how this principle might be relevant to the situation at hand.

As the epidemic and Haredi response evolve, I will continue to post relevant letters and announcements as they relate particularly to decisions that impact the closing or not closing of yeshivot, which are arguably the backbone of these religious communities. My guess is that the general rule will follow, which is that the American institutions will be the ones that suspend operation because the government will simply demand it of them in ways that are impossible in Israel given demographic and coalition dynamics that entrench the political power of those communities.





(translated here)


19 Adar 5780

In a time when we are in grave need of great heavenly mercy to maintain the health of our nation, certainly it is proper to strengthen ourselves in the study of Torah, to be careful in Lashon HaRah and Rechilus, and to strengthen ourselves in humility and to judge everyone favorably.

Our sages have already stated (Yuma 28b), “Since the days of our forefathers, the Yeshivos have never ceased [to be active] from them.  They further stated (Shabbos 119b):  The world only exists on account of the sounds of children in the house of their Rebbe [yeshivos].  They are the greatest insurance possible that the destroyer not enter into the homes of Israel.

Nonetheless, danger is certainly a more stringent concern than the possible violation of a prohibition.  It is [therefore] upon all of us to make great effort in all matters that require caution – such as: splitting up the students, ensuring that there is adequate space between person [social distancing – recommended at 2 meters], also to make sure that the classrooms and Batei Midrashim be properly ventilated, and to appoint supervisors [Mashgichim] to maintain the proper level of cleanliness as a health necessity.

Anyone that has even a shadow of a doubt that he or a family member may be ill, and even if he is only mandated to undergo quarantine because of a directive [and not out of a health concern], must refrain from entering the Bais Medrash. He must not be a source of risk or damage to another.

This is all from the perspective of an understood precondition to the action [of attending school or Yeshiva]. The Roshei Yeshiva and the administrators of the Talmud Torahs (and Yeshivos) must be on guard to ensure compliance.

Certainly, it is our obligation to awaken ourselves to the Fear of Heaven and to do Teshuvah, in accordance with the saying [of the sages] (Yevamos 63a), “Calamities only come to this world in order that [Klal] Yisroel strengthen themselves in the belief of the futility of “the strength and power of my hand” of all the nations during these times.  Rather, we must have faith in the Holy One Blessed Be He who watches over all His creations, and no man is stricken by a calamity if it was not decreed from Above.  And may the merit of Torah and all that strengthen us stand for us as protection and salvation.

[Rav] Chaim Kanievsky

[Rav] Y(erachmiel) Gershon Edelstein





(translated by Shlomo Zukier)

The Eve of the Month when Salvation Encircles

Given the situation of a pandemic raging across the world in the sense of “plague in the city” (see Bava Kamma 60b), may God save us, as the merit of Torah is the shield defending us from all crises, as our eyes are dimmed and hopeful with the prayer that we merit salvation which surrounds [this time of year].

To our great distress, we are forced to comply with an express governmental decree that prohibits us to leave open battei midrash in which the voice of Torah reverberates, due to our absolute obedience to express decrees the government imposes upon us. We are calling out with a request that even though the battei midrash will not be open, each one of us should strengthen themselves further in Torah and prayer, in any context and any place they find, because this is the protective wall standing for us at this difficult time.

Each and every one is obligated to increase in their toil in Torah and to call out before the Creator of the world, so that we merit a full salvation soon.
May we all merit, “as in the days of your leaving the land of Egypt I will show you miracles” (Micha 7:15).

We sign on this out of broken-heartedness and pain

10 Adar 5780
Aryeh Malkiel Kotler

Yisrael Tzvi Neuman, David Tzvi Schustel, Yerusham Ulshin

[[photo note: the image of the empty hall at the top of the post is not Coronavirus related. It is from an article published in 2017]]




My Yiddish is nowhere near proficient to translate the entire document, but the gist of this was noted at Satmar Headquarters @HQSatmar:

By religious edict of Satmar Grand Rebbe Aron due to the #CoronavirusOutbreak every building belonging to the Satmar empire shall be closed until further notice, this includes every Shul, all School Systems, Mikvah’s or any public building with the Satmar name on it.





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Fear of A Lost Haredi Corona Generation (Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky)


[h/t William Kolbrener]

People who know better know better, and please help me out here. But among Jews and maybe even gentiles, among secular and liberal and modern orthodox Jews, among Jewish thought leaders (legal theorists and ethicists), there is a common, romantic view that the insularity of Haredi communities create “integral Jewish communities.” They are supposed to mimic the old way of life of the Ghetto before Emancipation, when once upon a time Jewish life was secured on the social compact of a semi-autonomous corporate identity binding Jews together, even against their will.

It is, indeed, true that the re-institution of Haredi communities, particularly in the United States and in Israel, is a remarkable social, ideological, and religious-spiritual phenomenon. Attracting a relatively large social mass, these are uniquely powerful incubators of Jewish life.

But the recent new-Coronavirus is providing something of a stress test. In the United States, the Haredi schools are closing down. Because the law of the land is law, because there’s no choice, because state and local authorities insist, and because of the epidemic. In Israel, things are different. Because of their demographic-political power, the Haredi religious leadership are now able to resist the decree of the Health Ministry and the better counsel of leaders from the Haredi political parties represented in the government.

Why are the yeshivot in Israel not closing?

Last week, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior of Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi rabbis in that country, refused the order to close the yeshivot and other Haredi institutions. With a vague and probably unenforceable promise that the institutions would practice social distancing, his word was final, and the schools are now, apparently, open.

But why?

There have been words about a theological belief system asserting the cosmic importance of Torah study, the notion that Torah study sustains the world, that the power of a tzadik and the power of Torah study protect students from the harm of a biological virus. Of note is this open letter of support from Kanievsky and another Haredi luminary Rabbi Gershon Edelstein reported and linked here.

But, that’s not the real reason.

More important than belief is the factor observed here by journalist Anshel Pfeffer. As is well known, the Haredi communities and their leadership in Israel have secured a real degree of social autonomy and political leverage vis-a-vis the state. Following the government dictate to close the schools would violate that hard won autonomy of a powerful minority community.

But there’s something more basic and even fatal at stake for these communities, as reported here in this article at Kikar Ha’Shabbat, a Haredi news-website,

Closing down the yeshivot and other haredi schools is not merely a technical matter. It would be nothing short of a disaster. Expressed by people close to Rabbi Kanievsky is the self-understood certainty (!) that the minute they close the yeshivot for even a second, they won’t be able to re-open them, that they will lose the entire generation of young people to the surrounding non-Haredi world, that once out they can’t get them back. A deadly virus they can survive, but not this.

The takeaway is what?

Haredi communities are not, in fact, integral, organic, or self-sustaining. Call them what you want, a fragile social eco-system or an artificial construct, These insular communities depend upon their very insularity, a vast array of walls, buttressed by the intensity of their talmud Torah separating their people from the larger outside. There is no on-off switch. The second the system shuts down, it’s over. They will not be able to reboot. That seems to be the fear.

The relevant quotes from the article are here:

אמר אחד מראשי הישיבות הגדולים, שתלמידו שמשמש כראש ישיבה בפני עצמו השתתף גם הוא בשיחה, את הדברים הבאים:

בממשלה סבורים שסגירת הישיבות היא עניין טכני כמו סגירת אוניברסיטאות ובתי חינוך שלהם.

אני מבקש שתמסרו לר’ חיים ור’ גרשון, שאם הישיבה שלי תיסגר לא יהיה בכוחי להקים אותה מחדש! היום קשה מאוד להחזיק בחורים בהתנזרות ממה שקורה בחוץ, ללא טלפונים חכמים וכדומה. אם תהיה הפסקה של חמישה שבועות ללא אפשרות למסגרות כמו ישיבות בין הזמנים, תביא לבטלה והבטלה תביא לידי חטא.

הדבר יצור בישיבות את ‘דור הקורונה’ שיהיו ברמה רוחנית כזו שספק אם יוכלו לחזור ללמוד. לא רואה אפשרות לשקם רוחנית תלמידים שיותר מחודשיים ללא מסגרת ללא משטר רוחני

On FB, I’m getting interesting push back attesting to the rigor of Haredi communities and against the imputation of insularity. It could be that the views expressed here in the article are a one-off. But I’m not entirely sure. The traditional public chizuk about the protective power of Torah feels like a thin reed compared to the more pressing sociological anxiety expressed in confidence as reported on a community news site.

I am sure that this is an unfolding, fluid event, that the yeshivot will adapt and adjust protocols, that there will be all sorts of variation within the community, and that the reflections reflected here are only a snapshot at this particular moment. I am not pretending to any expert knowledge here, not that of an insider or an academic outsider. But the idea of constant Torah study in the face of the unique threats posed by modernity is an old point of view that goes back to Volozhin and Musar. What caught my attention here was something about the internal logic of the statement that seems of a piece with that tradition re: “fragility” in the system.

Lastly, the article states that the person who made the comment is not some run of the mill rosh yeshiva, but the head of  a major yeshiva and (the implication was that he) is close to Kanievsky. But regardless, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what would happen if the boys left the yeshiva for “x” amount of time, and to wonder would they come back. Because you know, stop for a second to admire the beauty of a furrowed field and….

By way of postscript: this post reflects the first and confused response on the part of Kanievsky to the pandemic. Since then, he has ruled to close yeshivot and synagogues, but this article here posted March 29 suggests that on the street compliance remains at this still early date still confused, uneven, and dangerous. Written by Anshel Pfeffer, the bottom line remains the same, that “This is not just a way of life. It is the ideological battle of a community that will not have the government and its experts tell it how to fight a plague.”

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Empty City Empty Shabbat (Coronavirus)

empty synagogue

It’s almost sundown and New York City is shutting down, schools, museums, concert halls, Broadway, synagogues and churches, as if for the Sabbath. The entire civic ritual system in its public aspect is grinding down to a halt, moving deeper into the privacy of the domestic sphere at a time of social isolation.

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