Ta’anit Bechorot During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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It is customary that firstborn males observe a fast on Erev Pesach, but they are able to absolve themselves of this requirement by participating in a Siyum Masechet – the celebration of somebody who completed the study of an entire Masechet of Gemara. This custom is discussed by the Mishna Berura. And thus each year, on Erev Pesach, a Siyum is held in the synagogue, and the firstborns attend and then partake of food and drink afterward, thereby absolving themselves of the requirement to fast. This year (5780/2020), due to the coronavirus pandemic, synagogues are, unfortunately, closed, and people are confined to their homes, thus making it all but impossible to participate in a Siyum the way firstborns normally do on Erev Pesach. The question thus becomes whether it suffices to hear a Siyum via telephone, or watch a Siyum via videoconference, in order to be absolved of the fasting requirement. The Halacha appears to hinge on the question of whether a firstborn becomes absolved by participating in the Siyum, or by participating in the festive meal after the Siyum. If the critical factor is participation in the Siyum, then we might reasonably assume that hearing the Siyum via technology suffices. If, however, the exemption stems from participation in the Se’uda (meal), then hearing the Siyum would not suffice, since one is not attending the celebration. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv maintained that one becomes exempt from fasting by participating in the Siyum, even if he does not attend the Se’uda. However, Rav Elyashiv also felt that listening to a Siyum via telephone does not qualify as actual participation, and so it would not suffice to exempt one from fasting. On the other hand, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that in a situation of great need, when one has no possibility of physically attending a Siyum – one may exempt himself from the fast by listening to a Siyum by telephone. Our situation this year certainly qualifies in that situation and therefore we may rely this year on Rav Auerbach’s lenient ruling, and permit firstborns to exempt themselves from fasting by viewing a livestream of a Siyum. It must be emphasized that Ta’anit Bechorot to begin with is not a strict Halachic requirement, but rather an accepted custom, as Chacham Ovadia discusses in one of his responsa (Yabia Omer, 1:25). As such, it is certainly acceptable to rely on leniencies under extenuating circumstances. Another option is to rely on the lenient view which permits exempting oneself from a fast by making a Siyum even on the completion of the study of Mishna. While we generally require for this purpose a Siyum on a Masechet of Gemara, under the extenuating circumstances in which we find ourselves, one may rely on the lenient view that allows even a Siyum over the study of a Masechet of Mishna, with the commentary of Rav Ovadia of Bartenura (c. 1445-c. 1515). One can select one of the shorter or less difficult Masechtot, such as Berachot, Ta’anit or Megilla, study the Masechet with the commentary, and then conduct a Siyum and eat. After one makes or listens to a Siyum, he should preferably eat a Ke’besa (two grams) of a "Mezonot" food, or drink a Revi’it (3.2 ounces) of wine or grape juice, and he is then exempt from fasting. If one is unable to hear a Siyum or make his own Siyum this year, he should nevertheless not fast, due to the importance of maintaining his strength and ensuring his immune system is not compromised to even the slightest degree. Already the Magen Abraham (Poland, 1633-1683), in Siman 570, notes that fasting during a time of plague compromises one’s immune system and thus poses danger to one’s wellbeing. Under the current conditions, we are already under a great deal of stress – and particularly on Erev Pesach, which is a busy and pressured day – and we must take every precaution to avoid compromising our immune system, which would make us more susceptible to infection. Therefore, although firstborns should try to either view a Siyum via livestream, or complete the study of a Masechet of Mishna, if neither of these options is possible, a firstborn should not fast, due to the health crisis which we are currently experiencing. I discussed this matter with two great Poskim in Israel – Rav Yisrael Bitan and Rav Moshe Rahamim Shayo, and they agreed with my conclusions.

 By Rabbi Eli Mansour