Chief rabbi allows cellphones on Shabbat for lifesaving virus messages

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Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef speaks during Shas Party's election rally at the Yazdim synagogue in Jerusalem on February 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef says people must have devices available in case Health Ministry needs to notify them to go into quarantine or seek medical treatment

By TOI STAFF 19 March 2020, 2:57 am

Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi ruled Wednesday that religiously observant people must keep their cellphones available on Shabbat because authorities may need to contact them with lifesaving information amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef also called for the closure of all synagogues located inside hospitals, saying that these often small prayer spaces do not allow worshipers to abide by the Health Ministry’s recommendation that people remain at least two meters (6.6 feet) from one another.

The rulings, which the rabbi’s office referred to as “dramatic,” are based on the Jewish legal principle that saving a life — or pikuah nefesh, as it’s known in Hebrew — trumps nearly all other religious requirements. The use of electronic equipment is normally not permitted on the Jewish day of rest by religious law.

The ruling comes amid growing criticism of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, parts of which have been found to be regularly flouting the Health Ministry’s directives that are aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry welcomed Yosef’s stance, saying the importance of a senior rabbi weighing in on the matter “speaks for itself” and that failing to act accordingly could lead to a “calamity.”

More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)

Yosef said his phone ruling applies not only to those who know they are at risk of the disease but also to those who don’t.

“There is no doubt that anyone who has been tested for corona must remain with their cellphone available on Shabbat, so that they can be updated on their condition and where they should go… but also whoever hasn’t been tested should remain with a cellphone available, so that if it is found that they were near a confirmed sick person and that they must go into isolation, they can be notified,” he wrote.

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday it has begun using mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and has already informed 400 people in unwitting contact with them that they must enter quarantine.

The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice.

The tracking aims to alert and order into quarantine people who, in the previous two weeks, were within two meters for 10 minutes or more of someone who turns out to have the virus. Self-quarantine for the virus lasts 14 days; thus, if the proximity incident was, say, 10 days earlier, those ordered into isolation would be required to stay there for four days.

Yosef also calls for the creation of a fleet of cars with loudspeakers to be established that can be sent into religious neighborhoods in order to inform residents that they must enter quarantine if necessary.

Many in the community shun the internet, TV and cellphones.

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