The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest organization of orthodox rabbis in the world, issued a ruling regarding electronic communications necessary to protect vulnerable people during this coming Passover. (see full text at end of this article). Everyone knows that pikuach Nefesh (saving lives) overides all shabbat prohibitions. Hence, Hatzolah members on call carry phones, drive vehicles, and do all sorts of other things on Shabbat. But the RCA ruling clarifies that various psychological hazards of depression, eating disorders, and other problems, let alone, suicidality, also constitute sakkonos nefoshos (serious health danger). These risks rise under conditions of isolation associated with stay-at-home practices necessitated by the covid-19 corona pandemic. Another group at risk are those at home with potential or actual sexual or physically violent offenders.
Accordingly, the RCA has called on its member rabbis to announce that they will be continuously available to be reached by phone over the holiday. They are also asked to call themselves to those believed to be at risk. This is a commendable ruling. It represents a justified and overdue understanding of the gravity of psychological risks.
The talmud describes a man who fails to rescue a drowing woman out of concerns about modesty as a chosid shoteh, a man of stupid piety.
I urge anyone able to help avert needless harm to accept the ruling and to do their share in preventing needless tragedy.
Best wishes to all for a joyous pesach, and to happier and healthier ones in the years to follow.
****STATEMENT FROM THE RCA REGARDING THE USE OF ELECTRONICS ON YOM TOV FOR PIKUACH NEFESH****
Ensuring Everyone a Safe Passover
As we enter the holiday of Pesach during this time of crisis and upheaval, we are deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of some of the members of our community. The social isolation which is so necessary at this time can significantly impact a person’s mental or physical well-being. The upcoming three day yom tov of Passover and Shabbat, during which observant Jews will not use telephones and other forms of electronic communication, may increase someone’s sense of isolation and depression, and may negatively impact vulnerable individuals. Our Torah places high value on the preservation of life. Pikuach nefesh (saving a life) overrides almost every other mitzvah in the Torah. Pikuach nefesh, in cases of potential physical or mental harm, requires us to act in ways that are otherwise prohibited.
Because of our great concern, in consultation with our poskim, we share the following instructions:
Those who are at risk of mental deterioration must not wait for severe symptoms, such as suicidal ideation (thinking about committing suicide), to develop before calling for help; preventative calls are Halachically obligatory. Furthermore, it is important to do all we can to prevent hospitalization. In the current circumstances, avoiding the exposure to Covid-19 that may occur if at a hospital is an important factor in protecting one’s health. One who feels at any risk of physical danger or depression due to mental, physical, substance abuse, or abuse issues, or other grave disorders, is required to use a phone on Yom Tov or Shabbat to call for help.
Whom should they call?
In cases of immediate danger, call 911. In other cases, some may prefer to call a therapist, friend, family member, rabbi, the hotline at Amudim (888-7-AMUDIM, 888-726-8346 or 718-972-3000), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).
Those with a friend or family member who might call them for such a reason, must leave their phones on during Shabbat and Yom Tov and monitor the caller ID of calls received. They should not hesitate to answer the phone or return a call when that person calls on Shabbat or Yom Tov and may speak as long as is necessary. As public figures known to many, communal rabbis must monitor their phones throughout Yom Tov and Shabbat. If the caller seems to be in immediate danger, they must call 911. If they are not sure what is best for the caller, they should consult with a mental health professional for guidance or call 911. These calls should be encouraged and supported by all of us without judgment or stigma.
Those who know someone who is at risk—a family member, friend or neighbor—should reach out to him/her in a way that maintains the restrictions of social distancing. It is permissible to call him/her on the telephone on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
In non-emergency situations, one should make and answer calls with a shinui (for example, using one’s weaker hand or a knuckle). In emergency situations, one should call for help in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
We pray for an end to this terrible pandemic, for the recovery of those afflicted with the virus, and for the safety and well-being of all those who struggle during these difficult times.