Guidance for Pesach from Kol HaCOVID – The Toronto Jewish Community COVID-19 Task Force

Pesach is one of the most celebrated holidays for Jews around the world. The Seder itself is traditionally celebrated with extended family and/or friends.  

COVID-19 is a severe communicable illness that is transmitted from person to person, and by contact with contaminated objects. Communities around the world have closed facilities and schools, and cancelled social events and celebrations as well as religious services. The purpose of these drastic measures is to curtail the impact of COVID-19 over the coming months and limit the number of fatalities and long-term complications stemming from this disease. Data from North America and other countries around the world has shown that it is not just the elderly or immunocompromised who are at risk of poor outcomes following COVID-19 infection. Younger healthier parents, teachers, friends and colleagues are all at risk.

Currently, there are no vaccines or specific treatment for COVID-19. As such preventing the spread through physical distancing is the most effective way of preventing illness and death.

  • COVID-19 can be spread by people who have symptoms, or by people who do not know they are infected, before they have symptoms. This is why everyone needs to practice physical distancing, regardless of how they feel.
  • COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets in the air. These droplets can be present up to 2 meters (6 feet) around any person. They can land on surfaces and contaminate objects that have been within 2 meters of any person.
  • Physical distancing is a concept that applies to all in-person interactions ranging from one-on-one meetings to group conferences and celebrations, to anyone who enters your home.

It is unfortunate that the current COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to reach a peak around the Pesach holiday season. Therefore, it is critical for the health and safety of our families and community that physical distancing is very strictly adhered to in all aspects of preparing for and celebrating the upcoming Yom Tov holiday. This includes running errands, shopping, preparing for the Seder or coordinating family connections. These directives must be scrupulously followed in order to limit transmission of this life-threatening disease. We have already seen many tragic exposures, infections and deaths across the Jewish world, directly resulting from instances where clear medical guidelines were not adhered to. It is our hope that with the review and added clarifications below, we will be able to stem the current wave of infection and avoid further pain, suffering and loss of lives to our families and community members.

The following policies have been developed by the Kol HaCOVID Task Force. They are intended as best-practice guidelines that align with local public health recommendations available at this time. Adhering to these guidelines will reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the risk of COVID-19 for individuals, their family members and the larger community.

 

These guidelines are not intended to overrule any Public Health requirements and will be updated as new information becomes available. Individuals may wish to seek rabbinic guidance on how to implement these guidelines in their particular circumstances.  Please also refer to the updated Toronto Public Health website at www.toronto.ca/home/covid-19 for further resources and additional information. 

PEOPLE TRAVELLING AND VISITORS FROM OUT OF TOWN–  At this time we must emphasize a “No travellers or visitors come to Toronto” policy. There should be no exceptions to this rule. Any exception severely undermines the community’s health, and our efforts at containment. Anyone that ignores this rule is putting their own lives and lives of others in danger.

For out-of-town guests who have already arrived, the entire household should strictly follow self-quarantine guidelines for 14 days. Instruction for self-isolation can be found here.

The following are some additional recommendations in preparation for Pesach from a medical perspective. You may wish to consult your trusted rabbinical leader/consultant to apply this guidance to your specific circumstances

  1. Haircuts: Many people receive haircuts before Pesach. Although all barbers and hair salons are required by law to be closed, there are people who continue to offer haircuts in their homes on a private basis. It is dangerous to introduce a person into your home who has visited other homes and is not following physical distancing. Since one cannot cut hair from 2 meters distance, this clearly applies here. Given current physical distancing rules as per Public Health Authorities, this should not be done. An alternative would be to have an immediate family member who is already in isolation with you cut your hair, if required.
  2. Selling chometz: This process should be done while obeying the physical distancing rules. Speak to your Rabbi about methods to sell your chometz appropriately. These can include phone and online options.
  3. Burning of the chometz: Burning of the chometz is often done with neighbours and larger groups. This is not permitted at this time. For practical purposes, only a small amount of chometz requires the removal process. There are some acceptable alternatives: One is to break the chometz into small pieces and flush them down the toilet or burn the chometz on a BBQ grill at home. In all scenarios, please ensure you follow fire safety, fire code, and fire bylaw rules.
  4. Fast of the first born (Taanis Bechoros/Siyum): A public siyum is not an option. Given this, many Rabbis have advised that one can listen to a live siyum virtually instead.
  5. Helping others who are more isolated or in quarantine/ grocery shopping/ splitting or sharing (including boxes of matzos)/housekeepers: Helping others during this time reinforces the sense of community. However, in the course of these admirable activities, please ensure proper physical l distancing as well as hand washing techniques. One should be extremely cautious before accepting any open food from individuals that may have been handled improperly or without the highest degree of care for infection control. Please refer to www.kolhacovid.com on guidelines for food establishments for further details. Wash your hands after handling any items from outside your home.
  6. It is imperative not to bring help into your home. This includes nannies, housekeepers and any other staff. We understand how difficult this is but please be aware that individuals in our community have contracted COVID-19 after exposure to outside helpers who have been infected. There should be only your immediate family with you in your home.
  7. T’vilas keilim: One should not go to a mikvah to toveil keillim at this time. One solution, as mentioned in Shulchan Aruch and endorsed by many local Rabbis, is to partner with a non Jew for ownership of the utensils. The general process involves phoning the non-Jew and advising them that due to a religious obligation you require them to share in the ownership of this utensil. Any token amount of money they provide is sufficient. An alternative is to toveil keilim in a natural body of water while following safety rules around water and water banks. It is imperative to follow proper hygiene and washing protocols for the person and utensils when returning home.
  8. Garbage pick up: There are several services in Toronto where one can pay people to pick up your garbage. Depending upon your garbage pick up schedule, another option is to put your garbage outside of your property by the curb and relinquish ownership of the garbage. When you relinquish ownership, it should be stated verbally in front of someone else. Household waste should not be dropped off in parks and other public spaces.

Pesach

  1. Synagogue/shul: As per the current recommendations, any minyan at any location at this time is forbidden. This specifically includes minyanim or shiurim in people’s homes, backyards, front yards, driveways, streets, rooftops etc. To be clear, any non-essential gathering or meeting with any individual (even one) that is not part of one’s immediate family with which he/she has been in isolation is prohibited. Further details about synagogue/shul services related to Pesach prayers will be forthcoming.
  2. Attendees at Seders and all other meals: People attending the seders should be members of your household with whom you are living. Even if certain members have been quarantined for 14 days before the seders, only members of one household should attend the seder together. We recognize that this is particularly challenging for families, especially with some family members who are living alone. However, the risk of exposure and potential harm must be weighed against the challenge of people being alone and separated. Our recommendations are based on the guidance of experts stating that: (1) people can be carriers of the virus and passing within a family unit unknowingly; (2) people may have been unknowingly exposed to COVID through their interactions with others and places during their 14-day quarantine; and (3) cases of COVID have been reported with incubation periods longer than 14 days (reference: https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2762808/incubation-period-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-from-publicly-reported)
  3. Hand sanitizers: As per Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), while it is preferable to use hand sanitizers without chametz (Purell brand is chametz free), all hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes are permitted for use for Passover this year (Updated 4/1/2020). As a reminder, hand washing with soap and water is effective if done correctly. Please see this website for more information: https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/9975-tph-handwashing_poster_eng_Dec_2012_aoda.pdf
  4. Chol Hamoed trips: People should be careful in their choices for chol hamoed trips to ensure they are following the recommended physical distancing rules as per Public Health. If possible, outdoor trips where unnecessary physical contact can be minimized are advisable.

These are challenging times for everyone. The measures to contain COVID-19 will certainly have an impact on how Pesach is celebrated this year. These guidelines align with best practices available at this time and are intended to reduce COVID-19 transmission to family members and the community with the intention of saving lives. These recommendations are based on up to date public health policies and government laws as applied to Jewish practices.

This is a quickly evolving situation and guidelines and recommendations that are made may change from day to day. We will do our best to keep you updated.

Please stay positive! We will get through this together!

Chaim Bell, MD PhD FRCPC
Professor of Medicine and Health Policy Management & Evaluation, University of Toronto
Chief of Medicine, Sinai Health System

Ari Greenwald, MD, FRCPC
Associate Clinical Professor, McMaster University
Emergency Physician, Hamilton Health Sciences & Mackenzie Health
Medical Director, Hatzoloh Toronto

Jeremy Gilbert, MD, FRCPC
Associate Professor of Medicine,
University of Toronto
Staff Physician, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Barry Pakes, MD, PhD, FRCPC
Assistant Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto

*The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the institutions to which the signatories are affiliated.

 

Key Messages for Pesach during COVID-19

The following information is taken from the full Pesach Document. Please refer to the document for details.

  • Travel – no one should travel to Toronto until further notice.
  • Haircuts – do not bring anyone into your home for haircuts.
  • Selling Chometz – physical distancing must be practiced. Speak to your Rabbi about online and phone options.
  • Burning Chometz – No public chometz burning. Flush crumbs down toilet or make your own small fire keeping in mind all safety rules.
  • Taanis Bechorim – There will be no public siyumim. Online and over the phone options are available.
  • Tvilas Keilim – Do not take keilim (utensils) to a mikva. Consider a natural body of water, practicing water safety or sell new items temporarily to a non Jew.
  • Housekeeping and babysitting help: Having an outside person come into your home for any reason is contrary to safe practices and must be avoided.
  • Garbage Pick Up – Either hire a private pick up company or put your garbage at the curb and relinquish ownership in front of another person.
  • Shul/Synagogue – The Rabbanim have clearly said that it is forbidden to hold minyanim.
  • Seder and Holiday/Yomtov Meals – Stay home. Do not attend other people’s homes.
  • Hand Sanitizers – As per COR, all hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes are permitted for use this Passover. (Updated 4/1/2020)
  • Trips and Outings – Physical distancing must be practiced. Outdoor trips limited to your household.

 

Chaim Bell, MD, PhD, FRCP(C)
Jeremy Gilbert, MD, FRCPC
J. Ari Greenwald, MD, FRCPC
Barry Pakes, MD, PhD, FRCPC

*The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the institutions to which the signatories are affiliated.

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