Over the last two weeks, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, where he has been teaching for the past 50 years, has been asked multiple complex halachic questions. As a result, he has issued at least 10 public piskei halacha (Jewish law decisions) in relation to the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the coming holiday of Pesach and beyond. While all rabbanim throughout our communities agree that there may be no public Sedarim, no minyanim of any kind, and no families may have guests at their Seder or Yom Tov tables, Rav Schachter’s definitive psakim primarily address unexpected situations, the more detailed or complex issues of personal halacha and public safety in disallowing people to congregate for any reason, and provide additional directives on how to conduct oneself privately and publicly, as well as how to preserve life during the pandemic.
www.Torahweb.org (and this link: http://torahweb.org/author/rsch_dt_special.html) has listed each psak grouping on its website, though they are divided out further here. This summary is not meant to replace reading each psak in its entirety, which is strongly recommended. However, most are listed here, and when possible, the psak has been quoted or summarized. Everything in quotations constitutes a direct English quote from Rav Schachter, except where indicated.
Haircuts on Chol Hamoed and Sefira: Assuming it is safe to do so, there is leniency in today’s circumstances to take a haircut on these days, assuming a person has not had a haircut for the previous two months.
Triage in critical care: If two people arrive at the same time and the hospital has only one ventilator, give it to the one with the better chance to survive. BUT, once someone is hooked up to a respirator one can not take him off to give it to someone else—that would be retzicha (murder). If initially each patient is hooked up to his own ventilator but the doctors know that as more cases arrive they will have to move them around such that multiple patients share one ventilator, this is permissible even if a patient has a better chance of survival on his own exclusive ventilator than when sharing one with another patient (e.g. his chances of survival drop by 15% or so). The Torah gives doctors permission and responsibility to make their best effort, according to the best current medical knowledge, to save people. So, for example, if hospitals hook four patients up to one respirator, due to a shortage of ventilators, in an effort to save as many lives as possible, even though it is possible that one of those patients will end up being worse off for having shared the same air as other patients, since the doctors’ efforts are intended/focused on saving as many lives as possible and are not intending to harm any patient, the doctors are permitted and obligated to their best. Throughout the generations doctors have always been charged by the Torah to do the best they can, even though it is known that years later it is often discovered that past medical practices/assumptions were wrong. It is recommended that critical care providers read the original Hebrew psak carefully.
Making a minyan; individuals reading Shir Hashirim: Minyanim, even outside, are dangerous and not allowed at this time. The custom to hear Shir Hashirim was instituted to take place b’tzibbur, with a minyan. There is no problem with an individual reading Shir Hashirim on their own.
Women should shower after going to the mikvah: Scroll through to the last page of this psak. “The Rema records the position of the Ohr Zarua in the name of the Ba’alei HaTosfos that a woman should not take a shower soon after using the mikvah, since this would undermine her original immersion. While some poskim claim that this ruling is only applicable to showers that take place in the mikvah facility itself, Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, asserts that she may not shower at all until the following evening. Nonetheless, it seems that the position of the Ohr Zarua is only a stringency (chumra) and therefore, in light of the current situation involving the coronavirus, it is advisable to forgo this stringency and require that each woman shower immediately upon returning home from the mikvah.”
Hallel after Maariv on the night of the Seder: “This practice is only for those who will be davening with a tzibur, and not at all relevant to those who will be davening alone, without a minyan. Even a large family that has a self-contained minyan but will be having the Seder together should not recite this extra Hallel at the conclusion of Maariv. The extra Hallel after Maariv is only recited when there will be a larger crowd for Maariv and additional pirsumei nisa (publicizing of the miracle).”
How and when will we stop saying Mashiv Haruach? Each individual should recite Morid HaTal in their private Musaf prayer on the first day of Pesach. When all of the individuals across the Jewish world recite Morid HaTal in their private Musaf, this will create a “resolution of the community” that will be effective in changing the nusach of our seasonal description of Hashem. However, from Mincha of that day and onward, those who daven nusach Ashkenaz will stop saying Morid HaTal, and those who daven nusach Sefard will continue to say it, each one according to their custom.
Reading the parsha from a Chumash; reviewing the parsha; naming a baby without a minyan: Read and review the parshat hashavua from a Chumash without making the blessings. “Some have the custom to wait until Shabbos, while others give the name on the next Monday or Thursday. In our current predicament where we are unable to have Krias HaTorah, the parents should simply decide on a name and begin calling their daughter by that name. Even when naming a baby boy, if his bris milah is delayed due to health concerns, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, suggested that the baby should be named immediately so that people can daven for him. The practice recorded in Mateh Moshe to name a baby boy at his bris, which is derived from Avraham Avinu, who was given a new name at the time of his bris, would only apply under normal circumstances when the bris will be done soon after the baby’s birth.”
Consuming kitniyot on Pesach for health reasons: “During these times when people are trying to strengthen their immune system one may also take vitamins and medication that contain kitniyos on Pesach. This would be the case for medicine that is swallowed or chewed, even if the medicine has a pleasant taste. These vitamins and medications, containing kitniyos, can be taken prophylactically, as a preventative measure, even before the individual feels ill. If there is actual chametz in the ingredients, the halacha might be different; please consult with the kashrus organizations to determine the status of your items.”
Selling chametz that one can’t access or when one is not sure of its location: With regard to people who have chametz in an office that is currently inaccessible, there is no problem with including such chametz in their sale. One should make sure to include in their sale of chametz all chametz that is in their possession, including the chametz that is presently inaccessible.
Picking up a relative from the hospital on Shabbos: “During the current coronavirus epidemic, a person who was discharged from the hospital on Shabbos or Yom Tov may return home since it is not advisable to remain in the hospital longer than necessary. Since it is potentially dangerous for the patient to get into a taxi or an Uber, a family member may drive on Shabbos to bring the patient home. However, every attempt must be made to minimize the amount of chilul Shabbos involved whenever possible. This means the car should be turned on with a shinui (in an unusual fashion) by turning the key with one’s weaker hand, or by pressing the button with one’s knuckle. When turning off the engine it should also be done with a shinui. Additionally, a shinui should be used when opening and closing the car door. However, a shinui or any deviation from safe driving practices should never be used in the actual operation and driving of the car.
There are several remaining, extremely relevant sh’eilot from Rav Schachter that are slightly more detailed—regarding the use of dishwashers on Pesach, Pesach minhagim or stringencies that are unable to be kept for this year only, and burning chametz. Also addressed are whether an extremely limited use of electronic devices on Yom Tov is allowed in cases of pikuach nefesh for those who are isolated, tevilat keilim, fast of the first born and selling chametz from home. They should be read in their entirety at http://www.torahweb.org.
By Elizabeth Kratz