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COVID-19 minyanim in breach of the law

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The phenomenon of COVID-19 minyanim gives rise to, at least, the following material considerations: the well-known principle that all Jews are responsible for each other; and the legality of such minyanim. Assuming, for the moment, that COVID-19 minyanim don’t breach the first principle, what of the legalities?
by Terence Ossin, Johannesburg | Jun 18, 2020

Let’s start by giving those responsible for setting up and conducting COVID-19 minyanim the benefit of the doubt: a sincere belief on their part that the recent level-3 relaxation in relation to conducting religious services permits the conducting of COVID-19 minyanim.

Current level 3 regulations permit attendance and gatherings at “places of worship/faith-based institutions”. Attendance and gatherings are, however, subject to adherence to health protocols and social distancing measures, and these are set out in extended regulations published at the same time as the alert level-3 regulations (on 28 May 2020).

The extended regulations define a “place of worship” as any place or premises “usually used for religious purposes”. I suggest that a COVID-19 minyan set up in a private residence or place not usually used as a shul/shtiebel, isn’t a “place of worship”, and would therefore appear to be illegal.

The extended regulations place direct legal responsibility on the religious leader (rabbi) or person in charge of the place of worship (the home-owner). They are responsible for ensuring at least the following: sufficient quantities of sanitiser with at least a 70% alcohol content; facilities for washing hands; a register of all attendees for at least six months and screening of all attendees for COVID-19 symptoms; face masks worn at all times; no physical contact between attendees; no communal singing; that any portion of the service requiring personal contact isn’t performed (reading from the Torah, kissing the Torah, kissing mezuzot); attendees keep a distance of at least 1.5 metres from each other and 2.5 metres where a face mask cannot be used; all surfaces and equipment are cleaned before and after the service; there is no sharing of objects (siddurim, chumashim, taleisim); and toilets, common areas, and door handles are regularly sanitised.

Having given the benefit of the doubt to those rabbis and home-owners who believe that their home, non-shul, or shtiebel-based COVID-19 minyanim are legal, are we also to assume that those persons who are conducting all minyanim are adhering to the myriad and detailed protocols and measures? 

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