By: Yonatan Kurz  | 

16 Roshei Yeshiva Sign Statement Urging Students to Follow COVID-19 Safety-Regulations Ahead of Simchat Torah

In response to the recent upswing in COVID-19 cases across New York, a joint statement signed by 16 roshei yeshiva and two menahalei yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) was emailed to undergraduate students regarding safety precautions for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The statement was sent by President Ari Berman on Oct. 9, the day before Shemini Atzeret. 

The statement comes in the aftermath of a recent increase in coronavirus cases in New York, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as Rockland and Orange counties, homes to large Orthodox Jewish populations. It also follows other precautions by Yeshiva University, including last week's announcement by President Berman that the fall semester’s move-in date for on-campus housing will be delayed from Oct. 12 to Oct. 21.

“The Torah requires that we avoid dangerous activity,” the letter began, including signatures of roshei kollel and roshei yeshiva Rabbis Michael Rosensweig, Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig. “The protection afforded to Mitzvah performance does not apply when danger is prevalent (Pesachim 8b).” While the celebration of Simchat Torah traditionally centers around social gatherings and dancing, the roshei yeshiva asserted that, during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, “the usual hakafos (rounds) and dancing are prohibited,” and that “at the discretion of every local rav, hakafos may be limited or eliminated.”

The letter went on to detail the preventative measures and plans that should be taken during the holiday, calling for mask-wearing and social distancing while also reinforcing the importance of taking strict caution to “protect life and good health.”

The letter detailed guidelines for Simchat Torah proceedings, citing the “advice of medical experts.” Instructions were provided as to how hakafos should be performed, with links to similar rulings from Rabbis Yosef Zvi Rimon, Yitzchak Zilberstein, and several other major halakhic authorities and decisors attached to the email.

Following these instructions, the email requested readers to use similar precautions during weddings as well, stating that “the usual dancing is prohibited,” and “any dancing must be done while wearing masks and socially distanced,” before encouraging students to limit the size of their weddings as well as enforcing appropriate safeguards at the celebrations.

“Adherence to all of the above is required by the halacha which demands great caution to protect life and good health,” the letter noted, adding that such actions are considered to be a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name). 

“We are confident that our talmidim will rise to the occasion and follow these instructions scrupulously,” the letter said, concluding with good wishes for both the “talmidim and all of Klal Yisrael.”

President Berman’s email also linked to a speech by Rabbi Mayer Twersky, a RIETS rosh yeshiva whose name did not appear on the letter. In his speech, Rabbi Twersky decried the chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) caused by the protests against New York’s recent COVID-19 rules primarily targeting ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Twersky called the violence in the protests “vile, shocking and depraved.” 

In his speech, Rabbi Twersky acknowledged that the “politicians and the press are targeting Jewish neighborhoods, something they would never do to any other ethnic or racial group.” 

At the same time, Rabbi Twersky believes that the response of some members of the Orthodox community was not warranted. “Protesting the governor's actions this way and remaining silent about the widespread non-observance of the regulations that caused the hotspot to come into being… that is a chilul Hashem,” he expressed. “We cannot deny that the hotspots themselves in this resurgence of Covid is itself a chilul Hashem.”

Yosef Lemel contributed to this story. 

Editor’s  Note: The number of roshei yeshiva who signed the letter was originally reported to be 15. Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of RIETS, pointed out that Rabbi Elchanan Adler’s name was inadvertently omitted from the original letter. After receiving an updated version of the letter, we updated the number from 15 to 16, due to the addition of Rabbi Adler. 

Photo Caption: The Glueck Center for Jewish Study
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University