March 24, 2020 — 28 Adar 5780

by | Mar 26, 2020 | Rabbi's message

March 24, 2020 — 28 Adar 5780

Shalom Chaverim,

Kaddish and COVID-19: What can we do?

Can we assemble a minyan via the internet during this time of crisis?

The Issue:

     The Talmud (Pesachim 85b) explains that, when a group comes together to perform the mitzvah of eating the Korban Pesach (paschal offering), they must do so together, within a fixed space–for example, a particular room or courtyard. This is based on Exodus 12:46 “In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not remove any of the meat from the house and eat it outside.”
     Rav Yehudah is of the view that the same rule applies to Tefilah (prayer). Based on this, the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 53:12 (Code of Jewish Law) rules that one needs to be in the same physical designated prayer space with the rest of the mitpallilim (daveners) to be included in a minyan, just as one needs to be in the same physical space with the other Seder participants in order to fulfill the mitzvah of eating the Korban Pesach.

What happens if I need to say Kaddish but can’t find a minyan because of the COVID-19 crisis? 

     The Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) links good thoughts to good actions. This claim is based on the prophet Malachi’s utterance “And a book of remembrance was written before him [G-d], for them that fear the Lord and think upon his name” (3:16). Therefore, Rav Asi teaches that, if one intended to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to circumstances beyond his control, he still is credited with performing the mitzvah, for he is among those who think upon his [G-d’s] name.
     In other words, if one truly intended to find a minyan in order to recite Kaddish but couldn’t due to circumstances beyond his/her control, it is as if he/she recited Kaddish in G-d’s eyes. Clearly, during this period of social distancing, finding a conventional minyan is not possible. However, if one davens with the intent that he would have davened with a minyan if he could have, it is as if he had recited Kaddish for his loved one.
     That being said, the inability to say Kaddish can leave an emotional need unfulfilled. How can this need be fulfilled? Let us remember that the Kaddish prayer has nothing to do with the dead. It is a praise of G-d which over time came to be associated with the dead (as detailed in this past year’s Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon, which can be heard by clicking here).

How did Kaddish become associated with the dead?

     The Talmud (Sanhedrin 104a) teaches that the souls of deceased parents can receive reward from mitzvot their living children perform. Over time the idea developed that praising G-d by the recitation of Kaddish is a mitzvah one can perform to elevate the soul of a dearly departed loved one from Gehinnom (purgatory) to Olam Haba (heaven). If one is unable to say Kaddish, one can perform other mitzvot on behalf of one’s dearly departed loved ones in order to help elevate their souls.
     Common mitzvot performed on behalf of the departed loved one include:
  • Reciting psalms: It is believed that the recitation of Tehillim (psalms) also helps the soul ascend. It is particularly common to recite psalms 16,17, 20, 23, and 49 for a dearly departed loved one.
  • Studying Mishnah: The words Mishnah and neshama (soul) contain the same letters, “nun, shin, mem, hay.” It is customary to complete a tractate of Mishnah and have a Siyum (ceremony marking the conclusion of the study of a text) at the end of Shloshim (the first 30 days of mourning) in honor of the memory of the dearly departed loved one. This learning serves as a mitzvah performed on his/her behalf.
  • Reciting an alternative to the Mourners Kaddish (I am working on composing one).

Can an exception be made to allow Kaddish to be said with a virtual minyan during an emergency situation such as COVID-19?

     Often innovative thoughts are inspired by necessity. I will closely follow any Halachic rulings from Poskim (legal decisors) as they appear and weigh them.

Though at this time we are not able to constitute a minyan, is there still value in joining together online to daven together?

     Yes. The Beracha for Kibbutz Galuyot (Ingathering of Exiles) found in the weekday Amidah praises G-d as he who “gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.” Clearly, the implication is that G-d will gather his people in Eretz Yisrael. Yet, the land is not explicitly mentioned. Rabbi Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etzion explains that the explicit omission of Eretz Yisrael teaches us that there is zechut (merit) to Jews connecting with each other even outside of the land as well.

     It is important for us as individuals and as a community to take advantage of technology and stay connected. Stay tuned as more information is to come as we expand online services and classes.

Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Steven Saks