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March 12, 2020 2:26 pm
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Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Urges Worshipers to Avoid Prayers at Western Wall Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

The Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Hynek Moravec via Wikimedia Commons.

Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi ruled on Thursday that praying at the Western Wall should be avoided, as well as all religious services with large groups, due to the danger of infection with the coronavirus, as Israel continued to wrestle with the consequences of the global pandemic.

Israeli news site N12 reported that Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef issued a ruling that said, “There is no halachic directive that overrides the instructions of the Ministry of Health” and all such instructions must be obeyed “without exception.”

The chief rabbi further ruled that the Ministry of Health’s orders should be regarded as having the force of halachic law.

“At the request of the Israel Police, one should avoid going to the Western Wall at this time and holding mass prayers there,” he ruled. “And every man and woman should pray close to home.”

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The Western Wall is the second-holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount and the site of mass prayers on a daily basis.

Yosef further ruled that large synagogues should divide up worshipers in accordance with the instructions of the Ministry of Health and weddings should not be delayed, but ought to take place “in a reduced way.”

The chief rabbi justified his ruling on the basis of pikuach nefesh, the halachic concept that the saving of a life overrules the commandments in Jewish law.

Pikuach nefesh overrides the entirety of the Torah — a sick person in danger eats on Yom Kippur, the Shabbat can be desecrated for a sick person when there is even a hint they are in danger,” he said.

Israel’s Channel 13 reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will announce on Thursday evening that the entire educational system will be shut down until after Passover.

The decision is causing controversy within the government, with the Ministry of Finance planning to put all teachers on unpaid vacation and cut their wages by 50%. Education Minister Rafi Peretz reportedly objects strongly to the plan and wants all wages to be paid in full for the duration of the crisis.

In addition, Israel’s flag carrier El Al announced that it was suspending almost all flights starting on Sunday, though routes to North America, England, France, and South Africa would remain in operation.

The pandemic crisis has been intensified due to Israel’s political impasse, with neither Netanyahu nor his chief rival Benny Gantz able to form a government.

In response, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called on Thursday for an end to the stalemate, saying, “a national emergency government must be established because of the coronavirus.”

N12 reported that, in a major about-face, Avigdor Lieberman — leader of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party — agreed, abandoning his previously declared refusal to form a coalition with Netanyahu, saying, “From our point of view the best thing is a national unity government on the basis of parity.”

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