Passover During the Pandemic

By Lianne Kolirin

Celebrating Passover this year will be “exceptionally difficult” says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

The festival, lasting for eight days, is one of the most significant in the Jewish calendar and has been marked by Jews around the world since about 1300BC.

But restrictions imposed to try to minimise the spread of the coronavirus will significantly impact on how Jewish families will be able to mark the occasion.

For many, the most significant aspect will be the Seder meal where participants eat symbolic foods related to freedom from slavery as they retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The ritual feast is conducted around family tables or communal gatherings on the first and second night of Passover (except in Israel where only the first night is observed).

But with social distancing measures in place, as well as a curfew in some countries such as Israel, this will no longer be possible in the same way. Different generations will not be able to gather for the family occasion, with Seders now encompassing only members of the same household – which for many could mean a meal for one.

There have been creative approaches to get around some of the limitations, though these vary between the different denominations. The Masorti movement last week announced that its members can livestream their Seder – providing the camera is switched on before Passover officially commences at sundown and is left on until it “switches itself off”. According to the Jewish Chronicle, the measure was allowed in “mitigation of loneliness at a time when being with those we love and cherish is of the greatest significance”.

The operation of electronic equipment is not usually allowed over the Sabbath or during High holy days.

Another alternative is to recite the prayers of the Seder before nightfall using technology – in other words before the festival officially commences. The meal, in that case, would then be eaten once the service was complete and the festival had begun.

“Seder-to-Go” kits been distributed by the online food delivery service Deliveroo, in conjunction with Chabad Lubavitch UK. Aimed predominantly at the elderly and vulnerable, the kids contain a rolled-up Seder plate and all the various requirements, including a box of matzah, a bottle of wine and a Haggadah – the Passover prayer book.

The United Synagogue has created “Seder in a Box” which contains a plate, educational material and a three-course meal with cutlery and crockery.  Boxes have been available to order with subsidies for those in need of assistance. The United Synagogue website also lists caterers who are supplying ready-cooked meals and provisions.

“This is one of the closest things we can do to a communal Seder,” said Michelle Minsky from the United Synagogue.

Some rabbis have also agreed to ease some dietary restrictions over the whole period, because many face difficutlies in getting hold of products deemed to be strictly kosher.

At this time observant Jews do not eat bread and other products made from flour. They also avoid pasta and cereals, as well as many other things. There are strict guidelines for what is and is not considered permissible under the laws of kashrut.

This year has seen an unprecedented move to relax hundreds of years of tradition due to the exceptional circumstances. The Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din has now published a list of regular products that can be consumed at this time.

This does not mean that Passover has been cancelled or that bread is now permissible, but that there is to be some leniency with regards to more general groceries.

“We are acutely aware of the pressures at this unprecedented time,” said the division’s director, Rabbi Jeremy Conway.