IS IT SAFE TO COME TO SHUL ON SHABBAT?
We have been back at shul for a few weeks now, and it has been a pleasure to welcome all of you who have stepped through our doors, both for the weekday and Shabbat services.
A number of you, though, are understandably still cautious, and rightly so. We can reassure you that we are taking all the necessary precautions, as required by Government advice, the United Synagogue, and our own, independent Safety Consultant, but it is up to you to decide how you are going to balance the risks you are taking in your lives. If it would help you to visit the synagogue outside of service times to see our setup, or to speak to one of the team for more information, we are available for you.
Are there religious or halachic criteria than help in this decision-making process?
Balancing risks is a classic question in Jewish law. There is a relevant verse in this week’s sidra: Venishmartem Me’od Lenafshoteichem, which Rav Hirsch translates as: “You shall take very good care of yourselves.” (Devarim 4:15.) In other words, don’t do anything that will put yourself at risk.
Later in the Torah, in parashat Ki Teitzei, we will read of the requirement to build a fence or a parapet for the roof of a house that is accessible for use. Our Sages extended this commandment to all cases of danger for which the property owner would be responsible. For example letting a vicious dog run free or leaning a defective ladder against a wall, or leaving a dangerous building site unattended or unfenced.
Nevertheless, that does not mean we can never take risks. Life would be boring without a sense of adventure.
How do we balance risk-taking with the mitzvah to take good care of ourselves? The great eighteenth century rabbinic authority, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (1713-1793), wrote a landmark ruling regarding the question of whether a Jew could go hunting. He said that in the context of earning a livelihood a greater degree of risk is permissible. We are familiar with the words in the beautiful, Unetaneh Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where we read, Benafsho Yavi Lachmo, “At risk to his life, he brings home his bread.” Says Rabbi Landau, these words teach us that there is a blessing, offering a measure of protection against risk, to those who are engaged in earning a parnassah.
If the risk taking is simply for adventure, what are the considerations? Here the criteria are what the Sages term: Dashu Ba Rabim, “Many have trodden this path.” [Yevamot 72a]. In other words, does society-at-large regard this as a reasonable risk? Or, to put it in other terms: how easy will it be to obtain insurance cover for the risk that is envisaged?
Balancing these issues can be a difficult process. As well as the verse cautioning us to take care of our lives, it is also worth remembering the advice of the great teacher of Jewish ethics, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) who used to say: “The eleventh commandment is, don’t be a fool!”
Applying these considerations to returning to shul would lead to the following conclusions:
If you feel that you, personally, want to go beyond the safety standards that the Government is requiring, you should not come to shul.
If, however, you are going to the supermarket or other shops, or you are meeting friends in small groups, coming to shul is no less safe. At St. John’s Wood, we have the benefit of an enormous sanctuary with a 1600 seat capacity. When we have the doors and windows open, and the opportunity to sit at least four metres away from another person there is little risk associated with being there. Moreover, you have the benefit and mitzvah of participating in communal prayer.
Whatever choice you make, may G-d’s blessings be with you.