Megilla in the time of the Corona
Updated: May 4, 2021
Guest post by Ian Gamse
There are times when one has to go back to first principles in halakha, to ask fundamental definitional questions and attempt to answer them. This is one of those times. A week away from Purim, we in the UK are still in the midst of a pandemic and dealing with mutations of the COVID-19 virus that are more infectious and in some cases cause greater damage than the versions that were prevalent a year ago. The numbers in the UK are getting better – and that may be due to the rapid vaccination programme, or to the fact that the country has been in strict lockdown for weeks – but it doesn’t yet mean that we can throw caution to the winds and look forward to normal Purim activities. Any sort of in-person gathering, even with masks and social distancing, carries risk: somebody – maybe even the person reading the megilla – might be asymptomatically infected, might even be a superspreader. There cannot be a 100% guarantee of safety if every UK Jew who wishes to hear the megilla read and cannot read for themselves joins in an in-person group activity, even if everyone with the merest hint of a possible symptom stays at home.
So what do we do? We are dealing with a risk to life, but not one that we can easily quantify in any specific situation. We need to know the general level of infection within the population, the extent to which those infected are asymptomatic, and the danger posed by proximity to an asymptomatic carrier.
The most recent Infection Survey for England (for the week to 6th February) estimated that 1 in 80 of the population was infected, though there were wide regional variations. Studies of the level of asymptomatic infection have produced a wide range of estimates, some as high as 80%, but a paper published by researchers at UCL which reviewed studies published up to August 2020 found the pooled estimate to be 28%. Importantly, they say:
“Estimates of viral load and duration of viral shedding appeared to be similar for asymptomatic and symptomatic cases based on available data, though detailed reporting of viral load and natural history of viral shedding by symptom status was limited. Evidence of the relationship between age and symptom status was inconclusive.”
Latest estimates suggest that the infection rate is by now down to 1 in 200, which would mean that perhaps 3 out of 2,000 randomly selected people in England would be asymptomatically infected – and being asymptomatic does not mean that the person is any less infectious than a person with symptoms. So we might expect 375 of the UK’s Jewish population of approximately 250,000 to be asymptomatically infected – and maybe a fifth of those, 75, to be people who would normally celebrate Purim. That is 75 unwitting, ticking bombs randomly distributed through the UK’s shuls, ready to infect their friends. Mishloach makkot ish l’re’ehu.
Another way of looking at the situation is to consider the probability that in a group of a given size with an asymptomatic infection rate of 3 in 2,000 there is no one in the group who is asymptomatically infected. For groups of 30 people, that is about 96%. So there is a non-trivial possibility – about 4% in a group of 30 people, higher than that in a larger group – that a group that gathers to hear megilla will include at least one person who is unaware of being infected – and if the actual infection rate is higher, the danger is greater. So given 25 groups of 30 people each, we would expect there to be at least one group in which there is an asymptomatic Covid spreader.
Being in a room with someone who is Covid-positive for 20 or 30 minutes – even with distancing, masking and ventilation – is dangerous, particularly as people will be stationary so those closest to the infected person are at higher risk. Every person in the room is now potentially themselves infected – possibly again without displaying any symptoms – and ready to go about their business infecting more people. And suddenly, from these simultaneous organised gatherings, we have a communal problem. The danger, it need not be said, is a risk to life and long-term health. And sakkana, danger, is treated according to the Talmud more stringently than isura, religious prohibitions.
This places an unusual responsibility on our communal leaders. Normally, psak halakha – halakhic decision-making – focuses on the immediate problem at hand, the specific individual case. If an individual comes to the posek and asks “Should I attend a megilla reading this year?”, the decisor might well assess the risk and say “Well, the specific risk to you is really quite small, as obviously you will wear your mask(s) properly and be scrupulous about social distancing as you clearly are about the minutiae of mitsvot, so why not?”. And the posek will then have blood on his hands. Because in these exceptional circumstances, we have to stop and ask “What happens if everyone is given the same answer?”. And what happens is that every one of those 3 in 2,000 (or whatever the number is) of asymptomatic infectious individuals has been given rabbinic sanction to go and infect as many people as possible – and all in the name of doing a mitsva.
If everyone must not attend an in-person megilla reading then, I contend, no one must.
So as a matter of policy, we must either tell people very politely that if no one in their household has a megilla and can read it then we can regard them halakhically as prevented from fulfilling the mitsva by forces beyond their control, and therefore exempt – or find a way in which people can fulfil the mitsva remotely.
Is there such a way?
This is not the place for a full history and analysis of approaches to the question of using amplification systems, telephone or digital live-streaming to hear the megilla. A number of useful attempts have recently been published and reached different conclusions. In London, the London Beth Din has ruled that one may rely on Zoom if one is unable or unwilling to go to shul, but retains a preference for physical presence; while the other orthodox rabbinic authorities rule that a live-streamed reading is worthless.
They do this presumably because there is a weight of opinion – Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shlomo Zalman Urbach to name but two – who hold that hearing the megilla by telephone or through an amplification system is a meaningless act. Yet at the same time, they ignore the opinion of Rav Eliezer Waldenberg who ruled in practice for a “large hospital” that where it was impossible to arrange megilla readings for every patient other than by using a microphone (and presumably the public address system) one should not object to anyone ruling even ab initio that this should be done.
Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s rulings deserve close reading – as his family point out in the introduction to the posthumous volume 8 of Igrot Moshe, he was very careful about which responsa were published and how they were edited for publication. In Orach Chayyim 4:126 (Adar 5740) he describes a specific situation in great detail. The head of a girls’ seminary in Gedera says that if all the girls are crammed into the shul it will be difficult for them to hear the megilla without amplification, so is it possible to permit this bi’sh’at had’chak kazeh – “in an emergency such as this”. The questioner had seen Rav Moshe’s earlier responsum (Orach Chayyim 2:108) in which (as Rav Moshe summarises in 4:126) he rules that “it is more likely that one can fulfil the mitsva in this way, but since it’s not completely clear, and since this is a new matter, one should not do it”. Rav Moshe continues to offer his suggestion for what they should do: wait after ma’ariv until “everyone together” has cleaned the dining room and then read the megilla in two places at the same time. Why did Rav Moshe publish this responsum, and why did he go into this detail? I would suggest that he wanted to teach us what is – or is not – an “emergency”. In the case of the seminary, there was a very simple way of avoiding the problem; an emergency “such as this” was not sufficient grounds to allow a practice which is only “more likely” than not to be proper. But that leaves open the possibility that Rav Moshe thought that theoretically at least there might be circumstances that did justify it. And it is hard to imagine that the circumstances of the pandemic in London in 2021 would not meet his criteria. We are dealing not with the minor inconvenience of waiting a few minutes but with clear and present danger to life.
And there’s the rub. Lefi aniyut da’ati, our leaders have dealt with this question the wrong way round. Instead of asking “Can we fulfil the mitsva through Zoom?” they should be saying “We are in a state of danger; what should we do, as policy for the entire community?”. This is an emergency. And k’day Rav Moshe lismokh alav – Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg can surely be relied on in this emergency. Everyone should be instructed to read megilla within their household, or to hear megilla remotely. Not only is it not “better” this year to go to a communal megilla reading, it is objectively bad.
Should there be a single death, rachmana litslan, that results from this year’s Purim observances, our rabbinic and communal leaders will not be able to say yadeynu lo shaf’khu et haddam hazzeh – “our hands did not spill this blood” – but they will be able to say eyneynu lo ra’u – “our eyes did not see”, for they will not have seen what should have been obvious. May God preserve us – and them – from the consequences of their foolishness; and may Purim this year be a time of unmitigated joy reflecting kiy’mu v'kiblu, the voluntary re-acceptance of Torah in its living, creative beauty.
Ian Gamse London, Adar 5781
 Imperial College London’s React study; data from 4-13 February  P = (1997/2000)30  I use the masculine intentionally  Rabbi Jeffrey Fox has a useful summary at https://www.yeshivatmaharat.org/teshuvot, while Rabbi Moshe Walter comes to a different conclusion at https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/989393/rabbi-moshe-walter/can-one-fulfill-the-mitzvah-of-hearing-the-megillah-over-zoom-and-livestream-/  Tsits Eliezer 8:11  Presumably Shaarei Tsedek  Purim in 1980 was of course on motsaei shabbat  Devarim 21:7, the ceremony of the unknown murder victim  ibid