The Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany (ORD) published a guide in March 2020 and distributed it by e-mail to its members. In view of the forthcoming Passover celebration in the year 5780 / 2020, this guideline is about recommendations for the purchase of food not marked with the special kosher certificate for Passover due to “the current emergency situation.”
In a time when residential areas where many Orthodox Jews live are particularly afflicted by COVID-19, it is worth remembering that Judaism established rules of exception early on with regard to the 613 commandments and prohibitions that would otherwise have to be strictly observed. Even modern social hygiene measures, including those applied in times of epidemics, can be found in the Talmud. Thus, in the tractate Baba Kamma 60b it says: “The Rabbanan teach: If there is an epidemic in the city, limit your steps, for it is said: None of you shall go out the door of your house until the morning.” And further, there is a warning from the jurists: “If there is a plague in the city, do not walk in the middle of the street, because the angel of death walks in the middle of the streets.” Even the visit to the synagogue is specially regulated in times of an epidemic: “If there is an epidemic in the city, do not go to a house of prayer by yourself, because the angel of death keeps his instruments in it. However, this is only the case if there are no schoolchildren reading the Scriptures and no ten men the minyan of 10 men required for a public service praying there.” Even in late antiquity, Jewish legal scholars took the danger of infection quite seriously.
In 1831, when cholera was rampant all over Europe, one of the leading Jewish legal scholars of the time, Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761–1837), was asked for advice on how to deal with larger gatherings, for example for common prayer in the synagogue. His rabbinical opinion provided for the regulation that the services were to be staggered in time and that no more than 15 male persons at a time were to gather for prayer. If there was too great an influx of people, security personnel could even be deployed or the police called in. After the epidemic subsided, this code of conduct earned him high praise from the health authorities.
To what extent are the purchasing recommendations presented here a so-called key document that “highlights central aspects of Jewish history”? The contemporary historian would of course answer this question in the affirmative, because, as is well known, the definition of a source is determined by the research interest of the respective historian. And why else would the world-famous Widener Library of Harvard University even collect advertising supplements of Israeli daily newspapers?
Jewish law, the Halakhah, regulates down to the smallest detail how Jews celebrate Passover, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The relevant regulations can be found in the Schulchan Aruch, an authoritative summary of religious regulations, which was repeatedly revised by Josef Karo in the early sixteenth century and later by other Jewish legal scholars and which also takes into account Ashkenazi legal interpretation. The current COVID-19 pandemic poses great difficulties for the traditional celebration of Passover, not only in Germany. For example, deviations from the strict kosher regulations that apply to this festival require special justification, which are prescribed by the Halakhah, the Jewish religious law.
The first rule states that saving human lives is the highest commandment in Judaism. This ethical obligation is called pikuach nefesh literally: saving the soul. For example, in the Mishnah, in the tractate on the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur, it says: “Whoever has a sore throat may be given medicine even on the Sabbath because his life may be in danger, and any danger to life breaks [= displaces] the Sabbath” (Yoma 8.6.). Exceptions to this general rule do not apply in the case of idolatry, fornication and murder. These prohibitions must therefore never be violated on such grounds.
Second is the Talmudic principle Dina de-malchuta dina: “The law of the land is law.” For Jews living in the diaspora , this means that they are fundamentally obliged to respect and obey the laws of the country in which they live. This can lead to the fact that in certain cases the laws of the country can even take precedence over the legal principles of Halakhah. However, the predominant doctrine is that this only applies to the so-called mamona (questions of civil, tax and financial law) and not to the religious sphere.
With indirect reference to the Talmudic law Dina de-malchuta dina, the ORD declares that the “official restrictions on leaving one’s home and having contact with others [...] must not be broken for the chametz sale.” Instead, chametz should be sold online “via the website of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference” pro forma. The Halakhah prohibits the possession of chametz (leavened baked goods) during the Passover days (Exodus 13:6). Therefore, one must part with any chametz in time for Passover. This can be done for a larger quantity by a mostly symbolic sale to a gentile. Early evidence of this can be found in the Tosefta, a rabbinical compilation from the second century CE, where the tractate of Passover states that a Jew may “sell his chametz to a gentile” when both are on a ship, “but this must be a legally valid sale.” (Tosefta Pessachim 2:6). Unlike a normal sale, where the new owner takes the purchased goods and pays the usual market value, the chametz remains in the possession of the Jew and only a symbolic sum is paid. Since this “business” normally requires the presence of both parties to the contract, this year, due to the social distancing rules issued by the health authorities, the traditional legal transaction will be waived and carried out on the Internet.
Currently, it is proving difficult for religious Jews who normally follow the strict dietary rules for Passover to comply with the ban on having chametz in their possession or in the house. In addition, the purchase of food specifically designated as permitted for consumption during Passover by a corresponding kashrut certificate also poses challenges due to supply shortages and border closures. Therefore, an exception is made this year that permits consuming food that only has the regular Hechscher certificate kosher stamp. According to the ORD list, in the present exceptional situation, food which may be bought without a Kascher-lePessach [kosher for Passover] certificate includes fresh fruit and vegetables (with the exception of certain legumes, so-called kitniyot, which, however, can only be bought according to Ashkenazi tradition). Furthermore, eggs, fresh fish and fresh meat are allowed. During the rest of the year the principle batel be-shishim applies to kashrut. This means that if a dish contains less than 1/60 of a prohibited substance and this is not relevant for the taste and consistency of the dish, it is still considered kosher. However, this rule may not be applied to baked goods on Passover. During this time, even the smallest amount of chametz makes baked goods unclean. And what about the advice in the list to use only white eggs if possible? This is based on the experience that brown eggs more often have traces of blood in the yolk because it is easier to overlook them during standard fluoroscopy.
The list of recommendations for Passover shopping in the year 5780 documented here is a remarkable contemporary expression of the religious duty of care with regard to the observance of the halakhic rules for Passover shopping in Corona times. It refers to the everyday needs of modern life and at the same time illustrates which rules are unthinkable to break even in times of crisis. It also shows a special flexibility on the rabbinical side under the compulsion of state hygiene regulations. After all, the current regulations also have serious effects on the delivery and provision of strictly kosher consumer goods and food in a country like Germany, where Jews are part of a majority society.
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Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. h. c. Robert Jütte has been Director of the Institute for the History of Medicine of the Robert Bosch Foundation in Stuttgart since 1990. He was a lecturer from 1983 to 1989, then Professor of Modern History at the University of Haifa/Israel and has been teaching at the University of Stuttgart since 1991. In 2018 he received the honorary degree "Doctor of Hebrew Letters" from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Chicago. His main areas of research are the social history of medicine, history of alternative medicine, everyday and cultural history of the early modern period, and Jewish history.
Robert Jütte, Preparations for Passover during COVID-19 (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 08, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-262.en.v1> [September 22, 2020].