Rabbi's Update 5/19/2021
Yesterday was the second day of Shavuot. According to the Torah, Shavuot is a one day holiday and in Israel it is observed for one day. But in ancient times an extra day was added to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot in the Diaspora. The original reason for the extra day was possible confusion over which day was the actual holiday. Before there was a fixed calendar, the beginning of a new month was proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on sightings of the New Moon. Messengers were sent to the Diaspora to let everyone know which date had been proclaimed as the New Moon. If the messengers arrived before the holiday it would be observed as one day, but if not, it would be observed for two days, since one of the two had to be the “correct” one.
In the case of Shavuot, however, it was not necessary to determine the date of the holiday based on whether or not the messengers had arrived -- because Shavuot falls 50 days after the first day of Pesach. Once the community knew when the true first day of Pesach was, they knew when Shavuot was -- messenger or no messenger.
Why then is Shavuot still observed for two days? Because of the rabbinic principle of “lo ploog”, not making fine distinctions which could confuse people. The difference between Shavuot and the other biblically-commanded holidays is not immediately obvious, and treating it differently, while theoretically justified, could cause people to violate or denigrate the other holidays.
Another example of the “lo ploog” principle is the question of blowing the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah which falls on Shabbat, or taking the lulav and etrog on the Shabbat of Sukkot. We do not do so, but neither blowing the shofar or taking lulav and etrog are violations of Shabbat per se. The reason we don’t do so is because if we did, people might carry them to the synagogue on Shabbat -- which is a violation. One might therefore think that in areas where there is an eruv, a demarcation which allows carrying on Shabbat, halacha would allow blowing the shofar and taking the lulav and etrog on Shabbat. But the halacha comes down on the side of “lo ploog” because a visitor might see the shofar blown or the lulav taken and not realize that it’s permissible in the place they are visiting but not where they live permanently, and in subsequent years violate Shabbat thinking that they were doing something permitted or even required.
I thought of the “lo ploog” principle in terms of the CDCs recent guidance that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can go maskless in most situations, while those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to mask until they are. In isolation this guidance makes perfect sense. It’s now clear that at least for people who are not immuno-compromised, the available vaccines provide almost perfect protection from serious cases of COVID. And the previous requirements for people to continue to mask and distance even after vaccination may have served as a disincentive: “if I still have to keep doing everything I did before, why should I bother to get the vaccine?”
But decisions which make sense in and of themselves may still be problematic when considered in the larger context. CDC guidance and state and Montgomery County regulations still require that those not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors wherever they are likely to come into contact with others (this would include stores, workplaces, and houses of worship) but there is no way to enforce this regulation as written. A store or other location can still legally require everyone entering to wear a mask but short of checking vaccination cards (which are pretty easy to forge) at the entrance we are now operating pretty much on the honor system. I find it hard to believe that the same people who for 15 months have been proclaiming COVID to be a hoax, who have refused to comply with mask mandates, who think that the vaccines have 5G tracking chips in them, will now comply with what is essentially a voluntary request to continue to wear a mask if they have not been vaccinated.
Because this guidance was issued right before Shabbat and then Shavuot, we have not really had sufficient time to process how Kehilat Shalom should respond. But frankly, I am not so worried about our congregation. Almost all the adults in our congregation are fully vaccinated and I know from discussions with parents of children in the 12 - 15 age group, that they too will be fully vaccinated fairly soon. And I think that our members have enough integrity that if they are not vaccinated, they will comply with the requirement to continue to mask in our building even if we can’t realistically enforce it.
The Abrahamic religious traditions teach us to be especially concerned about the most vulnerable. I am concerned about the implications of this guidance for those who are immuno-compromised, who for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated, or are too young for the vaccine. Greater freedom of movement for most of us may well result in less freedom for some.
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as at the moment I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian