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Jewish call to prayer poses a dilemma for upcoming rituals during Covid

August 28, 2020

Jewish call to prayer poses a dilemma for upcoming rituals during Covid

Auckland Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Nathanel Friedler sounding the shofar in the synagogue. Photo: supplied

Auckland’s Jewish community is busy working out how traditions and rituals can be observed under Covid-related restrictions as Jewish New Year approaches next month.

The two-day festival, known as Rosh Hashana in Hebrew, begins at sundown on September 18. Central to the synagogue service is a religious obligation to hear the sound of the shofar; a ram’s horn.

Blowing into the shofar could pose a health risk due to the potential spread of droplets among a congregation.

Auckland Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Nathanel Friedler says hearing the sound of the shofar is a commandment that comes from the Torah, which rabbinical scholars have explained is a wake-up call; a reminder for people to look at their deeds over the past year.

“It’s a special voice of prayer; a cry from the depths. There’s so much to it and it’s a shame if we’re going to miss out on it this year.”

He says not knowing what Alert Level will be in place by then makes planning difficult but the board is planning for various scenarios.

Alert Level 2 would limit the number of those present  in a synagogue at one time to hear the shofar.  Rabbi Friedler says the synagogue board is looking at options such as holding two services simultaneously on different parts of the premises, or holding  shorter services at different times.

However, Rabbi Friedler says Jewish law makes it clear that health comes first before other  commandments.

“The mitzvah [commandment] is to hear the shofar but every mitzvah should be postponed if life is at risk. And we know this virus is very dangerous.”

The health-first message is shared by Naomi Johnson of Auckland’s Beth Shalom Progressive Synagogue.

“The overriding thing is safety; what’s best for the community.”

Ms Johnson says that Covid Level 2 or 3 restrictions will pose significant challenges even though Beth Shalom is a progressive congregation that has greater flexibility in its use of technology to provide services.

She says the synagogue leadership is looking at options such as livestreaming services so everyone can hear the shofar. Physical distancing will need to be considered at every part of the service.

Ms Johnson says video conferencing is another option, particularly under Level 3 conditions, but she says it is not ideal for services when many people are singing together.

For orthodox communities, such as the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, a religious prohibition on using technology on the sabbath and at festivals means that online platforms are not an option.

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