Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has imposed a three-week lockdown, beginning on Friday
Eating apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashana is a Jewish tradition to symbolize a sweet start of the New Year. But in Israel, bitterness prevails on the eve of the holiday as the country faces a second nationwide lockdown to stem a raging coronavirus outbreak.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has imposed a three-week lockdown, beginning on Friday afternoon — just hours before Rosh Hashana starts. Israel’s first lockdown, in March and April, put a damper on Passover, the Jewish spring holiday marking the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
Now, the Jewish High Holidays look to be similarly subdued.
Israel has seen new daily cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in recent weeks, climbing to more than 5,000 on Wednesday — one of the highest per capita infection rates in the world. Since the pandemic began this year, it has recorded more than 169,000 cases, including 1,163 deaths, as of Wednesday, according to Health Ministry figures.
Religious and secular Israelis alike mark Rosh Hashana with festive holiday feasts with family and friends. They pack synagogues, often spending hours in prayer, especially during the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which falls later this month.
But this year, traditional family gatherings will be muted, synagogue prayers will be limited to small groups and travel restrictions will leave many roads deserted. Some of the liberal streams of Judaism, particularly in the United States, are turning to technology to help connect people.
In Israel, movement during the lockdown will be restricted to within 500 meters (yards) of one’s home. Gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors, and 20 outside, restricting the number of faithful who can attend synagogue services. Bars, restaurants, and cultural venues will be shut, but many ritual baths and other religious facilities will remain open.
Israelis have been frustrated since the gains made with the first lockdown — when the virus seemed to have been brought under control — were erased within weeks, with authorities unable to stem the spike that followed.
The lockdown rules have also deepened the rift between secular and religious Jews in Israel. Many Jewish worshippers elsewhere in the world will have to forgo synagogue services due to social distancing rules, hold prayers and hear the traditional sounding of the shofar — a ceremonial ram’s horn — on street corners or at home.
In the US, more liberal Jewish streams have produced alternatives for congregants who use Zoom, Facebook and other digital platforms during the High Holidays.
With gatherings in synagogues across Israel limited to 10 worshipers, some Israelis are organizing services in courtyards and gardens. At Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can worship, the plaza is crisscrossed with dividers to allow small groups to pray.
Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation that has hosted many Israeli dignitaries over the decades, announced earlier this week that because of the pandemic, it would not hold High Holiday services for the first time since it opened in 1958.
Israeli police are sending out thousands of officers in a bid to enforce the regulations, with lockdown violators facing hundreds of dollars in fines. Still, officials are concerned many Israelis — skeptical of the government’s erratic and confusing regulations — may defy the lockdown.