Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

Mar 18, 2020 by

Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency
During the unprecedented need to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR Respona Committee has responded to questions about technology and creating virtual minyans during this crisis and created this guidance. Additional Reform responsa can be found here, and the CCAR Statement on the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

5780.2: Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

Question:

May we rely on technology to create a virtual minyan in a time of crisis when we cannot gather in our synagogues?  If so, what are the criteria for constituting a valid virtual minyan?  How does one recite Kaddish in a virtual minyan?  At what point do we know it is appropriate to discontinue the virtual minyan and return to a physical minyan?  (submitted by numerous CCAR members)

Answer:

Although we have a recent decision[1] that rejects the virtual minyan, we are now in an emergency situation.  In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.[2]  People will certainly “go astray” by turning to all sorts of sources of comfort if we do not ensure that the kehillah kedosha, the holy community, can continue to function. 

The minyan and participation “outside” the minyan:  The essence of the minyan is the reciprocity of the social contract – the shared obligation that binds all ten individuals to one another, transforming them from a number of individuals into a community, a virtual bet Yisrael.  The halakha translated that conceptual essence into a physical one by mapping it onto a space, requiring the members of a minyan to be in one room together.[3]  The majority view in the halakha is that the individuals who constitute the minyan must be in one room, though some authorities hold that it is sufficient for them to be able to see each other, thus including, e.g., the individual who is visible through the window of the synagogue. 

            Now, however, we are in a situation where people may not gather in one room.  Therefore, for the duration of this emergency, we permit the convening of a minyan by means of interactive technology, i.e., technology that enables all members of the minyan to see and hear each other.  Two widely used examples of this type of technology are Zoom (available as a smartphone app) and Microsoft Teams.  In essence, therefore, we are requiring the use of Zoom or Teams – or any app with the same capabilities that may appear on the market now – to constitute a virtual minyan.  (As always, and especially in this time of economic distress, we presume our congregations and all of our people will adhere to all intellectual property and copyright laws as they obtain software.)

            As long as there are ten people connected in an interactive manner, any number of additional people may also be “present” passively, via live streaming.  In accordance with the precedent of 5772.1,[4] we do not count these individuals in the minyan.  In our current context, the obstacle to counting the livestream viewer in the minyan is that s/he cannot be seen or heard, and therefore cannot be an equal participant in the minyan’s underlying social contract.  Additionally, there is no way for the service leader to know how many people, if any, are watching a live stream, and therefore no way of knowing whether a minyan is “present” in the absence of ten interconnected members. 

            We affirm that one who is viewing a livestream should still respond to all the prayers; this is considered the same as having recited them.[5]  The same is true for the livestream viewer who recites the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish along with the service leader.[6] 

            The CCAR plenum has never taken a stand on whether a minyan is required for public prayer, but its importance has been a given for most Reform rabbis and their congregations.  In a 1936 responsum, Jacob Mann advised that “every attempt should be made to have a full minyan,” but allowed congregations to rely on the Palestinian custom of fixing a minyan at six or seven.”[7] Many small congregations rely on this responsum.  Some congregations of varying sizes disregard the minyan completely.  We are not saying now that every Reform congregation must adhere to the requirement of a minyan of ten, but we encourage it, even in small congregations, as a way of bringing the community together.[8] 

Torah reading:  All parts of the service can be conducted in a virtual minyan with the obvious exception of actually reading from the Torah scroll.  As a further hora’at sha’ah, it is sufficient to read from a printed text without any aliyot.  However, this is still a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study and requires a b’rakhah (although all authorities agree that if one has earlier said la’asok be-divrei Torah, this requirement is merely for the honor of the community[9]).  Under these present circumstances, we suggest reverting to the practice set forth in the Mishnah:[10] The first reader recites the blessing before the reading, and the last reader recites the blessing after the reading.  An alternative practice, for those who do not want to use the Torah blessings for anything other than reading from the scroll, is to recite la’asok b’divrei Torah before reading from the printed text.  Either way, we also strongly encourage including serious Torah study in addition to the reading.

The duration of these temporary procedures:  Finally, at some point in the future, we know that this health crisis will end.  When the authorities stop restricting attendance at public functions, this hora’at sha’ah should be set aside.  People should return to the synagogue and the practice of interactive virtual minyanim should cease. We realize that some people may be fearful, but we rely on experts in these matters. “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[11]  Nevertheless, individuals in the most vulnerable populations (especially the elderly with pre-existing medical conditions) may benefit from live streaming.  In these circumstances, the precedent of our earlier responsum, 5772.1, offers sufficient guidance. 

Joan S. Friedman, CCAR Responsa Chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] 5772.1 A Minyan Via the Internet, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet, accessed 15 March 2020.
[2] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4.
[3] Pesaḥim. 85b; Yad H. Tefillah 8:7; Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:13.
[4] We note also the supporting precedent of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, OḤ 55:15:2001: Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, https://www.rabbinicalas sembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/ReisnerInternetMinyan.pdf, accessed 15 March 2020.
[5] Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:20.
[6] CJLS OḤ 55:15:2001.
[7] American Reform Responsa #3: Less Than a Minyan of Ten at Services.
[8] On the history of the minyan in Reform Judaism and its importance, see “The Minyan” in Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY: UAHC Press, 2000), 19-22.
[9] Magen Avraham 139:15.
[10] Megillah 4:1.
[11] Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, vol. 2,5759.10: Compulsory Immunization.

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