Last Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem was unlike any other Shabbat. Whereas the Kotel is usually crowded with people on Saturdays, it was empty last Shabbat, except for the few worshippers brave enough to leave their homes during this global pandemic. Synagogues were vacant, and the streets lacked the usual flow of pedestrians leaving Shul and groups of children playing outside. In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, the government ceased all public transportation on Shabbat. The Old City’s Jaffa and Damascus Gates were shut and Machaneh Yehudah was at its quietest.
The struggle to contain the novel coronavirus has impacted Israel’s Orthodox communities. In a letter to the Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzchak Yosef, urged Shabbat observers to keep their phones on in case of a coronavirus-related update informing them they have been exposed to the virus and must self-quarantine. The Chief Rabbi also directed the dispatch of cars with loudspeakers to circle ultra-orthodox communities to inform them should they need to enter quarantine. He also closed synagogues in hospitals, saying that the six-foot distance between worshippers is unfeasible in such a setting.
Bat Yam was the first city to close all of its synagogues. Bnei Brak rabbis, soldiers, police officers and health officials decided that the three daily prayers need not be conducted in a synagogue, but in any spacious setting. They are allowing people to pray outside, near a synagogue, and use the synagogue’s Torah. They have also called for the avoidance of visits to the Mikvah and wedding ceremonies. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, together with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, asked Israelis not to go to synagogues to pray, and a maximum of 10 men, the minimum for a minyan, are permitted to pray together while abiding by the six-feet-apart regulation. The Chief Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, asked that visitors refrain from touching and kissing the Wall. Chabad rabbis warned that those who fail to follow health guidelines are considered “din rodef,” and therefore, according to the Torah, they must be reported. These rabbis are following the principle of “Pikuach Nefesh,” which requires one to value life over the majority of the Torah’s commandments.
The coronavirus has also impacted Israel’s Muslim community. Last week, Muslim officials closed entry to the Al-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock but permitted worshipping on the Temple Mount, which is near the two sites. On Friday night, Muslims attempted to pray near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was among the many places police were patrolling to thwart large crowds. A few hundred attended services, a small number compared to a typical Friday night. Police asked for identification papers from the worshippers, and those who were denied entry prayed in the street outside the Mosque. On occasion, police officers used tear gas to disperse the growing crowd.
The Christian Quarter also felt the efforts to thwart the spread of the virus. While the area is usually lively, especially on weekends, last weekend saw closed shops and restaurants. It missed the presence of tourists that regularly visited its holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which as of March 25 closed temporarily, was nearly deserted last weekend and only one tourist shop remained open. A police car monitored those entering the Old City’s gate leading to the Christian Quarter, known as the New Gate. The quarter had not been so quiet since the 1950s.
Regardless of the required isolation during this time to slow the circulation of the virus, Israel’s Orthodox communities made sure to welcome the Shabbat, even if they could not do so at the Kotel or at synagogue. Last Friday night, neighbors stood on their balconies and prayed together from their respective homes. Many of these efforts were unintentional, but some neighbors texted flyers to coordinate their Shabbat services.
Residents of an apartment complex in Talpiot
arranged to say Kabbalat Shabbat together in their parking lot, standing in
their own spots to maintain the required distance. In Nachlaot, one man was
singing outside, and when Chaya Kasse Valier’s family heard him, they, and
other neighbors, went outside to join him. Kasse Valier described this
emotional moment for her. “Half the people on the street were walking dogs,
smoking and humming along….I was bawling my eyes out. All the tension was
released by this knowledge that people need each other and need prayer and need
to do this within the parameters. We need each other and we need community and
our usual routine. Kabbalat Shabbat is a marker in the peoples’ weeks.”