In light of the current situation, many halachic questions have been posed to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Rishon Letzion Harav Yitzchak Yosef shlit”a, regarding religious obligations at a time of epidemic.
In a halachic responsum dealing with communal prayer, the Chief Rabbi emphasized the importance of strict adherence to the Health Ministry’s guidelines, writing, “We trust the decisions of the doctors, and we are obligated not to diverge from their instructions, including in the matter of chillul Shabbat [Sabbath desecration] in cases where there is a real concern of pikuach nefesh [danger to human life] when the entire Torah is set aside in order to preserve life.”
Regarding the question of whether to allow synagogues to remain open on Shabbat, Rabbi Yosef ruled that in a place where the instructions of the gabba’im [sextons] were followed and no more than ten people would gather in one area, the synagogue could remain open. However, he cautioned that in places where it was suspected that the gabba’im would not be obeyed and a larger number of people would gather, the synagogue should be shut until the crisis has passed.
Given that the situation in the hospitals differs substantially, the Chief Rabbi ruled that hospital synagogues should be closed, noting that they are usually small and overcrowded, and that those praying there are likely to be in the at-risk category and especially vulnerable to contracting the virus and suffering complications.
Rabbi Yosef also ruled that anyone who has been tested for coronavirus and is awaiting the results should leave his cell phone switched on during Shabbat, and should answer it with a shinui [in a different manner from during the rest of the week] in order to be updated on his status, in case he needs to go into quarantine.
Regarding weekday prayers, the Chief Rabbi wrote that those who are unable to pray in a minyan [halachic quorum] may listen to the prayers over radio or telephone, but he emphasized that such prayer does not have the halachic status of tefillah b’tzibbur [communal prayer]. Regarding the Shabbat prayers, Rabbi Yosef ruled that the “Me’ein Sheva” prayer recited on Friday night should only be said in a synagogue or other place where prayers are usually held. Therefore, those praying at home should not recite this prayer.
The Chief Rabbi also referred to bringing a sefer Torah to places where minyanim are being held, and discussed the manner in which a person who was unable to hear the Torah reading on Shabbat due to the government’s restrictions could make it up afterward.